William Blake was and is perhaps the most influential English poet of the 18th century, some would argue, ever published. His work has become part of the British vernacular in the same way that Shakespeare's work is now common parlance.
Many know and quote Blake's poems without even knowing he authored them. Blake's poems were often dismissed and largely unknown in his lifetime, however a decade after his death in 1827, academics began to explore the nuances of his prose and began to realise his profound genius. Today, evidence of his influence can be seen in the works of greats from C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley to John Lennon and Jim Morrison, and his work is taught, admired and copied throughout the literary world.
Leaving formal education at the age of ten, William's schooling was finished at home with his mother and was heavily reliant on the teachings of the bible. Devoutly Christian yet anti-religious, Blake's parents taught him to question everything that was traditionally laid down as law and in doing so they helped him develop a very inquiring mind.
Although Blake undoubtable wrote from a very early age, his first actually published volume was, Poetical Sketches which was written between 1869 and 1777. The only print run of forty copies was made in 1783 and uncharacteristically contained no illustrations or etchings. The volume contains some 26 texts ranging from lyric prose and blank verse, to a ballad and prose poems. The volume is far from Blake's best work, in fact it resembles an exercise in discovery as William explores writing styles and imagery. However, some of the prose is included today in anthologies of Blake's works. Despite the fact that forty volumes were published, none was sold, and it seems that William gave them as gifts to friends. By 1957 only twenty-two of the original copies had been recovered, some with written corrections in them in the author's own hand. In 2011 an additional volume was discovered and authenticated. It subsequently sold for £72,000.
While it only exists in manuscript form and was never printed, An Island in the Moon (1785) is the first written evidence of Blake's social views and use of symbolism. The prose is widely considered a satire criticising the intellectual London elite of the day, however, there are some who believe it was actually the author poking fun at himself and his budding affluence. The manuscript is more remarkable for the fact that it also contains early workings of his later, much more famous poems, namely, Nurse's Song, Holy Thursday and The Little Boy Lost, all included in his Songs of Innocence (1789).
Blake is a romantic poet, although perhaps not as we know them. Rather than valuing the truly romantic virtue of realism, William believed that the most prized possession of an artist or poet was his imagination. This view is clear in his work as there simply is no other poet who showed such mastery with symbolism, allegory and imagery. Preferring to work in free verse, he developed a style for fourteen syllable measures with he perfected and is seen to be his signature. Ironically, William often stated that an artist who sought to create a style was missing the point of creativity altogether, but nonetheless, he himself had artistic preferences. While his elaborate use of imagery was largely misunderstood and rejected by critics in his lifetime, today it is the same symbolism that makes Blake's poetry so fascinating and earns him a place at the top table of literary greats.
Blake certainly thought outside of the box and as such he enjoyed the views of the radical thinkers of his day like Thomas Paine. Paine authored, The Rights of Man, a book which championed the suffrage of all men and called for redistribution of wealth through taxation. These views were revolutionary and were fuelled by the politics of the time. Blake's employer, Joseph Johnson associated with all manner of radicals of the day including Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote Original Stories from Real Life. While there is little evidence that William ever actually met Mary, he was commissioned to illustrate the book in 1791. All of these people coupled with the abundant social injustice that surrounded him were profound influences on Blake's subject matter. His imagery, however, was almost entirely of his imagination's making.
Most Famous Works
For any self-respecting Blakean, it is almost impossible to whittle down his vast and incomparable body of work to a few highlights. However, there are a number of works which have either caught the public's attention more than others or illuminate the author's use of symbolism and style to its greatest advantage. To that end, here are a few of his more beloved works. Firstly, and perhaps most seminal of all, is his first published and sold collection of illuminated poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Initially printed by Blake himself as a single collection, Songs of Innocence in 1789, this volume was later published as a complete work together in 1794. The reason this is such an important work is that it is the first volume printed using Blakes newly invented technique of etching, thus producing a beautifully illuminated manuscript. However, the poems themselves are fully of the artist's masterful imagery.
The first half of the collection describes the untainted world of childhood where everything is full of wonder and the soul is untouched by the world. There is gentle imagery of The Lamb and The Shepherd conjuring images of Christ and unconditional love and protection. Whereas in the second half there is imagery of what life is like after innocence is destroyed by the harsh realities of life and experience in Infant Sorrow, The Poison Tree, and the iconic, The Tyger. There is a cynicism directed most probably at the Church and State of the day, implying that the harsh realities of life leave no room for joy and peace. However, from a literary point of view this is a remarkable piece due to the symmetry of good and evil coupled with the chronological layout of the volume means that it is possibly the first published example of what was to become romantic poetry.
In a satisfyingly chronological order, the next important work would come for Blake in his, The Book of Thel (1789). This collection tells the story of Thel, a virgin shepherdess who asks a number of creatures if they can help her understand the meaning of her life. All of the answers come from beings and things that are satisfied with their lot and Thel subsequently dies with no understanding in fear of death. The reasons this particular work is so important is two-fold. Firstly, it was a clear allegory for the anguish of life and the eternal quest for truth through the doctrine of religion, and secondly, because it was the first prose written in fourteen syllable measures, a style that Blake would use in all his future works. This work is also thought perhaps to be an allegory for the loss of his still-born daughter who was lost at this time.
In terms of influence, perhaps Blakes most far-reaching work is, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Written in 1790 during an intensely political time shortly after the French revolution and it absolutely and eloquently expresses Blake's own views on social injustice and his dissatisfaction with the powers, both in church and state. The hero of the piece is the devil himself and it is a parody of the doctrine of religion and the rhetoric is espouses to keep the masses under control. Although it is considered a romantic poem, it is so much more, as it presents a combination of prose, poetry, satire and political call to revolution. It, in fact, transcends genre and sets its own standard. Religious scholars have studied and argued the finer point of this work for years and it has spawned many inspiring works beyond itself including, novels by Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis and compositions by Benjamin Britten.
Finally, any review of Blake's work must include reference to his Prophetic Books. These are the works which were intensely personal to Blake as they involved characters from his own mythology, which was largely fuelled by his legendary visions. Although dismissed by his contemporaries as nonsense, they are so highly acclaimed by modern scholars that Northrup Frye famously described them as, "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". Perhaps the most famous and certainly the longest, is actually one of Blake's final works, Milton: A Poem in Two Books, which took eight years to compose and get to print. The poem tells the story of John Milton, author of Paradise Lost who returns to earth from heaven to discuss with Blake how he might make amends for any of his wrong doings. The poem is, unsurprisingly divided into two books, and they are both full of symbolism for the wrongs of the church and how to rise above the falsehoods taught to unthinking people. As with all of Blake's prophetic books, the journey describes a falling away of what has been, even the body, and culminates in a rebirth or coming together of all that is; male and female, living and dead. It is also worth mentioning that in a preface at the beginning of the book, Blake writes the words to what is now better known as the hymn,
Jerusalem put to music in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry.
Blake's Literary Legacy
The influence of William Blake's work is as profound as it is far-reaching. While he knew little or no support for his poetry while he was living, today he is considered a titan of literature. Blake was not only lauded for his technical prowess, but for the fact that he blatantly and wilfully called out the state, church and industry of the time and held them to account for their wrongdoing. As a result, any artist with a social conscious who follow, found in him a springboard for their expression. All through the years following Williams death, there have been artists who have found their voices through his work, from Walt Whitman delving into the meaning of life, to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell declaring anguish throughout the Vietnam war. Blake's echoes do not stop at literature and songs, as more recently they can be found in the work of Martin Scorsese' motion pictures and, of course, the rise of feminism. Since his death, Blake has been called a visionary and a genius and in a BBC poll of the greatest Britons of all time he came 38th, second only in literature to William Shakespeare himself. He is and will always be one of the most profound and lyrical poets ever to grace the page and he will, no doubt, continue to inspire the literary world for millennia to come.