Born eighteen years before her, enduring ten years after her, William Blake spanned the transition to Romanticism; he lived on mystery, rejected science, doubted God, worshiped Christ, transformed the Bible, emulated the Prophets, and called for a utopia of earthbound saints.
He was the son of a London hosier. At the age of four he was frightened by seeing God looking at him through a window. A little later he saw angels fluttering in a tree, and the Prophet Ezekiel wandering in a field.3 Perhaps because his imagination mingled lawlessly with his sensations, he was sent to no school till the age of ten; and then it was to a drawing school in the Strand. At fifteen he began a seven-year apprenticeship to the engraver James Basire. He read much, including such romantic lore as Percy’sReliques of Ancient English Poetry and Macpherson’s “Ossian.” He himself wrote verses, and illustrated them. At twenty-two he was accepted as a student of engraving at the Royal Academy, but he rebeled against Reynolds’ classical injunctions; later he lamented that he had “spent the vigor” of his “Youth and Genius under the incubus of Sir Joshua and his Gang of cunning Hired Knaves.”4 Despite them he developed his own imaginative style of drawing, and was able to support himself with his watercolors and engravings.
He was not strongly sexual; he once expressed the hope that “sex would vanish and cease to be.”5 Nevertheless, aged twenty-five, he married Catherine Boucher. He often tried her with his tantrums and wearied her with his visions; but she recognized his genius, and cared for him faithfully to his end. He had no known children, but loved to play with those of his friends. In 1783 John Flaxman and the Reverend A. S. Mathews paid for the private printing of Blake’s early verses; these Poetical Sketches, when reprinted in 1868, shared in the belated expansion of his fame. Some of them, like the rhymeless rhapsody “To the Evening Star,” raised an original note in English poetry.6
Like any feeling soul, he resented England’s concentrated wealth and festering poverty. He joined Tom Paine, Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other radicals grouped around the publisher Joseph Johnson; together they drank the strong wine of the French Enlightenment, and sang of justice and equality. His appearance befitted a spirit allergic to any imposed order. He was short and broad, with a “noble countenance full of expression and animation. His hair was of a yellow brown, and curled with the utmost crispness and luxuriance; his locks, instead of falling down, stood up like a curling flame, and looked at a distance like radiations, which, with his fiery eye and expansive forehead, his dignified and cheerful physiognomy, must have made his appearance truly prepossessing.”7
In 1784 he opened up a print shop on Broad Street. He took in, as assistant, his young brother Robert. It was a happy relationship, for each was devoted to the other; but Robert was consumptive, and his death in 1787 deepened a somber strain in William’s mood, and the mystic element in his thought. He was convinced that he had seen Robert’s soul, at the moment of death, rise through the ceiling, “clapping its hands for joy.”8 To Robert’s ghost he attributed a method of engraving both text and illustration upon one plate. Nearly all of Blake’s books were so engraved, and were sold for prices ranging from a few shillings to ten guineas. Hence his audience was narrowly limited during his life.
In 1789 he issued his first masterpiece, nineteen little Songs of Innocence. Apparently he meant, by “innocence,” the pre-pubetic period in which the pleasantest legends that had gathered about Christ were happily believed, brightening and guiding growth; however, Blake was thirty-two when the poems appeared, and we sense in them that experience is already mourning the death of innocence. We must recall his famous lines, that we may contrast them with lines addressed to a tiger five years later.
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee;
He is calléd by thy name
For he calls himself a Lamb;
He is meek and he is mild;
He became a little child;
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are calléd by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee.
Little Lamb, God bless thee.
Perhaps still finer is the next poem, “The Little Black Boy,” in which a Negro child wonders why God has darkened his skin, and dreams of the time when black child and white child will play together without the shadow of color crossing their games. And, two poems later, “The Chimney Sweeper” imagines an angel coming down to free all chimneysweeps from the coat of soot in which they work and sleep. “Holy Thursday” ends with a warning: “Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”
Five years passed: the years in which the French Revolution exploded, burned brightly with idealism (1791), and then turned into massacre and terror (1792–94). In 1789, according to one report, Blake publicly wore the red cap of revolution, and joined Paine in attacking the Established Church. Excited to confusion, he broke out of the ballad form into “prophecies” echoing Jeremiah and Hosea, ominous proclamations to a sinful world. These are not recommended reading to those who resent manufactured obscurity, but we note in passing that in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (a satire of Swedenborg) Blake equates these realms with innocence and experience. Some of the “Proverbs from Hell” suggest a temporarily vegetarian-Whitmanic-Freudian-Nietzschean radicalism:
All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap….
The most sublime act is to set another before you….
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God…. The nakedness of women is the work of God….
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires….
God only Acts and Is, in existing beings or Men….
All deities reside in the human breast….
The worship of God is, Honoring his gifts in other men,… and loving the greatest man best. Those who envy or calumniate great men hate God, for there is no other God.
In Songs of Experience (1794) the poet countered his Songs of Innocence with odes of doubts and condemnation.
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?…
And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hands and what dread feet?…
When the stars threw down their spears
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Whereas in Songs of Innocence “A Little Boy Lost” is rescued by God and brought back rejoicing to his home, a corresponding “song of experience” tells of a boy burned by the priests for acknowledging that he has no religious faith. In Innocence “Holy Thursday” described St. Paul’s Cathedral as crowded with happy children singing hymns; “Holy Thursday,” in Experience, asks:
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty.
Against such evils revolution no longer seemed a valid cure; for “The iron hand crushed the Tyrant’s head, And became a Tyrant in his stead.”9 Disappointed with violent revolt, Blake sought solace in his residual religious belief. He now distrusted science as the handmaid of materialism, the tool of the clever against the innocent, of power against simplicity. “Art is the Tree of Life, Science the Tree of Death; God is Jesus.”10
After 1818 Blake wrote little poetry, found few readers, and supported himself by his art. At times, in his sixties, he was so poor that he had to engrave advertisements for Wedgwood pottery. In 1819 he found a saving patron in John Linnell, who commissioned him to illustrate the Book of Job and Dante’s Divine Comedy. He was working on this final task when death came to him (1827). No stone marked his grave, but, a full century later, a tablet was erected on the spot; and in 1957 a bronze bust by Sir Jacob Epstein was placed in Westminster Abbey.
At his death the transition to Romanticism was complete. It had begun timidly, in the very heyday of classicism, with Thomson’s Seasons (1730), Collins’ Odes (1747), Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe (1747), Gray’s Elegy (1751), Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), Macpherson’s Fingal (1762), Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1768), Scottish and German ballads, Chatterton’s remarkable forgeries (1769), Goethe’s Werther (1774). In truth there had been romantics in every age, in every home, in every lass and youth; classicism was a precarious structure of rule and restraint overlaid upon impulses and passions running like liquid fire in the blood.
Then the French Revolution came, and even its collapse brought liberation. Old forms of law and order lost prestige and force; feeling, imagination, aspiration, old impulses of violence in word and deed were set free; youth started fires of poetry and art under every literary rule, every moral prohibition, every constricting creed, every law-encrusted state. In 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge came together in writing the poems and prefaces of Lyrical Ballads; Burns and Scott were singing of love, revolt, and war in Scotland; Napoleon’s armies were shattering shibboleths faster than revolution could spread its dream. Everywhere literature had become the voice of freedom in revolt. Seldom had the future seemed so open, hope so limitless, or the world so young.