William Blake was and is perhaps the most influential English poet of the 18th century, some would argue, ever published.
His work has become part of the British vernacular in the same way that Shakespeare's work is now common parlance.
Many know and quote Blake's poems without even knowing he authored them. Blake's poems were often dismissed and largely unknown in his lifetime, however a decade after his death in 1827, academics began to explore the nuances of his prose and began to realise his profound genius.
Today, evidence of his influence can be seen in the works of greats from C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley to John Lennon and Jim Morrison, and his work is taught, admired and copied throughout the literary world.
Leaving formal education at the age of ten, William's schooling was finished at home with his mother and was heavily reliant on the teachings of the bible. Devoutly Christian yet anti-religious, Blake's parents taught him to question everything that was traditionally laid down as law and in doing so they helped him develop a very inquiring mind.
Although Blake undoubtable wrote from a very early age, his first actually published volume was, Poetical Sketches which was written between 1869 and 1777. The only print run of forty copies was made in 1783 and uncharacteristically contained no illustrations or etchings. The volume contains some 26 texts ranging from lyric prose and blank verse, to a ballad and prose poems.
The volume is far from Blake's best work, in fact it resembles an exercise in discovery as William explores writing styles and imagery. However, some of the prose is included today in anthologies of Blake's works. Despite the fact that forty volumes were published, none was sold, and it seems that William gave them as gifts to friends.
By 1957 only twenty-two of the original copies had been recovered, some with written corrections in them in the author's own hand. In 2011 an additional volume was discovered and authenticated. It subsequently sold for £72,000.
While it only exists in manuscript form and was never printed, An Island in the Moon (1785) is the first written evidence of Blake's social views and use of symbolism. The prose is widely considered a satire criticising the intellectual London elite of the day, however, there are some who believe it was actually the author poking fun at himself and his budding affluence.
The manuscript is more remarkable for the fact that it also contains early workings of his later, much more famous poems, namely, Nurse's Song, Holy Thursday and The Little Boy Lost, all included in his Songs of Innocence (1789).
A Selection of Famous William Blake Poems
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
Little Lamb who made thee Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice! Little Lamb who made thee Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I'll tell thee, Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name. Little Lamb God bless thee. Little Lamb God bless thee.
Jerusalem (And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time)
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
The Chimney Sweeper
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved, so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
A Poison Tree
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
The Sick Rose
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
The School Boy
I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!
But to go to school in a summer morn,
O! It drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.
Ah! then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning's bower,
Worn through with dreary shower.
How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!
O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care's dismay,
How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?
Auguries of Innocence
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
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr' all its regions
A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear
A Skylark wounded in the wing
A Cherubim does cease to sing
The Game C*ck clipd & armd for fight
Does the Rising Sun affright
Every Wolfs & Lions howl
Raises from Hell a Human Soul
The wild deer, wandring here & there
Keeps the Human Soul from Care
The Lamb misusd breeds Public Strife
And yet forgives the Butchers knife
The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that wont Believe
The Owl that calls upon the Night
Speaks the Unbelievers fright
He who shall hurt the little Wren
Shall never be belovd by Men
He who the Ox to wrath has movd
Shall never be by Woman lovd
The wanton Boy that kills the Fly
Shall feel the Spiders enmity
He who torments the Chafers Sprite
Weaves a Bower in endless Night
The Catterpiller on the Leaf
Repeats to thee thy Mothers grief
Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly
For the Last Judgment draweth nigh
He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar
The Beggars Dog & Widows Cat
Feed them & thou wilt grow fat
The Gnat that sings his Summers Song
Poison gets from Slanders tongue
The poison of the Snake & Newt
Is the sweat of Envys Foot
The poison of the Honey Bee
Is the Artists Jealousy
The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags
Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags
A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
The Babe is more than swadling Bands
Throughout all these Human Lands
Tools were made & Born were hands
Every Farmer Understands
Every Tear from Every Eye
Becomes a Babe in Eternity
This is caught by Females bright
And returnd to its own delight
The Bleat the Bark Bellow & Roar
Are Waves that Beat on Heavens Shore
The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath
Writes Revenge in realms of Death
The Beggars Rags fluttering in Air
Does to Rags the Heavens tear
The Soldier armd with Sword & Gun
Palsied strikes the Summers Sun
The poor Mans Farthing is worth more
Than all the Gold on Africs Shore
One Mite wrung from the Labrers hands
Shall buy & sell the Misers Lands
Or if protected from on high
Does that whole Nation sell & buy
He who mocks the Infants Faith
Shall be mockd in Age & Death
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall neer get out
He who respects the Infants faith
Triumphs over Hell & Death
The Childs Toys & the Old Mans Reasons
Are the Fruits of the Two seasons
The Questioner who sits so sly
Shall never know how to Reply
He who replies to words of Doubt
Doth put the Light of Knowledge out
The Strongest Poison ever known
Came from Caesars Laurel Crown
Nought can Deform the Human Race
Like to the Armours iron brace
When Gold & Gems adorn the Plow
To peaceful Arts shall Envy Bow
A Riddle or the Crickets Cry
Is to Doubt a fit Reply
The Emmets Inch & Eagles Mile
Make Lame Philosophy to smile
He who Doubts from what he sees
Will neer Believe do what you Please
If the Sun & Moon should Doubt
Theyd immediately Go out
To be in a Passion you Good may Do
But no Good if a Passion is in you
The Wh*re & Gambler by the State
Licencd build that Nations Fate
The Harlots cry from Street to Street
Shall weave Old Englands winding Sheet
The Winners Shout the Losers Curse
Dance before dead Englands Hearse
Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day
The Garden of Love
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
Blake is a romantic poet, although perhaps not as we know them. Rather than valuing the truly romantic virtue of realism, William believed that the most prized possession of an artist or poet was his imagination. This view is clear in his work as there simply is no other poet who showed such mastery with symbolism, allegory and imagery. Preferring to work in free verse, he developed a style for fourteen syllable measures with he perfected and is seen to be his signature.
Ironically, William often stated that an artist who sought to create a style was missing the point of creativity altogether, but nonetheless, he himself had artistic preferences. While his elaborate use of imagery was largely misunderstood and rejected by critics in his lifetime, today it is the same symbolism that makes Blake's poetry so fascinating and earns him a place at the top table of literary greats.
Blake certainly thought outside of the box and as such he enjoyed the views of the radical thinkers of his day like Thomas Paine. Paine authored, The Rights of Man, a book which championed the suffrage of all men and called for redistribution of wealth through taxation. These views were revolutionary and were fuelled by the politics of the time. Blake's employer, Joseph Johnson associated with all manner of radicals of the day including Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote Original Stories from Real Life.
While there is little evidence that William ever actually met Mary, he was commissioned to illustrate the book in 1791. All of these people coupled with the abundant social injustice that surrounded him were profound influences on Blake's subject matter. His imagery, however, was almost entirely of his imagination's making.
Most Famous Works
For any self-respecting Blakean, it is almost impossible to whittle down his vast and incomparable body of work to a few highlights. However, there are a number of works which have either caught the public's attention more than others or illuminate the author's use of symbolism and style to its greatest advantage. To that end, here are a few of his more beloved works. Firstly, and perhaps most seminal of all, is his first published and sold collection of illuminated poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.
Initially printed by Blake himself as a single collection, Songs of Innocence in 1789, this volume was later published as a complete work together in 1794. The reason this is such an important work is that it is the first volume printed using Blakes newly invented technique of etching, thus producing a beautifully illuminated manuscript. However, the poems themselves are fully of the artist's masterful imagery.
The first half of the collection describes the untainted world of childhood where everything is full of wonder and the soul is untouched by the world. There is gentle imagery of The Lamb and The Shepherd conjuring images of Christ and unconditional love and protection. Whereas in the second half there is imagery of what life is like after innocence is destroyed by the harsh realities of life and experience in Infant Sorrow, The Poison Tree, and the iconic, The Tyger.
There is a cynicism directed most probably at the Church and State of the day, implying that the harsh realities of life leave no room for joy and peace. However, from a literary point of view this is a remarkable piece due to the symmetry of good and evil coupled with the chronological layout of the volume means that it is possibly the first published example of what was to become romantic poetry.
In a satisfyingly chronological order, the next important work would come for Blake in his, The Book of Thel (1789). This collection tells the story of Thel, a virgin shepherdess who asks a number of creatures if they can help her understand the meaning of her life. All of the answers come from beings and things that are satisfied with their lot and Thel subsequently dies with no understanding in fear of death.
The reasons this particular work is so important is two-fold. Firstly, it was a clear allegory for the anguish of life and the eternal quest for truth through the doctrine of religion, and secondly, because it was the first prose written in fourteen syllable measures, a style that Blake would use in all his future works. This work is also thought perhaps to be an allegory for the loss of his still-born daughter who was lost at this time.
In terms of influence, perhaps Blakes most far-reaching work is, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Written in 1790 during an intensely political time shortly after the French revolution and it absolutely and eloquently expresses Blake's own views on social injustice and his dissatisfaction with the powers, both in church and state. The hero of the piece is the devil himself and it is a parody of the doctrine of religion and the rhetoric is espouses to keep the masses under control.
Although it is considered a romantic poem, it is so much more, as it presents a combination of prose, poetry, satire and political call to revolution. It, in fact, transcends genre and sets its own standard. Religious scholars have studied and argued the finer point of this work for years and it has spawned many inspiring works beyond itself including, novels by Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis and compositions by Benjamin Britten.
Finally, any review of Blake's work must include reference to his Prophetic Books. These are the works which were intensely personal to Blake as they involved characters from his own mythology, which was largely fuelled by his legendary visions. Although dismissed by his contemporaries as nonsense, they are so highly acclaimed by modern scholars that Northrup Frye famously described them as, "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". Perhaps the most famous and certainly the longest, is actually one of Blake's final works, Milton: A Poem in Two Books, which took eight years to compose and get to print.
The poem tells the story of John Milton, author of Paradise Lost who returns to earth from heaven to discuss with Blake how he might make amends for any of his wrong doings. The poem is, unsurprisingly divided into two books, and they are both full of symbolism for the wrongs of the church and how to rise above the falsehoods taught to unthinking people. As with all of Blake's prophetic books, the journey describes a falling away of what has been, even the body, and culminates in a rebirth or coming together of all that is; male and female, living and dead. It is also worth mentioning that in a preface at the beginning of the book, Blake writes the words to what is now better known as the hymn, Jerusalem put to music in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry.
Blake's Literary Legacy
The influence of William Blake's work is as profound as it is far-reaching. While he knew little or no support for his poetry while he was living, today he is considered a titan of literature. Blake was not only lauded for his technical prowess, but for the fact that he blatantly and wilfully called out the state, church and industry of the time and held them to account for their wrongdoing. As a result, any artist with a social conscious who follow, found in him a springboard for their expression. All through the years following Williams death, there have been artists who have found their voices through his work, from Walt Whitman delving into the meaning of life, to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell declaring anguish throughout the Vietnam war.
Blake's echoes do not stop at literature and songs, as more recently they can be found in the work of Martin Scorsese' motion pictures and, of course, the rise of feminism. Since his death, Blake has been called a visionary and a genius and in a BBC poll of the greatest Britons of all time he came 38th, second only in literature to William Shakespeare himself. He is and will always be one of the most profound and lyrical poets ever to grace the page and he will, no doubt, continue to inspire the literary world for millennia to come.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.