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Blake, William (1757-1827)



A
s one of the most curious and significant figures in the history od English literature, Blake is renown as a poet, mystic, painter and engraver. With these talents he influenced both literature and graphic arts. His mystical abilities appeared in childhood when he began experiencing visions of angels and spiritual monks, later on these visions included the Angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary, and other historical figures. It might be thought, as so often happens, that his parents would have discouraged him from these thoughts, but they did not.

His parents and relatives were of humble people. Although Blake is a common Irish name, the family's ancestry is dubious. Later the poet
W. B. Yeats, an ardent devotee of Blake and editor of his literary works, would have it believed that Blake came directly from Irish ancestry, but this is contradicted by Martin J. Blake in his genealogical work, Blake Family Records (1902-1905).

Blake, born in London, spent most of his life there. Since his parents knew of his early visions they offered to help him to become a painter. Blake was attracted to the position but generously pointer out that such an apprenticeship would be costly, and such an expense would not be fair to his other brothers and sisters, since his father's income as a hosier was not a large one. He entered the apprenticeship as an engraver, not just that the training was less expensive, but also because the profession was likely to yield a faster return.

In 1772 Blake began his apprenticeship under James Basire. While sketching the monuments at Westminster Abbey Blake became intrigued by religious symbolism and linear design characteristic of Gothic style. At the Royal Academy as a student Blake had trouble with the conventions of Sir Joshma Reynolds which he rebelled against and chose to follow Michelangelo and Raphael. It is believed this partially caused him to earn a scanty living as an engraver and illustrator of other men's works throughout his life.

However, in some respects, Blake's independence served him well. It enabled him to acquire education by himself. He taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian, and his English seemed astonishingly original. He thoroughly knew the Bible, Milton, and other Elizabethan poets. He was especially receptive to mystical writers such as Emanuel Swedenborg, as he joined and became a member of the Emanuel Swedenborgian Church of New Jerusalem; Jacob Bohme, and the Neoplatonists because he himself had seen visions during his earliest years.

He was convinced that angels appeared to him in a hayfield, and monks in Westminster Abbey. Later he talked with the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary as well as other historical figures. When a lady inquired about these visions, as to where he saw them, Blake replied, "Here, madam," touching his forehead. This highly developed faculty of visualizing his thoughts made Blake's art both powerful and puzzling.

He began to write poetry at the age of 12. A few of his early poems were printed by friends as a work Poetical Sketches, in 1783. They were fresh and different, unlike the stereotype verse of the time.

It was as an engraver that Blake invented "illuminated printing," in 1788. He credited his development of this technique to the spirit of his beloved dead brother Robert. Although, it is more probable the technique came about more from the influence of medieval illuminated manuscripts and by experiments of his friend George Cumberland. The new method which Blake developed helped him to reproduce the text and illustrations of almost all of his personal literary work.

In 1782, he married Catherine Boucher whom he taught to color and paint. The marriage was a happy one in which the couple worked together producing strangely beautiful pages neatly lined with text surrounded and intersected by graceful youths and brooding tyrants amid arching trees, trailing vines, piled cloudbanks, or swirling flames, giving a single unified expression.

Blake's poetry progressed from his early simple poems to the profoundness of Jerusalem, especially during the period from 1804 to 1820. The lyric poetry in the Songs of Innocence (1789) portrays the joyous vision of childhood of the soul in an eternal world sustained by love. There is also the innocent certainty of The Lamb in this volume which is countered by the agonizing questioning of The Tyger from the complementary volume Songs of Experience (1794), which contains poems that question the assumed beneficence of God and society. The two collections, published together in 1794, comprise Blake's most popular poems.

Blake's overwhelmingly turbulent, sometimes magnificent poetry contained in the so-called Prophetic Books states his lifelong concern with the soul's struggle to free its natural energies from the "mind-forged manacles" of reason, law, and organized religion. In the myth which he created a large battle is fought in the cosmos, in both history and the human soul. The antagonistic forces are personified as symbolic figures, such as Urizen, who is Jehovah or reason; Los, who is imagination or Christ; and Orc, the spirit of rebellion in man. The tale is both intricate and profound. Blake's thesis is: "What is Grand is obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care."

From the description of the Prophetic Books it can be seen why material from them was incorporated into the studies of the Second Order of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, since the main purpose of the order was "to prosecute the Great Work: which is to obtain control of the nature and power of [one's] own being." Another consideration, it might be added, for the incorporation of this material was that W. B. Yeats, a devotee of Blake, had for all purposes taken control of the Golden Dawn.

In the last four years of life Blake produced two sets of his best and most mystical illustrations which were from the Biblical Book of Job and Dante's Divine Comedy. Although he had produced a large quanity of poetry and illustrations of his own, he was still regarded by many of his contemporaries as an ordinary engraver of other people's designs. Few appreciated or even knew Blake's work.

Blake died in poverty as he had lived most of his life. His internal nature did not allow him to rigorously compete in the competitive engraving trade. At the time his genius was unnoticed. It was only recognized in the succeeding decades. He might be described as a man who lived within himself and outside of his world. His art denotes this, as his vision was universal while his illustrations frequently were not in conformity with popular images.

The inner-self of Blake only later was comprehended by others. His genius laid in his mystical vision; a vision, no matter how unreal to others, was real to him. It allowed him to display his creativity as well as serving as his personal integrity.
A.G.H.


Sources: 4, 9, 61.