William Blake: Life and Works Biography

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Born: London, England, Date: November 28, 1757.
Died: London, Date: August 12, 1827.

      William Blake's Childhood and Youth: William Blake, the greatest visionary poet in English, was born on November 28, 1757 the second son of James Blake, a London native of obscure origin, who was a hosier by occupation. A few remarkable incidents of Blake's childhood have been recorded, among them the manifestation of his first known vision, when, at the age of four, he beheld God's head at a window and was seized with a fit of screaming. On other occasions, he informed his parents that during his walk about the fields he had seen angels; and once he returned to say that the prophet Ezekiel had appeared to him under a tree. He was so fiery-tempered that his father preferred not to send him to school, where he might be whipped, but chose to give him elementary instructions at home. At the age of ten, he was enrolled in Henry Pars' drawing school, from which, at fourteen. he advanced to a formal apprenticeship in the engraver's trade under James Basire. He was already writing verse, and several of the pieces collected in Poetical Sketches were composed when he was only twelve. Although he passed his early youth in studious application to his technical work, he found time also to increase his familiarity with literature. He read modern philosophers and the poets, far outdistancing his Swedenborgian father. In 1778, having qualified as an engraver, he began to accept commissions from booksellers and was quickly able to assert his professional competence.

A few remarkable incidents of Blake's childhood have been recorded, among them the manifestation of his first known vision, when, at the age of four, he beheld God's head at a window and was seized with a fit of screaming. On other occasions, he informed his parents that during his walk about the fields he had seen angels; and once he returned to say that the prophet Ezekiel had appeared to him under a tree. He was so fiery-tempered that his father preferred not to send him to school, where he might be whipped, but chose to give him elementary instructions at home.
William Blake

      Blake's Marital life: In 1781, jilted by a certain Polly Wood, he fell in love with Catherine Boucher; reaching an understanding almost at once, he married her the following year, At their first meeting she had been suddenly overwhelmed with the intuitive knowledge that she had met her destined husband and she had been forced to leave the room to keep from fainting. The match so easily made was in all respects ideal; Blake taught her to read, write, sketch and paint, and she became skilful enough to assist his labours. In his transports of artistic nd visionary rapture. which often roused him from sleep and sent him irresistibly to his work-table, she would sustain him by sitting immobile for hours at his side. He found that her presence helped him subdue his wilder emotions. thus bringing order to his mind. Perhaps no artist ever had a more affectionately docile wife.

      Period of Masterpieces: In the closing decade of the century, Blake working almost frenziedly under the pressure of visionary experience while perfecting his mastery of artistic media, published his lyrics Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in such a way as to coordinate his different talents. Using a writing substance impervious to acid, he prepared for each page a copper plate inscribed in reverse with the text of a poem and with a decorative frame, and having etched the plate he made impressions in colour, afterwards in some cases adding other times by hand. This method he called illuminated printing. He employed it further in issuing his didactic and prophetic works, from There is no Natural Religion to The Ghost of Abel. His final masterpieces, however, the illustrations for the Book of Job and his illustrations of Dante. were engraved from watercolour drawings. as were the illustrations for Young's Night Thoughts, Virgil's Pastorals and numerous other books.

      Years of Depression: In 1800, Blake formed an association with William Hayley, who engaged him to illustrate Life of Cowper, and he moved from London to Felpham, Sussex, in order to work there with Hayley. The scheme proved unsatisfactory; after three years he went back to London to set up as a publisher of his own writings, for which the commercial arrangement with Hayley had made no provision. Since his works were not in demand, his new venture failed; and as a result he and his wife lived in straitened circumstances, subsisting on commissions from Thomas Butts, already for some years Blake's patron. Butts was the first Blake collector and enthusiast. For an exhibition of his works in 1809, Blake issued a Descriptive Catalogue, in which, analyzing his painting of the Canterbury Pilgrims, he expounded his artistic theories.

      Final Year of Glory: Few traces exist of Blake's activities between 1809 and 1818; but between the latter year and his death in London on August 12, 1827, he emerged as one of the most respected artists in London, where he had many friends, including the well-known painter John Linnell. In this period he attained his zenith as a designer and engraver. Since his lifetime, his work has become more and more a topic of specialised study, and the mystical symbolism of his prophetic books in particular has been subjected to much exegesis.

      Blake Principal Poetic Works: Poetical Sketches (1783), Tiriel (1789), Songs of Innocence (1789), The Book of Thel (1789-1791), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Shewing the two Contrary States of the Human Soul, published in one volume (1794), America: A Prophecy (1793), Europe: a Prophecy (1794), The Book of Urizen (1794), The Song of Los (1795), The Book of Ahania (1795), Vala or the Four Zoas (1796-1807), Milton (1804-1815), Jerusalem (1804-1820). An important work of Blake is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, written in prose.

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