- The Spiritual Humanism of William Blake [Biography]
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William Blake

"The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind."
- The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Blake was born in London on 28 November, 1757. Following his seven-year apprenticeship to an engraver (Basir), Blake attended the Royal Academy. In 1784 he set up a printshop with James Parker at 27 Broad Street. For the rest of his life Blake eked out a living as an engraver and illustrator, aided by his wife.

Blake's most popular poems are found in his Songs of Innocence (1789), eloquent lyrics that make fresh, direct observations. In 1794, disillusioned with the possibility of human perfection, Blake issued Songs of Experience. Both series of poems take on deeper resonances when read in conjunction. Innocence and Experience, "the two contrary states of the human soul," are contrasted in such companion pieces as "The Lamb" and "The Tyger." Blake's subsequent poetry develops the implication that true innocence is impossible without experience, transformed by the creative force of the imagination.

Blake illustrated the Songs and other works with designs that demand an imaginative reading of the dialogue between word and picture. Blake most likely created his illustrations by writing the words and drawing the pictures for each poem on a copper plate, using some liquid impervious to acid, which when applied, left text and illustration in relief. Ink or a colour wash was then applied, and the printed picture was finished by hand in watercolours.

Blake has been called a pre-romantic because he rejected neo-classical literary style and modes of thought. His graphic art also defied 18th-century conventions. Always stressing imagination over reason, he felt that ideal forms should be constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions.

In his so-called Prophetic Books, a series of longer poems written from 1789 on, Blake created a complex personal mythology and invented his own symbolic characters to reflect his nonconformist radical social and political concerns. Poems such as The French Revolution (1791) condemn 18th-century political and social tyranny. Theological tyranny is the subject of The Book of Urizen (1794). Among the Prophetic Books is a prose work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793), which develops Blake's idea that "without Contraries is no progression."

Between about 1804 and 1820 Blake wrote and etched his great visionary epics Milton (1804-1808), Vala, or The Four Zoas (1797; rewritten after 1800), and Jerusalem (1804-1820). These works have neither traditional plot, nor characters; the rhetorical free-verse lines of these poems demand new modes of reading. They envision a new and higher kind of innocence, the human spirit triumphant over reason.

Blake died 12 August, 1827, of complications from gallstones. He is buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields.

contributed by Gifford, Katya


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