“William Blake was a poet, illustrator, engraver, draughtsman, writer and painter whose efforts, due to their idiosyncratic and unorthodox nature, were largely unappreciated in his own lifetime. The knowledge Blake gained from working as an engraver enabled him to produce his own work in which he surrounded one of his poems with his own hand-coloured illustration. A powerful imagination is evident in every aspect of Blake’s work. Among his most important works are the Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825), and the hundred or so watercolours to Dante’s Divine Comedy…A deeply mystical man, Blake claimed he had visionary experiences that prompted him to invent his own belief system in which the creator of the universe, whom he renamed Urizen, wrought vengeance on mankind through Jesus, renamed Orc. His social and political conscience railed against the prevailing academic painting of the eighteenth century. He saw it as representing all that he came to despise about the rational, materialistic age in which he found himself.”
Visions Of Eternity
Visions were commonplaces to Blake, and his life and works were intensely spiritual. His friend the journalist Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that when Blake was four years old he saw Gods head appear in a window. While still a child he also saw the Prophet Ezekiel under a tree in the fields and had a vision, according to his first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist (182861), of a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars. Robinson reported in his diary that Blake spoke of visions in the ordinary unemphatic tone in which we speak of trivial matters. Of the faculty of Vision he spoke as One he had had from early infancyHe thinks all men partake of itbut it is lost by not being cultiv[ate]d. In his essay A Vision of the Last Judgment, Blake wrote:
I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises, do you not See a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea? O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty!
Blake wrote to his patron William Hayley in 1802, I am under the direction of Messengers from Heaven Daily & Nightly. These visions were the source of many of his poems and drawings. As he wrote in his Auguries of Innocence, his purpose was
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
He was, he wrote in 1804, really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take a pencil or graver into my hand. Blakes wife once said to his young friend Seymour Kirkup, I have very little of Mr. Blakes company; he is always in Paradise.
Some of this stress on visions may have been fostered by his mother, who, with her first husband, had become a Moravian when the group was in its most intensely emotional and visionary phase. In her letter of 1750 applying to join the Moravians, she wrote that last Friday at the love feast Our Savour [sic] was pleased to make me Suck his wounds.
Blake was christened, married, and buried by the rites of the Church of England, but his creed was likely to outrage the orthodox. In A Vision of the Last Judgment he wrote that the Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being, whom Blake called variously Nobodaddy and Urizen, and in his emblem book For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, he addressed Satan as The Accuser who is The God of This World. To Robinson He warmly declared that all he knew is in the Bible. But he understands the Bible in its spiritual sense. Blakes religious singularity is demonstrated in his poem The Everlasting Gospel (c. 1818):
The Vision of Christ that thou dost See
Is my Visions Greatest Enemy
Both read the Bible day & night
But thou readst black where I read White.
But some of the orthodox not only tolerated but also encouraged Blake. Two of his most important patrons, the Rev. A.S. Mathew and the Rev. Joseph Thomas, were clergymen of the Church of England.
Blake was a religious seeker but not a joiner. He was profoundly influenced by some of the ideas of Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, and in April 1789 he attended the general conference of the New Church (which had been recently founded by followers of Swedenborg) in London. Blakes poem The Divine Image (from Songs of Innocence) is implicitly Swedenborgian, and he said that he based his design called The Spiritual Preceptor (1809) on the theologians book True Christian Religion. He soon decided, however, that Swedenborg was a Spiritual Predestinarian, as he wrote in his copy of Swedenborgs Wisdom of Angels Concerning the Divine Providence (1790), and that the New Church was as subject to Priestcraft as the Church of England.
Blake loved the world of the spirit and abominated institutionalized religion, especially when it was allied with government; he wrote in his annotations to Bishop Watsons Apology for the Bible (1797), all [ ] codes given under pretence [sic] of divine command were what Christ pronounced them, The Abomination that maketh desolate, i.e. State Religion and later in the same text, The Beast & the Whore rule without control. According to his longtime friend John Thomas Smith, He did not for the last forty years attend any place of Divine worship. For Blake, true worship was private communion with the spirit.
Education As Artist And Engraver
From childhood Blake wanted to be an artist, at the time an unusual aspiration for someone from a family of small businessmen and Nonconformists (dissenting Protestants). His father indulged him by sending him to Henry Parss Drawing School in the Strand, London (176772). The boy hoped to be apprenticed to some artist of the newly formed and flourishing English school of painting, but the fees proved to be more than the parental pocket could withstand. Instead he went with his father in 1772 to interview the successful and fashionable engraver William Wynne Ryland. Rylands fee, perhaps ?100, was both more attainable than that of fashionable painters and still, for the Blakes, very high; furthermore the boy interposed an unexpected objection: Father, I do not like the mans face; it looks as if he will live to be hanged. Eleven years later, Ryland was indeed hangedfor forgeryone of the last criminals to suffer on the infamous gallows known as Tyburn Tree.
The young Blake was ultimately apprenticed for 50 guineas to James Basire (17301802), a highly responsible and conservative line engraver who specialized in prints depicting architecture. For seven years (177279) Blake lived with Basires family on Great Queen Street, near Lincolns Inn Fields, London. There he learned to polish the copperplates, to sharpen the gravers, to grind the ink, to reduce the images to the size of the copper, to prepare the plates for etching with acid, and eventually to push the sharp graver through the copper, with the light filtered through gauze so that the glare reflected from the brilliantly polished copper would not dazzle him. He became so proficient in all aspects of his craft that Basire trusted him to go by himself to Westminster Abbey to copy the marvelous medieval monuments there for one of the greatest illustrated English books of the last quarter of the 18th century, the antiquarian Richard Goughs Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain (vol. 1, 1786).