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Blake, William

Category: Genius

William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was a poet from the ‘English Romantic School’ and  an artist. During his lifetime, he received little acclaim from the general public or his contemporary artists and critics, but now his works are receiving more attention. Some modern critics praise his  ‘expressiveness and creativity’, and ‘the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work’. 

Reading his poems and looking at his paintings and illustrations, it is possible that Blake was ‘mentally ill’, as his visions share much with painters like Richard Dadd and people like John Custance. It is this combination that makes him of particular interest as an observer.  He is exceptionally good on hell – a world he seemed to know all too well.

Blake gives the impression that he was extremely sensitive, had a difficult life fraught with money and social problems, and was deeply affected by the problems which affected society in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  He wrote emotionally about the horrors of slavery, poverty, disease and death.  He was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American Revolutions, but also seems to have been terrified of the uncertainty and instability they produced.  This comes out in the two poems ‘The French Revolution’ and ‘America’.

He appears to have been traumatised by his childhood, particularly his strict Christian dissenter education.  He also experienced the death of his brother and his newborn daughter.

 'O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?

Overall, an ideal candidate to have spiritual experiences. 

Life

Jacob's ladder

Blake did not go to school, but was taught by his mother.  Though all evidence suggests that his parents were largely supportive, his mother seems to have been especially so.  The fact he did not have contact with other children, however,  appears to have affected his ability to have normal relationships with other people.  Blake appears to have said and done things that constantly offended people, adding to the sum total of his misery as he lost people he thought to be ‘friends’ and patrons. 

In the long afternoons Blake spent sketching in Westminster Abbey, for example, he was occasionally interrupted by the boys of Westminster School, one of whom "tormented" Blake so much that one afternoon Blake knocked him off a scaffold to the ground, "upon which he fell with terrific Violence".  Whilst apprenticed, he quarreled with James Parker, his fellow apprentice so much he was sent off to do his work elsewhere. 

Considered mad by contemporaries, Blake was supported most of his life through benefactors, none of whom seemed to take his work that seriously, but benefactors he seems to have had a constant love hate relationship with.

After being educated at home, Blake was apprenticed to an engraver James Basire for seven years.  At the end of this term he became a professional engraver.  Despite Basire’s support, Blake added Basire's name to a large list of adversaries described in his poems — he later decided to cross Basire’s name off the list, but other names stayed and he was extremely scathing and vitriolic about  a number of people who had tried to help him.  He makes many of his ‘enemies’ evil characters in his major works [hardly an act designed to enamor yourself of your fellow man].

John Flaxman, for example,  became Blake’s patron in 1782.  Flaxman gave him considerable support, yet Blake wrote the following about him……….

William Blake – from The Complete Poems
About Flaxman
You call me mad tis folly to do so
To seek to turn a madman to a foe
If you think as you speak you are an ass
If you do not you are but what you was

He also seems to have had a vindictive streak, one which sought revenge for perceived wrongs.  He often used his poems to ‘get his own back’.

William Blake – from The Complete Poems
On Phillip’s support
Philips loved me, not as he loved his friends
For he loved them for gain to serve his ends
He loved me and for no gain at all
But to rejoice and triumph in my fall

 

In 1800, Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex to take up a job illustrating the works of  William Hayley, a minor poet.  Hayley paid for the cottage and provided him with financial support.  Blake, however, appears to have somewhat abused this patronage.

Instead of illustrating Hayley’s work, he spent quite a bit of time illustrating and writing his own poems.  Whilst being paid by Hayley, for example,  Blake wrote and illustrated Milton – a substantial work. 

Understandably Hayley was none too pleased that Blake was not doing what he was paying him to do, at which point Blake started to criticise Hayley saying he was  ‘uninterested in true artistry’, [presumably Hayley wanted input on the illustrations he was paying for] and preoccupied with "the mere drudgery of business".[presumably doing what Blake was paid to do not what he fancied doing].  It is as if Blake had an unreal understanding of what his role was and of the commercial realities [the sign, incidentally, of a genius].  It appears he looked on patrons as simply a means to him doing what he wanted to do and not what they wanted him to do.

William Blake – from The Complete Poems
On Hayley’s friendship
To forgive enemies Hayley does pretend
Who never in his life forgave a friend
………
When Hayley finds out what you cannot do
That is the very thing he’ll set you to

Not surprisingly, he felt most of the time to be an isolated individual.  Although married, he also wrote about women and wives without much affection, talking about ‘nets’ to trap him and ‘prisons’.  He wrote hardly any real love poems and certainly no poems of love about a person. 

Blake’s wife, Catherine Boucher was illiterate, and Blake taught her to read and write.  At the time that he met his wife, Blake was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. Telling Catherine and her parents the story, she expressed her sympathy, whereupon Blake asked her, "Do you pity me?" When she said yes, he responded, "Then I love you."  Despite the shaky ground on which his marriage was based, she carried on ‘pitying him’ and proved an invaluable aid to him, maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes.

Overall one gets the impression William Blake loved no one, least of all himself.

William Blake – from The Complete Poems
O why was I born with a different face
Why was I not born like the rest of my race
When I look each one starts, when I speak I offend
Then I’m silent and passive and lose every Friend 
Then my verse I dishonour.  My pictures despise
My person degrade and my temper chastise
And the pen is my terror, the pencil my shame
All my talents I bury and dead is my fame 
I am either too low or too highly prized
When elate I am envied, when meek I’m despised

Book of Thel

Blake seemed to swing between huge egoism and over estimation of his abilities to a very clear inferiority complex – the insecurity is almost tangible.  This insecurity manifested as constant criticism of others.  Blake was hugely critical of fellow artists.  In 1778, he became a student at the Royal Academy.  There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the ‘unfinished style’ of painters such as Rubens, championed by the school's first president, Joshua Reynolds.

Blake showed no hesitation in expressing his intense dislike of Reynolds' opinions on art and of Reynolds’ work. Reynolds wrote in his Discourses , for example, that the

"disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification, is the great glory of the human mind";

Blake responded, in marginalia to his personal copy, that

"To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit".

Blake also disliked Reynolds' humility, which he held to be ‘a form of hypocrisy’.   In effect, Blake was not happy just to oppose and argue his case, he seemed to take delight in making the disagreement personal.   These often offensive [to the person being criticised] views were openly stated in his poetry.

William Blake – from The Complete Poems
Ghiottos circle or Apelles line
Were not the work of sketchers drunk with wine

these verses were written by a very envious man
who whatever likeness he may have to Michaelangelo
never can have any to Sir Jehoshuan

Blake's trouble with his temper came to a head in August 1803, when he was involved in a physical altercation with a soldier called John Schofield. Blake was charged not only with assault, but also with uttering ‘seditious and treasonable expressions against the King’. Schofield claimed that Blake had exclaimed, "Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves." Blake was cleared of the charges. Schofield was later depicted wearing "mind forged manacles" in an illustration to Jerusalem

Spiritual influences

Illustration for Dante's Divine Comedy

The Blakes were Dissenters and are believed to have belonged to the Moravian Church. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and he had a deep respect for its contents.  He continued throughout his life to hold largely Christian beliefs, but his hostility to the Church of England is expressed again and again in his poetry.

His theological beliefs are evidenced in Songs of Experience (1794), in which he distinguishes between the Old Testament God, whose restrictions he rejected, and the New Testament God (Jesus Christ), whom he saw as a positive influence.

He also showed a great interest in the works of philosophers such as Jacob Boehme and Emmanuel Swedenborg, but again the interest veered between love and hate, support and then condemnation.

Blake retained an active interest in social and political events for all his life, often cloaking social and political statements in mystical allegory. His views on what he saw as oppression and restriction of rightful freedom extended to the Church.   This and the fact that he painted and wrote about God and the spiritual world in a whole series of works – Jerusalem, The Four Zoas, Milton etc only served to create considerable antagonism towards him from the established church.

William Blake – from the Complete Poems
I stood among my valleys of the south
And saw a flame of fire even as a wheel…
It went from west to east against the current of creation
and devoured all things in its loud fury
……
I asked a watcher and a holy one its name
He answered
It is the wheel of religion
I wept and said, is this the law of Jesus
This terrible devouring sword turning every way
He answered
Jesus died because he strove
Against the current of this wheel; its name
Is Caiphas, the dark preacher of death
Of sin, of sorrow and of punishment
Opposing Nature

The overall impression one receives from his poetry is that he was taught when young an apocalyptic version of Christianity, one filled with fear, hell, punishment, terrifying vision and so on, which he seems to have spent most of the rest of his life trying to either reconcile or expunge from his memory.  He appears never to have succeeded.

Visions

 

Blake did have visions.  In Westminster Abbey, for example, he ‘saw’ a great procession of monks and priests, while he heard "the chant of plain song and chorale”.

Blake’s visions appear to have started about the age of eight, when he claimed to have seen

"a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars."

Blake claimed to experience visions throughout his life. Despite the apocalyptic disturbing imagery of his poems and paintings Blake claimed the visions were associated with ‘beautiful religious themes and imagery’.   Blake believed that he was personally instructed and encouraged by Archangels to create his artistic works, which he claimed were actively read and enjoyed by those same Archangels.

In a letter to William Hayley  dated May 6, 1800, Blake writes:

I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.

In a letter to John Flaxman, dated September 21, 1800, Blake wrote:

[The town of] Felpham is a sweet place for Study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden Gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of Celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, & their forms more distinctly seen; & my Cottage is also a Shadow of their houses. My Wife & Sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace... I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels.

 

In a letter to Thomas Butts, dated April 25, 1803, Blake writes:

Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy'd, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv'd & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals; perhaps Doubts proceeding from Kindness, but Doubts are always pernicious, Especially when we Doubt our Friends.

As William Wordsworth remarked,  "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott”

He has been 'diagnosed' as a manic depressive.  He certainly had a lot of demons.

References

“The Complete Illuminated Works”
“The Complete Poems”

Observations

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