William Blake: The Perfect Amalgamation of Literature and Art

Author: Sherry Helms

To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.

–William Blake

Meet one of the most fascinating people in history, a dreamer, craftsman, poet, and genius — William Blake on his 254th birth anniversary. Born in 1757 on the same date as today, the November 28, in London, William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Though remained mostly unrecognized in his lifetime, Blake is now given consideration as a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Era. Blake lived during times of incredible change and upheaval, including the Gordon Riots and the French Revolution, and henceforth, his works –poetries and paintings– were driven by prophetic thoughts and realist yet critique approach.

The 19th-century scholar William Rossetti described this Renaissance man as a “glorious luminary“, and as “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors“.

As a boy William apprenticed as an engraver and began a career that would include masterpieces of art. One of Blake’s assignments as apprentice was to sketch the tombs at Westminster Abbey, exposing him to a variety of Gothic styles from which he would draw inspiration throughout his career.

Blake’s first printed work, Poetical Sketches (1783), is a collection of apprentice verse, mostly imitating classical models. The poems protest against war, tyranny, and King George III’s treatment of the American colonies. He published his most popular collection, Songs of Innocence, in 1789 and followed it, in 1794, with Songs of Experience.

Songs of Innocence is a poetry collection written from the child’s point of view, of innocent wonderment and spontaneity in natural settings which includes “Little Boy Lost”, “Little Boy Found” and “The Lamb”. Whereas, Songs of Experience contains many poems in response to ones from Innocence, suggesting ironic contrasts as the child matures and learns of such concepts as fear and envy. For example, to “The Lamb” comes the predatory “The Tyger”. Later come editions that would see Innocence and Experience as a whole and contained them in one volume — Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Some readers interpret Songs of Innocence in a straightforward fashion, considering it primarily a children’s book, but others have found hints at parody or critique in its seemingly naive and simple lyrics. Both books of Songs were printed in an illustrated format reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts. The text and illustrations were printed from copper plates, and each picture was finished by hand in watercolors.

His other popular works such as The Book of Urizen (1794) is based on theological tyranny, and in the prose work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), he mocked the oppressive authority in church and state, as well as the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish philosopher whose ideas once attracted his interest.

Blake believed that his poetry could be read and understood by the common people, and therefore was determined not to sacrifice his vision in order to gain vague popularity.

Blake’s final years, spent in great poverty, were cheered by the admiring friendship of a group of younger artists who consider Blake as an archetype. In later year, he worked as design illustrator for Dante’s Divine Comedy, the cycle of drawings that Blake kept on working till his sad demise in 1827.

William Blake’s poetry and artworks have been the subject of research and study since long times that led to the compilation of many books such as Poetry of William Blake by P.K. Roy;  Blake’s Water-Colours for the Poems of Thomas Gray: With Complete Texts; etc. If someone seeks all-in-one volume edition for  all the poetry & prose by William Blake, the book The Complete Poetry of William Blake is the best option.

To take a trip back to 1700s in the life of William Blake, one can go through the books: William Blake: The Gates of Paradise and William Blake: A Literary Life that follow the writer’s life, and combine biography and critical analysis, covering Blake’s early career, his major works, such as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, as well as his work as a visual artist.

To browse through more books by and on William Blake, click here.

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