William Blake Essay

William Blake (1757–1827), one of the greatest poets in the English language, also ranks among the most original visual artists of the Romantic era. Born in London in 1757 into a working-class family with strong nonconformist religious beliefs, Blake first studied art as a boy, at the drawing academy of Henry Pars. He served a five-year apprenticeship with the commercial engraver James Basire before entering the Royal Academy Schools as an engraver at the age of twenty-two. This conventional training was tempered by private study of medieval and Renaissance art; as revealed by his early designs for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (Nature revolves, but Man advances), Blake sought to emulate the example of artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dürer in producing timeless, “Gothic” art, infused with Christian spirituality and created with poetic genius.

In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher (1762–1831), an impoverished grocer’s daughter who would become his studio assistant. Blake now threw his energies into developing his career as an engraver, opening a short-lived print shop with a fellow Basire apprentice (James Parker) in 1784, before striking out on his own (Job, a Historical Engraving). The great advance in Blake’s printmaking occurred in 1787, following the untimely death, probably from tuberculosis, of the artist’s beloved younger brother Robert, who had been living with William and Catherine since 1784. Blake reported discovering his wholly original method of “relief etching”—which creates a single, raised printing surface for both text and image—in a vision of Robert soon after his death. Relief etching allowed Blake to control all aspects of a book’s production: he composed the verses, designed the illustrations (preparing word and image almost simultaneously on the same copper printing plate), printed the plates, colored each sheet by hand (where necessary), and bound the pages together in covers. The resulting “illuminated books” were written in a range of forms—prophecies, emblems, pastoral verses, biblical satire, and children’s books—and addressed various timely subjects—poverty, child exploitation, racial inequality, tyranny, religious hypocrisy. Not surprisingly, these works rank among Blake’s most celebrated achievements (17.10.42; The Ancient of Days; Los, his Spectre; and Enitharmon before a Druid Temple).

Blake’s technical experiments of the 1790s culminated in a series of large color prints notable for their massive size and iconic designs. Unaccompanied by any text, they comprise his most ambitious work as a visual artist. No commission or public exhibition is recorded, and the intended program of the group remains uncertain: of the twelve known designs, many of the subjects—drawn from the Bible, Shakespeare (58.603), Milton, and other sources (Newton)—function as pairs.

Blake described his technique as “fresco.” It appears to be a form of monotype: using oil and tempera paints mixed with chalks, Blake painted the design onto a flat surface (a copperplate or piece of millboard), from which he pulled the prints simply by pressing a sheet of paper against the damp paint. He finished the designs in ink and watercolor, making each—rare—impression unique.

For Blake, the Bible was the greatest work of poetry ever written, and comprised the basis of true art, as opposed to the false, pagan ideal of classicism. He found a sympathetic patron in Thomas Butts (1757–1845), a prosperous Swedenborgian (a member of the Protestant sect founded by the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist, philosopher, theologian, and visionary Emanuel Swedenborg). Butts amassed a small fortune as a clerk in the office of the Muster Master General, and became Blake’s most loyal patron and closest friend. During the decade 1799–1809, Butts commissioned from Blake a series of illustrations to the Bible that included about fifty tempera paintings (51.30.1) and more than eighty watercolors (14.81.2). These focus on Old Testament prefigurations of Christ, the life of Christ, and apocalyptic subjects from the Book of Revelation, although the series’ exact program and its intended display remain unclear.

For the rest of his life, Blake continued to develop his art on an inward-looking, imaginative trajectory. Whereas notable contemporaries such as J. M. W. Turner and John Constable found the subjects of their art in the landscape, Blake sought his (primarily figural) subjects in journeys of the mind. (Indeed, he never traveled outside of Britain and, aside from a brief period on the southern coast of England—where he worked for the poet William Hayley in Felpham from 1800 to 1803—spent his entire life in London.) In addition to the Bible and his own writings, Blake drew on other texts—most notably, Dante (Beatrice addressing Dante from the Car)—and found a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration in his own fertile mind (The Ghost of a Flea).

Elizabeth E. Barker
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004

William Blake’s focus is primarily on inner states; the drama of the later books has been called a psychomachia, a drama of the divided psyche. In Blake’s world, humankind was once integrated but suffered a Fall when reason sought to dominate the other faculties. The disequilibrium of the psyche, its reduced perception, is the creator of the natural world as it is now known.


The notion of “contraries” as defined and developed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell provides a dialectical basis for the regeneration of this psyche. Contraries are to be understood as psychic or mental opposites that exist in a regenerated state, a redeemed paradisiacal state of unlimited energy and unbounded perception. Blake has in his total work depicted the progress to regeneration based on a conflict between contraries. Once contraries are accepted, energy is created, progress is inevitable, and reintegration occurs.

Blake’s paradisiacal man differs from fallen man only in that he is aware of his divinity. Paradisiacal man perceives the majesty of the imagination, the passions, the reason, and the senses. The imagination in the redeemed state is called Urthona, and after the Fall, Los. Urthona represents that fourfold, unbounded vision that is the normal attribute of the redeemed man. Such vision is not bound by the particulars it produces through contraction, nor is it bound by the unity it perceives when it expands. Blake, in the imagination’s true and saving role as poet, envisions the external world with a fourfold vision. Luvah, the passions or love, is represented after the Fall by Jesus, who puts on the robes of love to preserve some hint of divine love in the fallen world. Urizen, the zoa of reason, is the necessary boundary of energy, the wisdom that supplied form to the energies released by the other contraries. In the fallen world, he is the primary usurper of the dominion of other faculties. Tharmas, the zoa of the senses, has, in his paradisiacal form, unrestrained capacity to expand or contract his senses. In the fallen state, these senses remain but in an enervated condition. Sexuality, the sense of touch shared by two, is a means by which fallen man can regain his paradisiacal stature, but it is unfortunately a suppressed sense. The Blakean Fall that all the personified contraries suffer is a Fall from the divine state to the blind state, to the state in which none of their powers are free to express themselves beyond the severe limitations of excessive reason. Each of the contraries has his allotted place in the Fall; each sins either through commission or omission.

Contraries remain a concern of Blake from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to the later prophecies: The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem. The metaphysic of contraries, the theoretical doctrine, is never denied. The opposition of energy to reason, however, dramatized in the Orc cycle, is no longer Blake’s “main act” in the later books. From Night IX in The Four Zoas onward, Los, who embodies something akin to the Romantic concept of the sympathetic imagination, becomes the agent of regeneration. It is he who can project himself into the existence of his polar opposite and can accept the existence of that contrary in the act of self-annihilation and consequently forgive. Thus, the theory of contraries has not altered; any contrary can assume a selfhood in conflict with dialectic progression itself. Los preserves the dialectic while Orc maintains a hierarchy.

Innocence and experience

Blake’s concern with the earthly states of Innocence and Experience, with a fallen body and its contraries, has been associated with religious apocalypse. Blake’s apocalypse involves a progression from Innocence to Experience and an acceptance of the contraries in those states. An acceptance of contraries would lead to the destruction of false perception and disequilibrium and eventually to a complete resurrection of the fallen body. Humanity would again possess divine proportions through a progressive development of its own nature rather than through obedience to the supposed laws of an external deity. Through the faculty of imagination, Blake intuits the divinity of humankind, the falseness of society, and the falseness of laws based on societal behavior. He perceives the spiritual essence of humans, displaying therefore a spiritual rather than a rational brand of humanism. Blake’s assumption that the human is a fallen god makes his psychology more than a psychology; and it makes his humanism an apocalyptic humanism. His diagnosis of the divided psyche becomes a revelation, and his therapy, an apocalypse. Blake himself dons the mantle of a prophet.

Able to see God and his angels at the age of four, Blake gave precedence in his life to vision over the natural world. He would continue to see through and not with the eye, and what he saw he would draw in bold outline as ineluctable truth. Ultimately, even the heterodoxy of Swedenborgianism was an encroachment on the supremacy of his own contact with the spiritual world. Early inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the times, he continued throughout his life to advocate a psychic revolution within each person that would lead to regeneration.

Archetypal themes

Blake’s mission throughout his work is always apocalyptic, although he creates a political terrain in the Lambeth books (The [First] Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania, The Book of Los, and The Song of Los) and a psychological one in his later prophecies (The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem). His focus moves from a political-societal revolution of apocalyptic proportions to a psychic, perceptual regeneration of each individual person. It is the regenerated person who can perceive both a unity beyond all diversity and a diversity within that unity.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience demonstrates Blake’s concern for individual human life, in particular its course from innocence to experience. What are the destructive forces operating early on humans, on their childhoods, which ultimately imprison them and lead to “mind-forged manacles”? In Songs of Innocence, a glimpse of energies is uncircumscribed, of what humans were and again could be if they rightly freed themselves from a limited perception and repressed energies.

The later poems, The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem, are large-scale epics whose focus is a particularly Romantic one—epistemological and ontological transformation. Los, hero of the imagination, is not a hero who affirms the values of a culture, nor are his strengths and virtues uniformly admired by that culture. Like traditional epics, Blake’s epics begin in medias res, but because the natural world is usually seen unclearly, it is worthless to speak of its beginning, middle, or end. The reader who enters the world of Blake’s epics enters a psychic world, becomes a “mental traveller,” and in his purest states reaches heights traditionally reserved for deity in the Judeo-Christian tradition and deities in the epics of Homer and Vergil.

Blake’s work is not unconnected with the natural world, but he attempts to bracket out all but the irreducible elements of the archetypal, individual human life. Paradoxically, Blake’s work is characterized by less structural context than that of any poet of whom one could readily think; yet that work is such a dramatic reaction to the eighteenth century and such a dramatic revelation of the new Romanticism that it is unrivaled as an intense portrait of both sensibilities.

Humans imagining

In reaction to John Locke’s view that the perceiver is separated from the world because of his (or her) incapacity to do more than apprehend the secondary qualities of objects, Blake asserted the supremacy of individual perception. A human perceiving is a human imagining, an act that encompasses the totality of an individual’s energies and personality. What is perceived depends on the imaginative act. The world can be construed only imaginatively. Humanity, Blake held, can apprehend the infinity within only through imagination. The London of Blake’s poem of that name is a pitiable place because human imagination, human poetic genius, is repressed. London is at every moment available for imaginative transformation; so is every object in the natural world. In this view of imagination, Blake foreshadows Samuel Taylor Coleridge and especially Percy Bysshe Shelley and attacks the rationalism of the eighteenth century. The metaphysics of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and Locke were despicable because they elevated rationality and denied imagination, thus standing in the way of regeneration.

Besides disagreeing with the philosophy and psychology of his own day, Blake criticized traditional religious and aesthetic views. Humanity’s fallen perception created the world, not in seven days, but in what became a moment in time. Jesus was a man of revitalized perceptions, and he was fully conscious of his unlimited energies. Jesus was thus a supranatural man, one who had achieved the kind of regeneration that Blake felt it was in every person’s power to achieve. In art, Blake applauded the firm outline of Michelangelo and Raphael and despised the indeterminacy of Rubens and Titian. The artist who apprehended with strong imagination drew boldly because the truth was clearly perceived. Socially and politically, Blake, unlike Coleridge and William Wordsworth, remained unreconciled to the status quo. Blake’s revolutionary zeal, most pronounced in the Lambeth books, remained undiminished, urging him to portray error so that it could be cast out. Only Shelley equals Blake’s faith in poetic genius to transform the very nature of humanity and thus the very nature of the world humans perceive.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Songs of Innocence and of Experience shows “the two contrary states of the human soul.” The contraries cited in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are “Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate. . . .” However, because these songs are not sung outside either Innocence or Experience but from within those states, the contraries are not fully presented in their ideal forms. The songs are from corrupted states and portray disproportionate contraries. Theoretically, each contrary state acts as a corrective to the other, and contraries in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience are suggested either in the text of the poem or in the accompanying design.

The introduction song to Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a good example not only of Blake’s view of the role of Innocence and Experience in regeneration but also of the complexity of these seemingly simple songs. This song manages in its twenty lines to present a transition from absolute sensuous Innocence to a recognition of Experience and finally a transition to a higher state. The first stanza presents an almost complete picture of absolute carefree innocence. The adjective “wild” may imply a condemnation of an aspect of absolute Innocence. Because Blake believed that Experience brings an indispensable consciousness of one’s actions so that choice becomes possible, the essential flaw in the state of Innocence is that it does not provide the child with alternatives.

The second stanza of this lyric presents the image of the lamb, a symbol of Christ. The lamb, while creating the image of the Innocence of Christ, also exhibits the equally true image of Christ crucified. It is this symbol of Experience that brings tears to the child, and on a psychological level, the child is emerging from a “wild” unconscious realm to a realm of consciousness, of Experience.

The third stanza presents two interesting additions: The pipe is replaced by human song and the child weeps with joy. The pipe had first produced laughter and then tears, but it is the human voice that elicits the oxymoronic reaction of joyful weeping. It is only in the human form that the attributes of the two contrary states of Innocence and Experience can exist harmoniously. “Piping down the valley wild” had brought unconstrained laughter, while the figure of the Christ-lamb had brought a more tearful vision of Experience; yet in stanza 3, such contrary reactions exist, unresolved but coexistent, as do the contrary states that foster them.

The fourth stanza alludes to the loss of childhood through the disappearance of the child of the poem and implies that the elemental properties of Innocence remain after the departure of the physical state of childhood. By plucking the hollow reed, Blake, the piper and singer, reveals a move toward creation that is fully realized in the last stanza. From the vision of Experience of stanza 2, and the acceptance of the necessary contrary states of Innocence and Experience through their inherent qualities, laughter and tears, presented in stanza 3, Blake has reached the higher plateau of conscious selflessness described in stanzas four and five. Through the act of creation, the conscious selfless act, which intends to give joy to every child, the conscious selflessness of Blake’s paradisiacal reintegrated state is achieved.

The Book of Thel

In The Book of Thel, a young girl in Innocence named Thel is fearful of advancing to a state of Experience. Lily, Cloud, Clay, and Worm, symbols of innocence and experience, try to allay her fears. Experience may contain key contraries in extreme form; it may be the wrath of the father and the restraint of morality and the curtailment of vision, but it is a state that provides Thel her only opportunity of advancement, of completion and eventual salvation. Experience is a necessary step to the “peace and raptures holy” described by the Cloud. Thel, however, surveys the traditional misfortune of Experience—mortality. She finds no meaningful comfort in the Lily’s belief that from Experience, from death, one flourishes “in eternal vales.” Thel laments the consciousness that is hers when she takes a trial step into Experience. She finds morality, which represses sexual energy, unbearable. Thus, in spite of the eventual “peace and raptures holy” that Thel can proceed to from a state of Experience, her first look at that state proves too much for her. She flees Experience and consciousness to the vales of Har, the land of superannuated children, described in the poem Tiriel; it is a land of unfulfilled innocents who have refused to graduate into the world of Experience. A Songs of Innocence poem, “The Lamb,” and a Songs of Experience poem, “The Tyger,” depict the nature of perception in those states and the contraries that abide in each state. The poems may be viewed as “contrary poems.”

The questions of the child in “The Lamb” are not the reason’s questions but imagination’s—questions he can answer because he has perceived the identity of himself, the lamb, and God. The equation is formed thus: The lamb is Christ the lamb; the child is Christ as a child; and the lamb and child are therefore joined by their mutual identity with Christ. In Innocence, all life is perceived as one and holy. Because there are two contrary states of the human soul and “The Lamb” is a product of only one, Innocence, it is not possible to conclude that this poem depicts Blake’s paradisiacal state. The vines in the design are twisting about the sapling on both sides of the engraving, indicating in traditional symbolism the importance of going beyond childhood into Experience. If the child-speaker can see all life as one, can imaginatively perceive the whole, he cannot perceive the particularity, the diversity, which makes up that unity, which Experience’s reason so meticulously numbers and analyzes. Even as the adult speaker of “The Tyger” can see only a fragmented world that his imagination is too weak to unify, so the child-speaker cannot see the fragments that comprise the world.

The spontaneity and carefree abandon of the lamb in Innocence can in Experience no longer be perceived in the form of a lamb. The perceiver in Experience fears the energy of Innocence and therefore shapes it into a form that his reason has deemed frightening—that of a tiger. This form that the tiger of the poem “The Tyger” possesses is symmetrical, its symmetry lying in its perfect relationship with the energy it contains. It is a “fearful symmetry” only to the perceiver in Experience, who is riddled with the prejudices of Experience, prejudices regarding what is good and what is evil, what is rational and what is irrational, or wild. The moral hierarchy of Experience—good is good and evil is evil—does not permit the perceiver in Experience to perceive a Keatsian “fineness” in the tiger, a marvelous interrelationship of form and energy.

The reader goes back and forth in this poem from a vision of the energies of the unconscious mind to a perception of the boundaries of those energies. It is the mixture of energy and boundary that the speaker-perceiver finds disturbing. The tiger in the first stanza is seen as a burning figure in the night, perhaps symbolizing the burning vibrant passions repressed in the darkened areas of the mind. The tiger perceived by the speaker can live only in the dark because both reason and moral hierarchy have relegated it to that realm. The tiger is, in its energies, in its fire, too great for the conscious mind to accept; yet, like a recurrent nightmare, the tiger burns brightly and cannot be altogether denied. The tiger cannot be quietly integrated into the personality of the speaker-perceiver without doing severe damage to the structure of self carefully...

(The entire section is 7325 words.)

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