Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

BLAKE, WILLIAM (1757–1827)

BLAKE, WILLIAM (1757–1827), English poet and painter, was born in London, on the 28th of November 1757. His father, James Blake, kept a hosier’s shop in Broad Street, Golden Square; and from the scanty education which the young artist received, it may be judged that the circumstances of the family were not very prosperous. For the facts of William Blake’s early life the world is indebted to a little book, called A Father’s Memoirs on a Child, written by Dr Malkin in 1806. Here we learn that young Blake quickly developed a taste for design, which his father appears to have had sufficient intelligence to recognize and assist by every means in his power. At the age of ten the boy was sent to a drawing school kept by Henry Pars in the Strand, and at the same time he was already cultivating his own taste by constant attendance at the different art sale rooms, where he was known as the little connoisseur. Here he began to collect prints after Michelangelo, and Raphael, Dürer and Heemskerk, while at the school in the Strand he had the opportunity of drawing from the antique. After four years of this preliminary instruction Blake entered upon another branch of art study. In 1777 he was apprenticed to James Basire, an engraver of repute, and with him he remained seven years. His apprenticeship had an important bearing on Blake’s artistic education, and marks the department of art in which he was made technically proficient. In 1778, at the end of his apprenticeship, he proceeded to the school of the Royal Academy, where he continued his early study from the antique, and had for the first time an opportunity of drawing from the living model.

This is in brief all that is known of Blake’s artistic education. That he ever, at the academy or elsewhere, systematically studied painting we do not know; but that he had already begun the practice of water colour for himself is ascertained. So far, however, the course of his training in art schools, and under Basire, was calculated to render him proficient only as a draughtsman and an engraver. He had learned how to draw, and he had mastered besides the practical difficulties of engraving, and with these qualifications he entered upon his career. In 1780 he exhibited a picture in the Royal Academy Exhibition, conjectured to have been executed in water colours, and he continued to contribute to the annual exhibitions up to the year 1808. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a market-gardener at Battersea, with whom he lived always on affectionate terms, and the young couple after their marriage established themselves in Green Street, Leicester Fields. Blake had already become acquainted with some of the rising artists of his time, amongst them Stothard, Flaxman and Fuseli, and he now began to see something of literary society. At the house of the Rev. Henry Mathew, in Rathbone Place, he used to recite and sometimes to sing poems of his own composition, and it was through the influence of this gentleman, combined with that of Flaxman, that Blake’s first volume of poetry was printed and published in 1783. From this time forward the artist came before the world in a double capacity. By education as well as native talent, he was pledged to the life of a painter, and these Poetical Sketches, though they are often no more than the utterances of a boy, are no less decisive in marking Blake as a future poet.

For a while the two gifts are exhibited in association. 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. In 1784 Blake, moving from Green Street, set up in company with a fellow-pupil, Parker, as print-seller and engraver next to his father’s house in Broad Street, Golden Square, but in 1787 this partnership was severed, and he established an independent business in Poland Street. It was from this house, and in 1787, that the Songs of Innocence were published, a work that must always be remarkable for beauty both of verse and of design, as well as for the singular method by which the two were combined and expressed by the artist. Blake became in fact his own printer and publisher. He engraved upon copper, by a process devised by himself, both the text of his poems and the surrounding decorative design, and to the pages printed from the copper plates an appropriate colouring was afterwards added by hand. 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. For the full development of his artistic powers we have to wait till a later date, but here at least he exhibits a just and original understanding of the sources of decorative beauty. Each page of these poems is a study of design, full of invention, and often wrought with the utmost delicacy of workmanship. The artist retained to the end this feeling for decorative effect; but as time went on, he considerably enlarged the imaginative scope of his work, and decoration then became the condition rather than the aim of his labour.

Notwithstanding the distinct and precious qualities of this volume, it attracted but slight attention, a fact perhaps not very wonderful, when the system of publication is taken into account. Blake, however, proceeded with other work of the same kind. The same year he published The Book of Thel, more decidedly mystic in its poetry, but scarcely less beautiful as a piece of illumination; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell followed in 1790; and in 1793 there are added The Gates of Paradise, The Vision of the Daughters of Albion, and some other Prophetic Books. 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. 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 considering 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. With the publication of the Songs of Experience Blake’s poetic career, so far at least as ordinary readers are concerned, may be said to close. A writer of prophecy he continued for many years, but the works by which he is best known in poetry are those earlier and simpler efforts, supplemented by a few pieces taken from various sources, some of which were of later production. But although Blake the poet ceases in a general sense at this date, Blake the artist is only just entering upon his career. In the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and even in some of the earlier Books of Prophecy, the two gifts worked together in perfect balance and harmony; but at this point the supremacy of the artistic faculty asserts itself, and for the remainder of his life Blake was pre-eminently a designer and engraver. The labour of poetical composition continues, but the product passes beyond the range of general comprehension; while, with apparent inconsistency, the work of the artist gains steadily in strength and coherence, and never to the last loses its hold upon the understanding. It may almost be said without exaggeration that his earliest poetic work, The Songs of Innocence, and nearly his latest effort in design, the illustrations to The Book of Job, take rank among the sanest and most admirable products of his genius. Nor is the fact, astonishing enough at first sight, quite beyond a possible explanation. As Blake advanced in his poetic career, he was gradually hindered and finally overpowered by a tendency that was most serviceable to him in design. His inclination to substitute a symbol for a conception, to make an image do duty for an idea, became an insuperable obstacle to literary success. He endeavoured constantly to treat the intellectual material of verse as if it could be moulded into sensuous form, with the inevitable result that as the ideas to be expressed advanced in complexity and depth of meaning, his poetic gifts became gradually more inadequate to the task of interpretation. The earlier poems dealing with simpler themes, and put forward at a time when the bent of the artist’s mind was not strictly determined, do not suffer from this difficulty; the symbolism then only enriches an idea of no intellectual intricacy; but when Blake began to concern himself with profounder problems the want of a more logical understanding of language made itself strikingly apparent. If his ways of thought and modes of workmanship had not been developed with an intensity almost morbid, he would probably have been able to distinguish and keep separate the double functions of art and literature. As it is, however, he remains as an extreme illustration of the ascendancy of the artistic faculty. For this tendency to translate ideas into image, and to find for every thought, however simple or sublime, a precise and sensuous form, is of the essence of pure artistic invention. If this be accepted as the dominant bent of Blake’s genius, it is not so wonderful that his work in art should have strengthened in proportion as his poetic powers waned; but whether the explanation satisfies all the requirements of the case or not, the fact remains, and cannot be overlooked by any student of Blake’s career.

In 1796 Blake was actively employed in the work of illustration. Edwards, a bookseller of New Bond Street, projected a new edition of Young’s Night Thoughts, and Blake was chosen to illustrate the work. It was to have been issued in parts, but for some reason not very clear the enterprise failed, and only a first part, including forty-three designs, was given to the world. These designs were engraved by Blake himself, and they are interesting not only for their own merit but for the peculiar system by which the illustration has been associated with the text. It was afterwards discovered that the artist had executed original designs in water-colour for the whole series, and these drawings, 537 in number, form one of the most interesting records of Blake’s genius. Gilchrist, the painter’s biographer, in commenting upon the engraved plates, regrets the absence of colour, the use of which Blake so well understood, to relieve his simple design and give it significance, and an examination of the original water-colour drawings fully supports the justice of his criticism. Soon after the publication of this work Blake was introduced by Flaxman to the poet Hayley, and in the year 1801 he accepted the suggestion of the latter, that he should take up his residence at Felpham in Sussex. The mild and amiable poet had planned to write a life of Cowper, and for the illustration of this and other works he sought Blake’s help and companionship. The residence at Felpham continued for three years, partly pleasant and partly irksome to Blake, but apparently not very profitable to the progress of his art. One of the annoyances of his stay was a malicious prosecution for treason set on foot by a common soldier whom Blake had summarily ejected from his garden; but a more serious drawback was the increasing irritation which the painter seems to have experienced from association with Hayley. In 1804 Blake returned to London, to take up his residence in South Moulton Street, and as the fruit of his residence in Felpham, he published, in the manner already described, the prophetic books called the Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion, and Milton. The first of these is a very notable performance in regard to artistic invention. Many of the designs stand out from the text in complete independence, and are now and then of the very finest quality.

In the years 1804–1805 Blake executed a series of designs in illustration of Robert Blair’s The Grave, of much beauty and grandeur, though showing stronger traces of imitation of Italian art than any earlier production. These designs were purchased from the artist by an adventurous and unscrupulous publisher, Cromek, for the paltry sum of £21, and afterwards published in a series of engravings by Schiavonetti. Despite the ill treatment Blake received in the matter, and the other evils, including a quarrel with his friend Stothard as to priority of invention of a design illustrating the Canterbury Pilgrims, which his association with Cromek involved, the book gained for him a larger amount of popularity than he at any other time secured. Stothard’s picture of the Canterbury Pilgrims was exhibited in 1807, and in 1809 Blake, in emulation of his rival’s success, having himself painted in water-colour a picture of the same subject, opened an exhibition, and drew up a Descriptive Catalogue, curious and interesting, and containing a very valuable criticism of Chaucer.

The remainder of the artist’s life is not outwardly eventful. In 1813 he formed, through the introduction of George Cumberland of Bristol, a valuable friendship with John Linnell and other rising water-colour painters. Amongst the group Blake seems to have found special sympathy in the society of John Varley, who, himself addicted to astrology, encouraged Blake to cultivate his gift of inspired vision; and it is probably to this influence that we are indebted for several curious drawings made from visions, especially the celebrated ghost of a flea and the very humorous portrait of the builder of the Pyramids. In 1821 Blake removed to Fountain Court, in the Strand, where he died on the 12th of August 1827. The chief work of these last years was the splendid series of engraved designs in illustration of the book of Job. Here we find the highest imaginative qualities of Blake’s art united to the technical means of expression which he best understood. Both the invention and the engraving are in all ways remarkable, and the series may fairly be cited in support of a very high estimate of his genius. None of his works is without the trace of that peculiar artistic instinct and power which seizes the pictorial element of ideas, simple or sublime, and translates them into the appropriate language of sense; but here the double faculty finds the happiest exercise. The grandeur of the theme is duly reflected in the simple and sublime images of the artist’s design, and in the presence of these plates we are made to feel the power of the artist over the expressional resources of human form, as well as his sympathy with the imaginative significance of his subject.

A life of Blake, with selections from his works, by Alexander Gilchrist, was published in 1863 (new edition by W. G. Robertson, 1906); in 1868 A. C. Swinburne published a critical essay on his genius, remarkable for a full examination of the Prophetic Books, and in 1874 William Michael Rossetti published a memoir prefixed to an edition of the poems. In 1893 appeared The Works of William Blake, edited by E. J. Ellis and W. B. Yeats. But for a long time all the editors paid too little attention to a correct following of Blake’s own MSS. The text of the poems was finally edited with exemplary care and thoroughness by John Sampson in his edition of the Poetical Works (1905), which has rescued Blake from the improvements of previous editors. See also The Letters of William Blake, together with a Life by Frederick Tatham; edited by A. G. B. Russell (1906); and Basil de Selincourt, William Blake (1909).

(J. C. C.) [Joseph William Comyns Carr]

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BLAKE, William (1757-1827) by Michael Ferber

The first thing to note in this Encyclopædia Britannica entry by J. Comyns Carr, as he was known, is the absence of the word Romantic, capitalized or not. The canon of Romantic poets in 1911 was loose, mutable, and large, and Blake was not in it. Nor was he thought of as a Romantic painter; he did not consort with John Constable and J. M. W. Turner any more than with William Wordsworth and John Keats. Not until the 1960s was Blake admitted, at least in university courses and textbooks, into the Big Six male poets (with Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Keats); at about the same time, courses and books on Romantic art gave him more space. Though the canon in both fields has been expanded since then, mainly to accommodate women poets and painters, Blake still holds his own.

William Blake
Phillips, Thomas. William Blake. 1807, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

It is too long a tale to tell how Blake was promoted into Romanticism’s front ranks, but in the world of literary scholarship it was crucial to defy the opinion that, in Carr’s words, With the publication of the Songs of Experience Blake’s poetic career, so far at least as ordinary readers are concerned, may be said to close. All of Blake’s poetry after this supposed closure have since been tackled by diligent scholars. Many brilliant books and articles have appeared, and quite a few difficult passages have been made, well, less difficult. No doubt most ordinary readers still shy away from the later Prophetic books, but in university courses it is still common to deal with some of them in detail.

Carr writes, [Blake’s] inclination to substitute a symbol for a conception, to make an image do duty for an idea, became an insuperable obstacle to literary success. This is an intelligent and interesting insight, but it is nonetheless striking that, beyond calling The Book of Thel more mystic in its poetry, Carr does not discuss any of Blake’s conceptions or ideas, or even his symbols and images. There is nothing about innocence and experience, sexual freedom, fourfold vision, the annihilation of the Selfhood, the strife of brotherhood, the forgiveness of sins, the dismissal of Nature, the renovation of society, or the end of corporeal warfare. Perhaps Carr found the later works too difficult; perhaps, since he was mainly an art critic (he probably came across Blake through the Pre-Raphaelite painters, whom he championed), he felt more at home with the designs, which he thought strengthened in proportion as his poetic powers waned, though his comments on the designs are also very general. And perhaps he was not granted space enough to expound Blake’s ideas and symbols. In any case, it is a pity, because Carr seems to have had been thoughtful enough to make something of them.

It was characteristic of criticism in Carr’s day to resort to vague terms of praise. Beauty occurs four times, and beautiful once; sublime occurs three times, each time in the phrase simple and sublime, sublimity once, and grandeur twice. Carr might have developed the beautiful/sublime binary, which Blake himself knew very well, but here the terms are left afloat. Eight times Carr refers to Blake’s genius, a term that had found a home in Romanticism and especially in Blake’s works, but it remains vague.

In Carr’s day, it was characteristic of accounts of Blake to discuss his supposed madness, which probably served only to excuse lazy readers from making an effort to grasp the post-Experience works. Today scholars discuss it mainly in its historical context, for reviewers in Blake’s day were prone to speak of his lunacy, and Carr had to deal with it. We are more likely now to call him a visionary in a literal sense: he had visions, he saw things. He seems to have distinguished them well enough from what we are pleased to call reality; he worked steadily, and most acquaintances found him amiable and alert, so to call him insane seems both wrong and condescending. Though Carr falls in with the consensus that much of what Blake wrote lacked sanity and logical coherence, we can nonetheless admire his next sentence: 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.

Blake’s elevation into the leading ranks of Romantic poets and painters is due not only to the efforts of scholars but also, I think even more, to something Carr could scarcely have imagined. Five years after the 11th edition of Britannica appeared, Hubert Parry’s stirring setting of Blake’s Jerusalem, the four quatrains in the Preface to Milton that begin And did those feet in ancient time, was performed in a concert for a Fight for Right rally meant to shore up public morale nearly two years into the Great War. The song quickly caught on. Within a year Parry conducted a revised setting at a women’s suffrage meeting, the hymn appeared in hymnals beginning in 1923, the Labour Party adopted it, and soon the Conservatives did so as well. It is now England’s second national anthem, and always concludes the Last Night of the Proms.

In America in the fifties and sixties, Blake became an icon of the Beatniks and the Hippies, of what Theodore Roszak named the counterculture. I realized entire Universe was manifestation of One mind, Allen Ginsberg wrote, My teacher was William Blake. Blake also taught Bob Dylan, Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, and Robert Duncan, to name a few. Quotations from the Proverbs of Hell are regularly painted on walls or carried on placards, and posters of The Ancient of Days or Glad Day adorn many a dorm room.

As for the biographical portion of the entry, scholars have turned up more facts, but they would only tweak Carr’s account here and there if it had to be updated with the same brevity; we still mainly rely on the same sources. What we know much more about, despite the many obscurities of his verse and designs, is Blake’s genius.

But I found it chastening to be reminded that Blake seemed obscure to many intelligent and sensitive readers in 1911, because, even after a century of heavy scholarly labor, there are large swathes of text that remain semantic wildernesses. The confident, even oracular, tone assumed by some of the most influential recent modern interpreters (notably Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom), is misleading. We still have work to do.

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