1. Blake as a Mystic
Blake's visionary and poetical talents also blossomed
early. When returning home from the hills round Dulwich, he saw a tree filled
with angels and was barely saved by his mother from a flogging when his father
assumed he was lying.
When his brother John died, Blake records how he beheld his spirit ascending and
'clapping its hands for joy'. Thereafter, Blake claimed to hold contact with his
spirit 'daily and hourly'; he heard 'his advice and even now write from his
2. Blake as a Radical
His acquaintance with Thomas Stothard was eventually to
lead to an introduction to the most famous sculptor in Europe, John Flaxman, who
became Blake's staunchest friend. Flaxman's coterie were strong supporters of
political reform, Flaxman and the artist George Cumberland being members of the
Society for Constitutional Information. Blake himself participated briefly in
the Gordon Riots of 1780 when he was supposedly 'forced to go in the very front
rank and witness the destruction of Newgate
In 1800, Flaxman introduced him to the poet and patron
of poets, William Hayley . Hayley was impressed enough to have Blake engrave
illustrations for a biography of the poet William Cowper while providing him
with a cottage by the sea for three years. Towards the end, however, Blake grew
increasingly frustrated by his lack of artistic independence and decided to
This decision was complicated by an incident which took
place in his garden as Blake pushed off a drunken soldier when the latter
refused to leave. Consequently, Blake was charged with sedition and tried before
the Chichester courts.
3. Blake's "illuminated painting/relief
"First the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be
expunged: this I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives,
which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and
displaying the infinite which was hid." (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and
In the 1780s Blake began experimenting with a way of
combining his poems and his pictures through a form of colour printing. He was
not the only person to have experimented with these ideas at this time, but the
solution he reached was one of intriguing beauty and great
Conventional etching depends on the design being etched
into the copperplate (intaglio). Blake, however, decided to reverse this method
by etching in relief, that is to say, he etched away the background and left the
image and text standing up in relief, as in a
To do this he used an acid-resistant liquid and drew and
wrote, composing directly onto the copperplate (with brushes and a quill pen).
When the acid-resistant liquid dried and hardened, the plate would be exposed to
acid which etched away the uncovered parts of the copper. Because printing
always reverses the design, the text had to be written backwards, and slanted
appropriately, in order to appear the right way round when printed.
Writing in this way may appear to be a daunting prospect
but, as an experienced reproductive engraver, Blake was well trained in the
skill. The plates were then inked with one or more colours and printed under
light pressure in an etching press. Not only were the raised parts of the copper
plate inked, the shallow (etched-away) areas could also be dabbed with colour
and printed simultaneously. The sheets were subsequently hand-coloured with
watercolour washes by Blake or his wife Catherine.
4. The Songs of Innocence and
The Songs of Innocence and of
Experience is an illustrated collection of poems by William Blake.
It appeared in two phases. A few first copies were printed and illuminated by
William Blake himself in 1789; five years later he bound these poems with a set
of new poems in a volume titled Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing
the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.
"Innocence" and "Experience" are definitions of
consciousness that rethink Milton's existential-mythic states of "Paradise" and
the "Fall." Blake's categories are modes of perception that tend to coordinate
with a chronology that would become standard in Romanticism: childhood is a
state of protected innocence rather than original sin, but not immune to the
fallen world and its institutions.
This world sometimes impinges on childhood itself, and
in any event becomes known through "experience," a state of being marked by the
loss of childhood vitality, by fear and inhibition, by social and political
corruption, and by the manifold oppression of Church, State, and the ruling
5. The Marriage of Heaven and
It is a series of texts written in imitation of biblical prophecy but
expressing Blake's own intensely personal Romantic and revolutionary beliefs.
The work was composed between 1790 and 1793, in the
period of radical foment and political conflict immediately after the French
Revolution. The title is an ironic reference to Emanuel Swedenborg's theological
work Heaven and Hell, published in Latin 33 years earlier.
The book is written in prose, except for the opening
"Argument" and the "Song of Liberty". The book describes the poet's visit to
Hell, a device adopted by Blake from Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise
6. Blake's universal mythology in his "Minor Prophesies"
The First Book of Urizen(1794)
The Book of Los((1795)
The Book of Ahania(1795)
"In these poems Blake examines the fall of man. In Blake's mythology man and God were once united, but man separated himself from God and became weaker and weaker as he became further divided. Throughout the poems Blake writes of the destructive aspects of this separation into warring identities."(Dictionary of Literary Biographies 93, pp.29-31)
Urizen: representing "reason" that part of mind that constantly defines and limits human thought and action.
Los: Poetic Genius, divided from Urizen representing the part of the human mind forging the creative aspects of the mind into works of art.
Enitharmon: Los's female form after it's separation into a male and a female forms. She gives a birth to Orc who gives some hope for radical change in a fallen world.
Orc: the coming of Orc is likened not only to the fires of revolution sweeping Europe, but also to the final apocalypse when the "Grave shrieks with delight."
Ahania: Urizen's female form after his further division into male and female.
7. Blake's Biography on Youtube: The South Bank Show on William Blake narrated by Peter Ackroyd(aired on September 17, 1995)
A wonderful documentary on William Blake from a contemporary point of view including many interesting scenes where an actor playing the role of Blake is reciting quite a few memorable passages of Blake's works and interviews with an industrialist, the poet Allen Ginsberg, and a biologist all of whom are testifying a strong relevance of Blake's vision to the contemporary life in the Western world.