William Blake (1757-1827) was born in London to a very humble family, at a very young age he was sent as an apprentice to an engraver for whom he spent several months at Westminster copying the abbey’s monuments and where he acquired his taste for the marvellous medieval gothic architectural style of the abbey, along with the delicate decorations of its stainless glass windows that would have such an important role in the printing process that he later developed. He called it “Illuminating Printing” and applied it to his literary production, each one of his texts was engraved on copper plates that were then painted by hand and surrounded by delicate flowery decorations, similar to medieval manuscripts, providing not only embellishment but an imaginative interpretation as well; therefore each poem was in fact a unique work of art impossible to reproduce on a large scale and very expensive, consequently not easy to sell, which might explain why he was not a very well known poet during his time.
He is, considered today, as the best known and most representative Early Romantic artist – an exceptional engraver, a poet and a visionary. He dedicated his entire life to art and his beliefs, he was very sensitive to the social and political issues that were prevalent in the public debate of his time and they entirely permeated his literary production.
A FORERUNNER OF ROMANTICISM
Unlike Gray who never broke loose from the Augustan literary tradition, Blake was by all means an early Romantic, indeed he laid down the literary foundations of the Romantic Movement, developed his own philosophy and invented his personal myths while rejecting almost all ties with the past. He strenuously opposed reason and rationalism, the atheism of the Enlightenment; he was against the bleak acceptance of all conservative customs so typical of the middle class, he criticised the commercial system of his time that, if on the one side allowed a portion of society to prosper, on the other side, it exploited ever more the great majority of the population; he hated realistic literature which he condemned as mere imitation.
LITERARY THEMES AND FEATURES
A very religious man, however Blake was against the organised Church just as he was against any institution. Like Rousseau he believed in the freedom of man and that is why he rejoiced at the American and French Revolutions while he rebelled against any sort of oppression and slavery whether social, political or religious. He advocated democracy, sympathised with the poor and supported women’s rights. All these themes and features are well represented in his literary production.
But Blake is also regarded as a visionary because he had the special talent of “seeing” his thoughts through an “inner light” that endowed him with prophetic thinking which inspired him poetically. In his visionary “system” he exalted the spirit over the body, since he believed that instinct and intuition could lead to a deeper understanding than that conveyed by the physical senses. In other words imagination, often referred to by Blake himself as “the divine”, through the inner sight allowed, him as a poet, to go beyond the visible world, so the poet’s role became that of a “seer” and a prophet to warn others of the evils of a materialistic society to which he opposed the spiritual world as being the only true one, infinite and eternal.
LITERARY STYLE AND TECHNIQUES
William Blake was fully coherent with his beliefs and he masterfully transposed them all in his poetry which can be divided in two main groups. The first one consists of short poems usually written in ballad stanzas, but some are in octosyllabic couplets. This group of poems uses somewhat simple language, symbols and images, but are none the less of striking intensity. The poems of the second group are longer and more complex, at times their interpretation is very obscure, they are written in blank verse and Blake considered them his “prophetic works” in which he went to great pains to explain his philosophy. They have almost been disregarded by most readers who have mostly preferred the former ones. His art is also greatly influenced by his most favourite artists, Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Milton and the Dante of the Divine Comedy.
HIS MASTERPIECE: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (1789-1794)
Although he is the author of many writings, as the list below shows, he is best known for the collection of poems, considered by most as his masterpiece, and entitled Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (1789-1794). The Songs of Innocence are strongly linked to childhood, a symbol of pure innocence, as it is in Rousseau. These poems are quite peculiar because Blake’s poetic intensity is at its best, there’s no trace of an adult voice pretending a child-like language, on the contrary, the harmony and spontaneity of the poet are clear allowing him to convey his elementary message because truly felt since it is part of his deepest beliefs. There is serene joy in these verses stating that all of humanity’s wishes are innocent and discipline is seen as an instrument to achieve joy.
On the contrary, Songs of Experience are about the evil consequences that are produced if the power of imagination is destroyed by society’s prevailing idea of selfishness as it was most evident by the rise of capitalism and social injustices. The form and language remain simple as are the familiar images employed, yet they all express the poet’s idea that the social order of his time with its institutions, its hypocrisy, cruelty, poverty, a poor use of the intellect, the diffidence towards imagination are meant to frustrate man’s natural desires and oppress humanity resulting in corruption and evil.
It is not easy to give a precise date of publication to Blake’s poems since they were not published in a regular way, and some were later revised. His best production includes:
Poetical Sketches (1783), a collection echoing Collins, Gray and Ossianic poetry.
Revolutionary Prophetic Books including among others:
The Book of Thel (1789)
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)
The Book of Urizen (1794)
The Song of Los (1795)
The Four Zoas (1795-1804)
Jerusalem (1804-1820) (mythological books all more or less about the struggle between cold intellect and imagination, but made difficult by obscure symbols)
The French Revolution, a Prophecy (1791)
America, a Prophecy (1793)
The Visions of the Daughter of Alion (1793)
(All imbued with a spirit of revolt against authority and tyranny).
Songs of Innocence & Songs of Experience (from 1789 to 1794)
© L. R. Capuana
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