William Blake was born in London in 1757. His father, a hosier, soon recognized his son’s artistic talents and sent him to study at a drawing school when he was ten years old. At 14, William asked to be apprenticed to the engraver James Basire, under whose direction he further developed his innate skills. As a young man Blake worked as an engraver, illustrator, and drawing teacher, and met such artists as Henry Fuseli and John Flaxman, as well as Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose classicizing style he would later come to reject. Blake wrote poems during this time as well, and his first printed collection, an immature and rather derivative volume called Poetical Sketches, appeared in 1783. Songs of Innocence was published in 1789, followed by Songs of Experience in 1793 and a combined edition the next year bearing the title Songs of Innocence and Experience showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.
Blake’s political radicalism intensified during the years leading up to the French Revolution. He began a seven-book poem about the Revolution, in fact, but it was either destroyed or never completed, and only the first book survives. He disapproved of Enlightenment rationalism, of institutionalized religion, and of the tradition of marriage in its conventional legal and social form (though he was married himself). His unorthodox religious thinking owes a debt to the Swedish philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), whose influence is particularly evident in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In the 1790s and after, he shifted his poetic voice from the lyric to the prophetic mode, and wrote a series of long prophetic books, including Milton and Jerusalem. Linked together by an intricate mythology and symbolism of Blake’s own creation, these books propound a revolutionary new social, intellectual, and ethical order.
Blake published almost all of his works himself, by an original process in which the poems were etched by hand, along with illustrations and decorative images, onto copper plates. These plates were inked to make prints, and the prints were then colored in with paint. This expensive and labor-intensive production method resulted in a quite limited circulation of Blake’s poetry during his life. It has also posed a special set of challenges to scholars of Blake’s work, which has interested both literary critics and art historians. Most students of Blake find it necessary to consider his graphic art and his writing together; certainly he himself thought of them as inseparable. During his own lifetime, Blake was a pronounced failure, and he harbored a good deal of resentment and anxiety about the public’s apathy toward his work and about the financial straits in which he so regularly found himself. When his self-curated exhibition of his works met with financial failure in 1809, Blake sank into depression and withdrew into obscurity; he remained alienated for the rest of his life. His contemporaries saw him as something of an eccentric—as indeed he was. Suspended between the neoclassicism of the 18th century and the early phases of Romanticism, Blake belongs to no single poetic school or age. Only in the 20th century did wide audiences begin to acknowledge his profound originality and genius.