|William Blake by Thomas Phillips, Public Domain|
How could it happen that one of our best-loved existentialist poets should die unrecognised for his great genius - and then be declared insane?
William Blake, (1757-1827) was a gifted graphic artist and a literary genius who produced visionary poetry of remarkable depth and originality. Third son of a hosier, he never went to school but was apprenticed to James Basire, who was an engraver to the Society of Antiquaries.
Blake became a Royal Academy student and In 1779, the bookseller J. Johnson employed him. A year later, Blake met sculptor, John Flaxman, a man who was to become a major influence in his life introducing him to mysticism and to several other intellectuals of that time. His marriage in 1782 to Catherine Boucher, a market-gardener's daughter, was a lasting relationship, although childless.
Flaxman helped Blake financially in the publication of his Poetical Sketches in 1783. More help was given by a Mrs. Mathew to set up a print shop at 27 Broad Street in London. By 1789, Blake had published his Songs of Innocence, as well as The Book of Thel. According to The Oxford Companion to English Literature: "both works... manifest the early phases of his highly distinctive mystic vision, and... he embarks on the evolution of his personal mythology." The Book of Thel is about sexual experience and sexual initiation and introduces a parallel world. Blake was railing against the hypocrisy and restraint of the time.
William Blake the Existentialist versus the Enlightenment
Blake was much against the Enlightenment - indeed he felt it a necessity to try to escape its constrictions. He considered it a materialist philosophy with its Puritanical interpretation of Christianity. Unsurprisingly, his own philosophy was directly opposed to that of the essentialist Plato. For Plato, reason controls energy and desire. Blake, however, favours desire and energy over reason. As stated in The Oxford Companion: "Blake turns conventional morality on its head claiming that man does not consist of the duality of Soul = Reason and Body = Evil, but that "Man has no Body distinct from his Soul... Energy is the only life, and is from the Body... Energy is Eternal Delight."
William Blake the Visionary who Talks with Angels
Blake believes himself to be a true visionary, claiming to have seen angels and prophets. Yet his view of Jesus is uncompromisingly rebellious, openly expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, his first actual Romantic work. This work, published 1790-3, is considered to be his principle work of prose with its paradoxical aphorisms. Among other works, his Songs of Experience followed in 1794, including the well-known "Tyger! Tyger" burning bright" and "Oh Rose thou are sick."
The imagination, Blake believes, aims at a higher reality. An extract from "William Blake," Romanticism, An Anthology claims: "For Blake the imagination is both creative and perceptive, and instrumental in the fulfilment of his revolutionary aims."
A little help from friends combined with his undeniable great genius should have brought William Blake fame and fortune. It did not. The tragedy of William Blake is that his contribution to English literature remained virtually unrecognised.
Throughout his life, Blake's work only received a limited circulation, and this was partly due to the fact that his books were all hand-printed and hand-illuminated. Charles Lambis said to have remarked to Bernard Barton in 1824 that Blake was living in poverty and obscurity.
Interest in the poet was rekindled in the late nineteenth century after a biography by Alexander Gilchrist in 1863.
Blake, William, Selected Poems: Blake, Penguins Classics, 2006.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Edited by Margaret Drabble, Multiple, Unspecified Contributors, Book Club Associates by arrangement with Oxford University Press, 1985.
Romanticsim, An Anthology, Edited by Duncan Wu, Mutliple, Unspecified Contributors, Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1994.