Blake ancient of days

William Blake, Ancient of Days,, 1794. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

William Blake (November 28, 1757 - August 12, 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips (1)

William Blake (1757-1827) by Thomas Phillips (1770-1845), 1807. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



Born in London, Blake was from earliest youth a seer of visions and a dreamer of dreams, seeing "Ezekiel sitting under a green bough," and "a tree full of angels at Peckham," and such he remained to the end of his days. His teeming imagination sought expression both in verse and in drawing, and in his 14th year he was apprenticed to James Basire, an eminent engraver, and thereafter studied at the Royal Academy. Among his chief artistic works were illustrations for Young's Night Thoughts, Blair's Grave, Spiritual Portraits, and his finest work, Inventions to the Book of Job, all distinguished by originality and imagination. In literature his Songs of Innocence appeared in 1789, Songs of Experience in 1794. These books were literally made by Blake and his heaven-provided wife; poems and designs alike being engraved on copper by Blake and bound by Mrs. Blake. In like fashion were produced his mystical books, The Book of Thel (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), The Gates of Paradise, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Europe, The Book of Urizen (1794), The Book of Los and The Book of Ahania (1795). His last books were Jerusalem and Milton. His earlier and shorter pieces, e.g. "The Chimney-Sweeper," "Holy Thursday," "The Lamb," "The Sun-flower," "The Tiger," etc., have an exquisite simplicity arising from directness and intensity of feeling — sometimes tender, sometimes sublime — always individual. Latterly he lost himself in clouds of mysticism. A truly pious and loving soul, neglected and misunderstood by the world, but appreciated by an elect few, he led a cheerful and contented life of poverty illumined by visions and celestial inspirations.[1]

While he was largely unrecognised during his lifetime, his work is today considered seminal and significant in the history of both poetry and the visual arts. According to critic Northrop Frye, his prophetic poems form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language." Others have praised Blake's visual artistry, at least one modern critic proclaiming Blake "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced."[2]

While his visual art and written poetry are usually considered separately, Blake often employed them in concert to create a product that at once defied and superseded convention. Though he believed himself able to converse aloud with Old Testament prophets, and despite his work in illustrating the Book of Job, Blake's Christian beliefs were modified by a fascination with Mysticism and what is often considered to be his anticipation of the Romanticism unfolding around him.[3] Nonetheless, the difficulty of placing William Blake in any one chronological stage of art history is perhaps the distinction that best defines him. Once considered "mad" for his "single-mindedness" (he lived and died in poverty), Blake is highly regarded today for his expressiveness and creativity, and the philosophical vision that underlies his work.


Blake was born in 28a Broad Street, Golden Square, London, to Catherine Wright (Armitage) and James Blake.[4] His father was a hosier in sufficiently comfortable circumstances to give some furtherance to his son's bent for art. At 10 he was sent to Par's drawing school in the Strand — the best of its day, where he drew from the antique. His father also bought him casts and gave him occasional small sums of money to make a collection of prints for study, and the auctioneer (Langford) would sometimes knock down a cheap lot to "his little connoisseur" with friendly haste. Raphael, Michael Angelo, Giulio Romano, Dürer, &c. were the objects of the boy's choice at a time when Guido and the Caracci were the idols of the connoisseur.[5]

As a mere child he gave evidence of that visionary power, that faculty of seeing the creations of his imagination with such vividness that they were as real to him as objects of sense, which became a distinguishing feature of his genius. Returning from a ramble over the hills round Dulwich, he said he had seen a tree filled with angels, bright wings bespangling every bough like stars: or, again, that he had beheld angelic figures walking amongst some haymakers; and only through his mother's intercession did he escape a flogging from his father, who regarded the story as a deliberate lie. As a boy, he perhaps believed these were supernatural visions: as a man, it must be gathered from his explicit utterances that he understood their true nature as mental creations.[6]

Blake began to write original verse in his 12th year,[5] some of which was afterwards printed in the Poetical Sketches. One of the most beautiful of these, "How sweet I roamed from field to field," was certainly written before 14 (Malkin).[6]


At 14 Blake was apprenticed to James Basire, engraver to the Society of Antiquaries, a liberal-minded and kind master. Basire's style of engraving was flat, formal, mechanical, but with solid excellence of drawing. It was adhered to in the main by Blate till late in life, when his mode of handling the graver was advantageously modified by the study of the work of Bonosoni, &c., and, though redeemed by the qualities of his genius, was an obstacle to his acceptance by a public accustomed to the soft and fascinating manner of Wollett, Strange, and Bartolozzi.[6]

In summer time Basire set Blake upon the congenial task of drawing the monuments in the old churches of London and above all in Westminster Abbey, where, rapt and happy, he worked for some years acquiring a knowledge and a fervent love of Gothic art which profoundly influenced him through life. During winter he engraved his summers work for Gough's Sepulchral Monuments, one of the best plates in which, a Portrait of Queen Philippa, from her monument, though it has Basire's name affixed, is, on the authority of Stothard, from Blake's hand. In the evenings he began to make drawings of subjects from English history or from his own already teeming fancy. A noteworthy example — Joseph of Arimathea among the rocks of Albion — he engraved so early as 1773.[6]

Royal AcademyEdit

William Blake - Sconfitta - Frontispiece to The Song of Los

The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in his work. Here, Blake depicts his demiurgic figure Urizen stooped in prayer, contemplating the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books painted by Blake and his wife, collectively known as the Continental Prophecies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The 7 years' apprenticeship ended, in 1778 Blake became for a short time a student in the newly formed Royal Academy. Moser, the first keeper, had little to teach Blake, who tells how he was once looking over prints from Raphael and Michaelangelo in the library when Moser said to him, "You should not study these old, hard, stiff, dry, unfinished works of art; I will show you what you should study." "He took down Le Brun and Rubens' Galleries. How did I secretly rage! I said "These things you call finished are not even begun: how can they be finished?"[6]

Here Blake drew for a short time from the living figure, but early conceived a dislike to, and quickly relinquished, academic modes of study. "Natural objects always did and now do weaken, deaden, and obliterate imagination in me," he said in after life.[6]

Marriage and early careerEdit


Blake now supported himself mainly by engraving for the booksellers. For Harrison's Novelists' Magazine he engraved those early and beautiful designs by Stothard which first brought the latter into notice: 2 illustrations to Don Quixote, one to the Sentimental Journey, one to David Simple, one to Launcelot Greaves, and 3 to Grandison. Already he had made the acquaintance of Stothard, who introduced him to Flaxman, soon to prove an influential and staunch friend. Of original work belonging to this early date (1780) may be mentioned the scarce engraving Glad Day, and a drawing, "The Death of Earl Godwin," which Blake contributed to the Royal Academy's first exhibition in Somerset House. In this year he found himself an involuntary participator in the Gordon riots, having become entangled in the mob and been carried along by it to witness the storming of Newgate and the release of the prisoners.[6]

In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, daughter of a market-gardener at Battersea, who proved herself one of the best wives that ever fell to the lot of a man of genius; and they set up housekeeping in lodgings at 23 Green Street, Leicester Fields..[6]

In 1784 he opened a printseller's shop in Broad Street, in partnership with a fellow engraver, Parker; and Robert, Blake's youngest brother, between whom and himself there was the strongest sympathy and affection, lived with them. That he exhibited at the Royal Academy War unchained by an Angel, Fire, Pestilence, and Famine following, and Breach in a City, the Morning, after a Battle. In 1787 Robert died, the shop was given up, and Blake moved to 28 Poland Street..[6]

Blake as publisherEdit

380px-Blake sie cover

Unable to find a publisher for his Songs of Innocence, he adopted a plan of reproducing them himself (revealed to him in a dream by his dead brother Robert, he used to tell).[6] Blake became in fact his own printer and publisher.[7]

Next morning Mrs. Blake went out with their last half-crown to buy the necessary materials. The verse was written, and the design and marginal embellishments outlined on copper with an impervious liquid, and then the remainder of the plate was eaten away with aquafortis, so that the letters and outlines were left prominent as in stereotype and could be printed off in any tint required as the basis of his scheme of colour. He then worked up the pages by hand with great variety of detail in the local hues. Mrs. Blake learned to take off the impressions with delicacy, to help in tinting them, and to do up the pages in boards.[8]

In 1791 bookseller Johnson employed him to design and engrave 6 plates to Original Stories for Children, by Mary Wollstonecraft, and some to Elements of Morality, translated by her from the German. At Johnson's weekly dinners he met Drs. Price, Priestley, Godwin, Fuseli, Tom Paine, &c., with whom he sympathised ardently in political, but not at all in religious matters. He was the only member of the group who donned the bonnet rouge and actually walked the streets in it. About this time, too, he made the acquaintance of Mr. Thomas Butts, a steady buyer at moderate prices for 30 years of his drawings, temperas, and "frescoes."[8]

In 1793 Blake removed to Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, where he spent seven productive years, the most important fruits of which, in design, were 537 illustrations to Young's Night Thoughts for Edwards's edition. Of these only 47, to the first 4 books, were engraved, the book not proving successful.[8]

Blake's industry throughout life was unceasing, and the mass of work accomplished by the rare union of exhaustless patience with a fiery, restless, creative imagination exceeds belief. He literally never paused. "I don't understand what you mean by the want of a holiday," he would say. Writing and design were his recreation after the tedious toil of engraving.[8]

Blake and HayleyEdit


Flaxman in 1800 introduced Blake to Hayley, who invited him to come and settle at Felpham while engraving the illustrations for Life of Cowper. Here, in a cottage by the sea, he spent 3 years, during which he executed 18 tempera heads of the poets for Hayley's library; a miniature of Cowper's cousin, Johnson; 2 very sweet designs to Little Tom the Sailor,' a broad-sheet ballad by Hayley; and a series of illustrations to Hayley's Ballads on Animals; besides more engraved books and drawings for Butts.[8]

It was not to be expected, however, that Blake could long continue to breathe freely in the atmosphere of elegant triviality and shallow sentiment which surrounded the literary squire. Kindly as he was, and unwearied in endeavours to serve, his entire incapacity to understand the artist's genius or appreciate his work except as an engraver, made the constant dealings between them blighting to Blake's inner life and to the exercise of his creative faculty.[8]

After 3 years' patient endurance, therefore, Blake determined to return to London at whatever pecuniary sacrifice, that he might "be no longer pestered with Hayley's genteel ignorance and polite disapprobation." An absurd charge of sedition was brought against him, just before he finally quit Felpham, by a drunken soldier whom he had turned out of his garden. The case was tried at Chichester, and Blake was acquitted.

The Grave Edit

William Blake - Whilst, surfeited upon thy Damask Cheek, the high fed Worm in lazy Volumes roll'd, riots unscar'd

Illustration by William Blake for The Grave (1805). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

On his return he settled at 17 South Molton Street. Cromek, Blake's next employer, purchased from him that fine series of designs to Blair's Grave by which he is most widely known. Never has the theme of death been handled in pictorial art with more elevation and beauty than in some of these, notably in 'Death's Door' and the 'Soul departing from the Body.' Fuseli, always a warm friend of Blake (paying him the naïve tribute of remarking that he was d——d good to steal from'), wrote a laudatory notice of the designs for the preface.[8]

But it was a bitter disappointment to Blake that, contrary to the original agreement, he was not permitted to engrave his own designs.[8] They were put into the hands of Schiavonetti, by whom they were rendered with a mingled grace and grandeur which won for them a wider popularity than Blake's austere style could have achieved.[9]

The breach of contract and the consequent loss of his copyright were injuries which Blake deeply resented; and Cromek's conduct in relation to his next enterprise enhanced the sense of injustice. For having seen a design of Blake's from the Canterbury Pilgrimage and vainly endeavoured to negotiate for its publication on the same terms, Cromek went to Stothard and suggested the subject to him, who, ignorant that Blake was already engaged upon it, accepted the offer, and thus was occasioned a breach between the friends which was never closed.[9]

Blake having completed his Canterbury Pilgrimage as a 'fresco' — a word which he applied to a method of his own of painting in watercolour on a plaster ground of glue and whiting laid on to canvas or board — appealed to the public by opening an exhibition of this and other of his works. The Descriptive Catalogue written for the occasion interprets his pictures, expounds his canons of art, and contains some admirable writing on the characters in Chaucer's "Prologue." Charles Lamb preferred Blake's to Stothard's Pilgrimage, and called it "a work of wonderful power and spirit, hard and dry, yet with grace."[9]

In 1808 Blake, for the last time, exhibited at the Royal Academy. He then sent Christ in the Sepulchre guarded by Angels and Jacob's Dream, one of his most poetic works; and also executed for Mr. Butts The Whore of Babylon, now in the British Museum; and for the Countess of Egremont The Last Judgment, from one of the Blair drawings, of which, towards the close of life, he painted a replica containing some thousand figures lightly finished and with much splendour of colour.[9]

Last yearsEdit

Finsbury bunhill blake 1

Monument near Blake's unmarked grave in London. Photo by Fin Fahey, 2006. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

To John Linnell, with whom Blake first became acquainted in 1813, is due all honour for having been the stay of the neglected artist's declining years, and for having commissioned his noblest work. Through him, too, there gathered round a circle of friends and disciples — John Varley, George Richmond, Samuel Palmer, Oliver Finch, and others. Varley, who gave a very materialistic interpretation to Blake's visionary power, would sit by him far into the night and say "Draw me Moses" or "Julius Cæsar," straining his own eyes in the hope of seeing what Blake saw, who would answer "There he is," and draw with alacrity, looking up from time to time as if he had a flesh-and-blood sitter before him, sometimes suddenly leaving off and remarking, "I can't go on, it is gone," or "it has moved, the mouth is gone."[9]

Thus were produced the famous visionary heads, or Spiritual Portraits—some 40 or 50 slight pencil sketches, all original, many full of character and power. One of them—the 'Ghost of a Flea'—was engraved in Varley's 'Zodiacal Physiognomy' and in the 'Art Journal' for August 1858. The original drawings all passed into the hands of Mr. Linnell. Blake was wont to say to his friends respecting these visions, "You can see what I do if you choose. Work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done."[9]

In 1820 Blake designed and executed his first and last woodcuts to illustrate Thornton's school Virgil (the Pastorals). Rude in execution, but singularly poetic and beautiful, these prints were at the time so much ridiculed by the engravers that some of them were recut by another hand. The obscure little book is now much prized for their sake, Samples of both styles were given to illustrate an article on the principles of wood engraving in the Athenæum of 21 January 1843.[9]

Blake made his last move in 1820, to 3 Fountain Court, Strand, where, amid increasing poverty and neglect, he executed and engraved for Linnell those sublime Inventions to the Book of Job on which his highest claim as an artist rests. And whilst they were in progress the same friend, himself still a struggling artist, commissioned a series of drawings from the Divina Commedia, to be also engraved, paying him on account the 2 or 3 pounds a week necessary for subsistence. 100 designs were sketched in, some finished, but only 7 engraved and published in 1827.[9] Even so, they have evinced praise; for instance, the Cambridge Guide to William Blake says of them:

[T]he Dante watercolours are among Blake's richest achievements, engaging fully with the problem of illustrating a poem of this complexity. The mastery of watercolour has reached an even higher level than before, and is used to extraordinary effect in differentiating the atmosphere of the three states of being in the poem.[10]

Blake's labours were drawing to a close. His strength had been for some time declining, but he worked on with the old ardour to within a few days of the end. "I cannot think of death as more than the going out of one room into another," he had said in speaking of Flaxman's death; and in that spirit, not serene merely, but joyous and full of radiant visions, he gently, almost imperceptibly, drew his last breath on 12 August. 1827.[9]

George Richmond gives the following account of Blake's death in a letter to Samuel Palmer:

He died ... in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ - Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.[11]



To the close of his life Blake continued to print and publish, after a manner of his own, the inventions of his verse illustrated by original designs, but there is a certain period in his career when the union of the two gifts is peculiarly close, and when their service to one another is unquestionable.[7]

The Poetical Sketches (1783), though they are often no more than the utterances of a boy, are no less decisive in marking Blake as a future poet.[7]

Songs of Innocence (1789) was literally made by husband and wife, with a result of unique beauty; and so far as the poems are concerned, taken in conjunction with the companion Songs of Experience by which they were supplemented 5 years later (1794), they are the most perfect Blake ever achieved.[8]

The poetic genius already discernible in the first volume of Poetical Sketches is here more decisively expressed, and some of the songs in this volume deserve to take rank with the best things of their kind in our literature. In an age of enfeebled poetic style, when Wordsworth, with more weighty apparatus, had as yet scarcely begun his reform of English versification, Blake, unaided by any contemporary influence, produced a work of fresh and living beauty; and if the Songs of Innocence established Blake's claim to the title of poet, the setting in which they were given to the world proved that he was also something more.[7]

While Blake's powers of design steadily developed and his last completed work, the Inventions of the Book of Job was also his grandest, as a poet his inspiration lapsed more and more into the formless incoherence of the so-called Prophetic Books, which were all engraved and coloured by hand in the above manner.[8]

Indeed, the main, if not the whole, value of these Prophetic Books consists in the frequent splendour of the designs interwoven with the text. For here the fullest scope is given to the 2 antagonistic tendencies of Blake's mind, on the one hand as artist to embody in human forms of terror, sublimity, beauty, or grotesqueness the most abstract ideas, and on the other, as poet and theosophic dreamer, to resolve into shadowy symbolism the realities of human life and the visible world, and to express in the most crude manner his favourite tenet, that "all things exist in the human imagination alone."[8]

It becomes abundantly clear on reaching this point in his career that Blake's utterances cannot be judged by ordinary rules. The Songs of Experience, put forth in 1794 as a companion to the earlier Songs of Innocence, are for the most part intelligible and coherent, but in these intervening works of prophecy, as they were called by the author, we get the first public expression of that phase of his character and of his genius upon which a charge of insanity has been founded.[7]

The question whether Blake was or was not mad seems likely to remain in dispute, but there can be no doubt whatever that he was at different periods of his life under the influence of illusions for which there are no outward facts to account, and that much of what he wrote is so far wanting in the quality of sanity as to be without a logical coherence. On the other hand, it is equally clear that no madness imputed to Blake could equal that which would be involved in the rejection of his work on this ground. The greatness of Blake's mind is even better established than its frailty, and in onsidering the work that he has left we must remember that it is by the sublimity of his genius, and not by any mental defect, that he is most clearly distinguished from his fellows.[7]


The following is a list of Blake's writings, all engraved and coloured by hand, except those marked * which are type-printed and unillustrated: 1. *'Poetical Sketches,' 1783. 2. 'Songs of Innocence,' 1789. 3. 'Book of Thel,' 1789. 4. 'Marriage of Heaven and Hell,' 1790; consisting partly of aphorisms or proverbs, mostly vigorous and profound, that condensed form of expression proving singularly favourable to Blake;[9] partly of five 'memorable fancies' in which Swedenborg's influence upon him, very potent through life, though he was never a Swedenborgian, is first discernible. 5. *'The French Revolution,' Book i. 1791 (not thought worth reprinting by any of Blake's editors). 6. 'Gates of Paradise,' 1793, engraved but not coloured, consisting of seventeen plates of emblems, each with a title or motto and rhymed 'Keys of the Gates,' described by Allan Cunningham as 'a sort of devout dream, equally wild and lovely.' 7. 'Songs of Experience,' 1794. His 'Prophetic Books' are: 8. 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion,' 1793. 9. 'America,' 1793. 10. 'Europe: a Prophecy,' 1794. 11. 'The Book of Urizen,' 1794 (containing Asia and Africa). 12. 'The Song of Los,' 1795. 13. 'The Book of Ahania,' 1795. 14. 'Jerusalem,' 1804. 15. 'Milton,' 1804. (There are different degrees of beauty in the samples of all these books; not only because Blake himself bestowed different degrees of finish and richness but also because Mrs Blake worked upon some. There are copies, indeed, which appear to have been coloured by her after her husband's death. For descriptions and interpretations see Swinburne's William Blake: a Critical essay, 1868.) 16. *'Descriptive Catalogue, 1809. 17. 'Prospectus,' 1793. 18. Four undated 'Sibylline Leaves, viz. 'The Laocoon',' 'Ghost of Abel,' 'On Homer's Poetry,' 'On Virgil.' 19. 'There is no Natural Religion' (eight? leaves with design). 20. 'Outhoon,' of which there appears to be no copy in existence. 21. 'Tiriel,' first printed in W. M. Rossetti's 'Aldine British Poets.' 22. 'Ideas of Good and Evil,' from Blake's note-book, first printed in Gilchrist's 'Blake,' vol. ii. 23. Prose from the same, viz. 'Public Address' and 'Vision of the Last Judgment.'[12]

Reprints of Blake's works have appeared as follows: 'Songs of Innocence and Experience,' edit. by Dr. G Wilkinson (much altered), 1839. 'Selections,' emendated, comprising nearly everything except 'Prophetic Books, edited by D.G. Rossetti. forming vol. ii. of Gilchrist's 'Life of Blake,' 1863 and 1880. 'Songs of Innocence and Experience, with other Poems' (verbatim), 1866. 'Poetical Sketches,' edit. by R. H. Shepherd (verbatim), 1868. 'Poetical Works, Lyrical and Miscellaneous,' edit., with prefatory memoir, by W. M. Rossetti, 1874 (verbatim). A facsimile, but without colour, of the 'Jerusalem.' 1877, Pearson. Also one of the 'Marriage of Heaven and Hell,' colour-printed. Camden Hotten. A reproduction of the 'Illustrations to the Book of Job' with prefatory memoir by C.E. Norton. Boston, 1875. And lastly, a volume of 'Etchings from Blake's Works,' with descriptive text by William Bell Scott, 1878.[12]

Critical introductionEdit

by J. Comyns Carr

The poetry of Blake holds a unique position in the history of English literature. Its extraordinary independence of contemporary fashion in verse, and its intuitive sympathy with the taste of a later generation, would alone suffice to give a peculiar interest to the study of the poet’s career. Nor is this interest in any way diminished by a knowledge of Blake’s singular and strongly marked individuality. Indeed, it is scarcely possible to do justice to the great qualities of his imagination, or to make due allowance for its startling defects, unless the exercise of the poetic gift is considered in relation to the other faculties of his mind.

He appealed to the world in the double capacity of poet and painter; and such was the peculiar nature of his endowment and the particular method of his work, that it is difficult to measure the value of his literary genius without some reference to his achievements in design. For it is not merely that he practised the two arts simultaneously, but that he chose to combine them after a fashion of his own. An engraver by profession and training, he began at a very early age to employ his technical knowledge in the invention of a wholly original system of literary publication. With the exception of the Poetical Sketches, issued in the ordinary form through the kindly help of friends, nearly all of Blake’s poems were given to the world in a fantastic dress of his own devising. He became in a special sense his own printer and his own publisher. The typography of his poems and the pictorial illustration by which they were accompanied were blended in a single scheme of ornamental design, and from the engraved plate upon which this design was executed by the artist’s own hand copies were struck off in numbers more than sufficient to satisfy the modest demands of his admirers.

This peculiar process of publication cannot of course be held to affect Blake’s claims as a poet. It bears a more obvious relation to those powers of a purely artistic kind which are not here in question; but its employment by him is nevertheless well deserving of remark in this place, because it indicates a certain quality of mind that deeply affected his poetic individuality. That happy mingling and confusion of text and ornament which give such a charm to Songs of Innocence was the symbol of a strongly marked intellectual tendency that afterwards received a morbid development.

Blake has been called mad, and within certain well-defined limits the charge must, we think, be admitted. He possessed only in the most imperfect and rudimentary form the faculty which distinguishes the functions of art and literature; and when his imagination was exercised upon any but the simplest material, his logical powers became altogether unequal to the labour of logical and consequent expression. That this failure arose rather from morbid excess and excitement of visionary power than from any abnormal defect of intellectual energy is sufficiently indicated by the facts of his career. For while his hold over the abstract symbols of language grew gradually feebler, his powers of pictorial imagery became correspondingly vigorous and intense. The artistic faculty in Blake strengthened and developed with advancing life, and he produced no surer or more satisfying example of his powers than the series of illustrations to the Book of Job, executed when he was already an old man.

Indeed if Blake had never committed himself to literature we should scarcely be aware of the morbid tendency of his mind. It is only in turning from his design to his verse that we are forced to recognise the imperfect balance of his faculties: nor could we rightly understand the strange limitation of his poetical powers without constant reference to this diseased activity of the artistic sense. For there is a large portion of Blake’s verse which is not infected at all with the suspicion of insanity, and it seems at first sight almost inexplicable that a writer who has produced some of the simplest and sweetest lyrics in the language should also have left behind him a confused mass of writings such as no man can hope to decipher. All that can be done for these so-called Prophetic Books has been accomplished by Mr. Swinburne, in his sympathetic study of the poet’s work; but although Mr. Swinburne rightly asserts the power that is displayed in them, his eloquent commentary does not substantially change the ordinary judgment of their confused and inconsequent character. The defects of such work are too grave for any kind of serious vindication to be really possible, and if Blake had produced nothing more or nothing better, his claims to rank among English poets could not be successfully maintained.

But these defects, although they are in their nature incurable, are not altogether incapable of explanation. For it cannot be questioned by any one who has seriously attempted to decipher these ‘prophetic’ writings, that to Blake himself the ordinary modes of intellectual expression had become charged with something of mysterious and special meaning. Words were no longer mere abstract symbols: they had assumed to his imagination the force of individual images. As they passed into his work they lost the stamp of ordinary currency and became impressed with a device of his own coinage, vivid and eloquent to him, but strange to all the world beside. To Blake’s mind, in short, these prophetic writings doubtless formed a series of distinct and coherent pictures; but without the key that he alone possessed, they must ever remain a chaos through which not even the most wary guide can hope to find a path.

Putting aside the prophetic books, the quantity of verse which Blake has left behind him is by no means large. His lyrical poems have been collected in a small volume edited by Mr. W. M. Rossetti, and the contents of this volume are found to be mainly derived from the Poetical Sketches and the Songs of Innocence and Experience. It is to these essays of his youth and early manhood that we must look for the true sources of his fame. The Poetical Sketches, begun when the author was only twelve years of age, and finished when he was no more than twenty, must assuredly be reckoned among the most extraordinary examples of youthful production; and it is profoundly characteristic of the man and his particular cast of mind that many of these boyish poems are among the best that Blake at any time produced. For his was a nature that owed little to development or experience.

The perfect innocence of his spirit, as it kept him safe from the taint of the world, also rendered him incapable of receiving that enlargement of sympathy and deepening of emotion which others differently constituted may gain from contact with actual life. His imagination was not of the kind that could deal with the complex problems of human passion; he retained to the end of his days the happy ignorance as well as the freshness of childhood: and it is therefore perhaps less wonderful in his case than it would be in the case of a poet of richer and more varied humanity that he should be able to display at once and in early youth the full measure of his powers.

But this acknowledgment of the inherent limitation of Blake’s poetic gift leads us by a natural process to a clearer recognition of its great qualities. His detachment from the ordinary currents of practical thought left to his mind an unspoiled and delightful simplicity which has perhaps never been matched in English poetry. The childlike beauty of his poems is entirely free from the awkward lisp of wisdom that condescends. It is always unconscious and always unstrained, and even the simplicity of a poet like Wordsworth must often seem by comparison to be tinged with a didactic spirit. Blake’s verse has indeed, both as regards intellectual invention and executive skill, a kind of unpremeditated charm that forces comparison with the things of inanimate life. Where he is successful his work has the fresh perfume and perfect grace of a flower, and at all times there is the air of careless growth that belongs to the shapes of outward nature.

And yet this quality of simplicity is constantly associated with an unusual power of rendering the most subtle effects of beauty. In the actual processes of his art Blake could command the utmost refinement and delicacy of style. He possessed in a rare degree the secret by which the loveliness of a scene can be arrested and registered in a line of verse, and he often displays a faultless choice of language and the finest sense of poetic melody.

We have said already that he worked in absolute independence of the accepted models of his time. This is strictly true: but it would be absurd therefore to assume that he laboured without any models at all. Blake’s isolation, if we look to the character of the man, is indeed less extraordinary than it would otherwise appear. He did not mingle in the concerns of life in such a way as to expose him to the dangers of being unduly swayed by the caprices of fashion. His was a world of his own creating, and to his vivid imagination the poets of an earlier generation would seem as near as the versifiers of his own day.

That he should have chosen from the past those models whose example was most needed in order to infuse a new life into English poetry proves of course the justice of his poetic instinct. In fixing upon the great writers of the Elizabethan age he anticipated, as we have already observed, the taste of a succeeding generation, and it is only to be regretted that he did not absolutely confine himself to these nobler models of style. Unfortunately however his own intellectual tendency towards mysticism, found only too ready encouragement in the prophetic vagueness of the Ossianic verse, and we may fairly trace a part at least of Blake’s obscurer manner to this source.[13]


"The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself."


10 of his poems ("To the Muses", "To Spring", "Song", "Reeds of Innocence", "The Little Black Boy", "Hear the Voice," "The Tiger", "Cradle Song", "Night", and "Love's Secret") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[14]

Blake is recognied as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica.

The Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honor in Australia in 1949.

On 24 November 1957 a bronze bust of Blake by Sir Jacob Epstein was unveiled in Poet' Corner, Westminster Abbey.[15]


Blake may have played a critical role in the modern Western World's conception of imagination. His belief that humanity could overcome the limitations of its five senses is perhaps Blake's greatest legacy: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) While his perspective was once perceived as merely aberrant, it now seems to have been incorporated into the modern definition of the term.

His reference to "the doors of perception" resonated demonstrably in the literature and music of the 20th century, as both Jim Morrison's band The Doors and Aldous Huxley's book The Doors of Perception pay homage to Blake's sentiment.


380px-Blake sie cover


  • Poetical Sketches. London: privately printed, 1783; facsimile edition, London: William Griggs, 1890.
  • There is No Natural Religion (series a and b). London: Printed by William Blake, [1788?]; (facsimile edition), (2 volumes), London: William Blake Trust, 1971.
  • All Religions are One.(London: Printed by William Blake, [1788?]; facsimile. London: William Blake Trust, 1970.
  • Songs of Innocence. London: Printed by William Blake, 1789
  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience. London: Printed by William Blake, 1794; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1955.
  • The Book of Thel. London: Printed by William Blake, 1789; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1965.
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. London: Printed by William Blake, [1793?]; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1960.
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion. London: Printed by William Blake, 1793; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1959.
  • For Children: The Gates of Paradise. London: Printed by William Blake, 1793
    • revised and enlarged as For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise. London: Printed by William Blake, [1818?]; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1968.
  • America: A prophecy. Lambeth, UK: Printed by William Blake, 1793; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1963.
  • Europe. Lambeth, UK: Printed by William Blake, 1794 facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1969.
  • The First Book of Urizen. Lambeth, UK: Printed by William Blake, 1794; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1975.
  • The Song of Los. Lambeth, UK: Printed by William Blake, 1795; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1975.
  • The Book of Los. Lambeth, UK: Printed by William Blake, 1795; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1975.
  • The Book of Ahania. Lambeth, UK: Printed by William Blake, 1795; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1973.
  • Milton. London: Printed by William Blake, 1804 [1808?]; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1967.
  • Jerusalem. London: Printed by William Blake, 1804 [1820?]; facsimile edition, London: William Blake Trust, 1951.
  • Poems of. London: Basil Montagu Pickering, 1874.
  • Poetical Works: A new and verbatim text (with prefatory notes by Joseph Sampson). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1905.[16]
  • Poetical Works (edited by Edwin J. Ellis). (2 volumes), London: Chatto & Windus, 1906.[17] Volume I, Volume 2.
  • Poetical Works (edited by William Michael Rossetti). London: G. Bell, 1914.[18]
  • Selections from the Symbolical Poems (edited by F.E. Pierce). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1915.[19]


  • Edward Young, The Complaint, and The Consolation; or Night Thoughts (illustrated by Blake). London: R. Edwards, 1797.
  • William Hayley, The Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper, Esqr. (3 volumes, includes plates engraved by Blake). Chichester: Printed by J. Seagrave for J. Johnson, 1803 [1804].
  • Robert Blair, The Grave, A Poem (illustrated by twelve Etchings Executed by Louis Schiavonetti, From the Original Inventions of William Blake). London: Cromek, 1808.
    • facsimile, in Robert Blair's The Grave Illustrated by William Blake. A Study with a Facsimile (edited by Robert N. Essick and Milton D. Paley). London: Scolar Press, 1982).
  • A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, Poetical and Historical Inventions. Painted by William Blake in Water Colours, being the Ancient Method of Fresco Painting Restored: and Drawings .... London: Printed by D.N. Shury, 1809.
  • Illustrations of the Book of Job, in Twenty-One Plates, Invented and Engraved by William Blake. London: Printed by William Blake, 1826
    • facsimiles: The Illustrations of the Book of Job (edited by Lawrance Binyon and Geoffrey Keynes. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1935
    • and in S. Foster Damon, Blake's Job: William Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job. Providence: Brown University Press, 1966.
  • Blake's Illustrations of Dante. Seven Plates, designed and engraved by W. Blake. London, 1838.


  • Illustrations to Young's Night Thoughts Done in Water-Colour by William Blake (edited by Geoffrey Keynes). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927).
  • Albert S. Roe, Blake's Illustrations to the Divine Comedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.
  • Geoffrey Keynes, Engravings by William Blake. Dublin: E. Walker, 1956.
  • William Blake's Illustrations of the Bible (edited by Geoffrey Keynes). London: William Blake Trust, 1957.
  • William Wells and Elizabeth Johnston, William Blake's "Heads of the Poets". Manchester: City of Manchester Art Gallery, 1969.
  • Irene Taylor, Blake's Illustrations to the Poems of Gray. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.
  • William Blake's Water Colour Designs for the Poems of Thomas Gray. London: William Blake Trust, 1972.
  • Iain Bain, David Chambers, and Andrew Wilton, The Wood Engravings of William Blake for Thornton's Virgil. London: British Museum Publications, 1977.
  • Pamela Dunbar, William Blake's Illustrations to the Poetry of Milton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
  • William Blake's Designs for Edward Young's Night Thoughts (edited by John Grant, Edward Rose, Michael Tolley, and David Erdman). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
  • Milton Klonsky, Blake's Dante. New York: Harmony Books, 1980.
  • Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.


  • An Island in the Moon [written 1784?]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Tiriel [written 1789?]. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • Vala, or The Four Zoas [written circa 1796-1807]. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.
  • Pickering Manuscript [written after 1807]. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1972.

Collected editionsEdit

  • [ The Poems, with specimens of the prose writings (with prefatory note by Joseph Skipsey). London: Walter Scott, 1885.[20]
  • Works (edited by Edwin John Ellis & William Butler Yeats). (3 volumes), London: Bernard Quaritch, 1893.[21] Volume I, Volume II, Volume III.
  • Writings (3 volumes, edited by Geoffrey Keynes). London: Oxford University Press, 1925
    • revised as Complete Writings. London: Oxford University Press, 1957; second revision, 1966.
  • Prose and Poems (edited by Floyd Dell). Girard, KS: Haldeman-Julius (Little Blue Book 677), 1925..[22]
  • Complete Poetry and Prose (edited by David Erdman). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965; revised, 1982.
  • The Illuminated Blake (annotated by David Erdman). Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974.
  • William Blake's Writings (2 volumes, edited by G.E. Bentley, Jr.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.


  • Letters (edited by Archibald G.B. Russell). London: Methuen, 1906; New York: Scribner's, 1906.[23]
  • Letters from William Blake to Thomas Butts, 1800-1803 (facsimile, edited by Geoffrey Keynes). London: Oxford University Press, 1926.
  • Letters (3rd edition, revised and amplified, edited by Geofffrey Keynes). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
  • Notebooks [written circa 1793-1818] (edited by David Erdman and Donald Moore). London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[24]

Blake sick rose

Poems by William BlakeEdit

  1. Ah! Sunflower
  2. And did those feet in ancient time
  3. Auguries of Innocence
  4. The Chimney-Sweeper
  5. The Echoing Green
  6. The Lamb
  7. The Little Black Boy
  8. A Poison Tree
  9. The Sick Rose
  10. The Tiger
  11. To Autumn
  12. To Spring
  13. To Summer
  14. To Winter

See alsoEdit


William Blake poem 'The Lamb' English Language Poetry

William Blake poem 'The Lamb' English Language Poetry

"London" by William Blake (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

"London" by William Blake (read by Tom O'Bedlam)


  1. John William Cousin, "Blake, William," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 38. Web, Dec. 14, 2017.
  2. Jones, Jonathan (2005-04-25). "Blake's heaven". The Guardian.,1169,1469584,00.html. 
  3. Kazin, Alfred (1997). "An Introduction to William Blake". Retrieved 2006-09-23. 
  4. G.E. Bentley, William Blake,, Encyclopædia Britannica. Web, June 6, 2015.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gilchrist 1886, 180.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 Gilchrist 1886, 181.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 J. Comyns Carr, Blake, William, Encyclopædia Britannica 1911, 4, 36. Wikisource, Web, Dec. 14, 2017.
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 Gilchrist 1886, 182.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 9.8 9.9 Gilchrist, 183.
  10. David Bindman, "Blake as a Painter" in The Cambridge Guide to William Blake, Morris Eaves (ed.), Cambridge, 2003, p. 106. Print.
  11. Grigson, Samuel Palmer, 38.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Gilchrist 1886, 184.
  13. from J. Comyns Carr, "Critical Introduction: William Blake (1757-1827)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Feb. 26, 2016.
  14. "Alphabetical list of authors: Addison, Joseph to Brome, Alexander, Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 15, 2012.
  15. William Blake, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  16. The Poetical Works of William Blake: A new and verbatim text (1905), Internet Archive. July 7, 2013.
  17. Search results = au:Edwin John Ellis, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Aug. 11, 2013.
  18. Poetical works of William Blake (1914), Internet Archive. July 7, 2013.
  19. Selections from the Symbolical Poems of William Blake (1915), Internet Archive. July 7, 2013.
  20. The Poems, with specimens of the prose writings, of William Blake (1885), Internet Archive. July 7, 2013.
  21. The Works of William Blake (1893), Internet Archive. Web, July 7, 2013.
  22. Search results = au:Floyd Dell, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, June 7, 2015.
  23. The Letters of William Blake (1906), Internet Archive. Web, July 7, 2013.
  24. William Blake 1757-1827, Poetry Foundation, Web, Aug. 9, 2012.

External linksEdit

Audio / video

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the Dictionary of National Biography (edited by Leslie Stephen). London: Smith, Elder, 1885-1900. Original article is at: Blake, William

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