William Blake 1757-1827

Although not highly regarded either as a painter or poet by his contemporaries William Blake has the distinction of finding his place in the top ten of both English writers and English painters.

The reason he was disregarded is because he was very much ahead of his time in his views and his poetic style, and also because he was regarded as being somewhat mad, due to behaviour that would be thought of as only slightly eccentric today– for example his naturistic habit of walking about his garden naked and sunbathing there. He illustrated his poems and the poems of others like Chaucer, Dante and Milton but his exhibitions of these illustrations were sneered at, and one reviewer wrote that they were  ‘nonsense, unintelligibleness and egregious vanity,’ and another called Blake ‘an unfortunate lunatic.’

Regarding his views, he was vehemently opposed to organised religion and the way it constrained natural human activity, such as sex. In one of his poems, The Garden of Love, he specifically  accuses the church of that. During a walk in the garden of love he sees ‘priests in black gowns were walking their rounds/And binding with briars my joys and desires.’

Blake began training as an illustrator and engraver and worked at that as his day job. And in the meantime he wrote his poems.

The most important thing about Blake as a poet is his rejection of the highly sophisticated verse structures of the 18th century: he looked back to the more immediate, accessible poetry of Shakespeare, Jonson and the Jacobeans. He used monosyllabic words and packed more meaning and feeling into them that any of the poets of his time did, writing their expansive, sophisticated poems full of figures of speech. For example, two of Blake’s most famous collections: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience contain some of the finest and most profound of English poems, all done in the most simple language.

WillWilliam Blake portraitiam Blake portrait

William Blake portrait

Songs of Innocence reveals a world of childhood innocence, written in nursery rhyme rhythms but containing shadows of the world of experience to come – so The Lamb, often taught to children to recite as a nursery rhyme has its counterpart in the Songs of Experience in The Tyger (Tyger tiger burning bright/In the forests of the night…) The Tyger is also expressed as a nursery rhyme and learnt by children but it is at the opposite end of experience.

The poems in The Songs of Experience pack a huge punch. Take a look at The Sick Rose. It has only thirty-three words, only five of which have two syllables. And yet the poem goes deep into the world of relationships and social attitudes:

‘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 idea of love destroying someone’s life is at the centre of the poem. The love is forced to be dark and secret because social attitudes, conditioned by the Church, are opposed to sexual love. The language is highly sexual – crimson joy, bed of crimson joy, worm etc – and what should be something joyful becomes a disease instead.

Decades before Charles Dickens’ great  novels that depicted the suffering of the poor Blake was writing poems about the terrible phenomena of chimneysweeps, beggars and the injustice of social inequality. In wandering through the streets of London he sees these horrors:

‘How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appals
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.’

William Blake’s most famous poem Jerusalem (“And did those feet in ancient times”), is still regularly sung as an anthem at gatherings of numerous societies, and at the end of the world’s top music festival, the Proms in London, by a well known singer.

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