William Blake (1757–1827) was an English poet, engraver, artist, and printer whose works reflect his interests in Alchemy, Magic, and mysticism. William Blake created some of the most beautiful, unusual, and revolutionary art and literature of the early Romantic period. His iconoclastic positions on equality of the sexes and classes, the existence of magic and mysticism, and the right to unfettered sexual expression not only separated him from most of his peers but mark him as still quite controversial today. Blake relied on a mystical knowledge that transcended his era’s reliance on reason and Newtonian certainties. Through his visions of angels and the art they inspired, Blake viewed his world as a magical place.
Blake was born to James and Catherine Blake on November 28, 1757, the third of eight children. The Blakes were Dissenters (perhaps Baptists or Moravians), providing the young William with a basis for his mistrust of established religion. A quiet child, he spent much of his time sketching. He also claimed to see angels. William’s parents encouraged his artistic talent and apprenticed him to an engraver, Henry Basire. During his apprenticeship Blake copied art and funerary sculpture from many of London’s Gothic churches. He finished his apprenticeship in 1779, at which time Blake enrolled at the Royal Academy, but his dislike of the influence of such painters as Sir Joshua Reynolds caused Blake to go it alone. He struggled until 1782, when his friend John Flaxman became his patron, providing Blake with enough support to open his own engraving business and even to marry. Catherine Boucher was five years younger than Blake and illiterate. He taught her to read and write, to color his drawings and engravings, and to sew the bindings. They had no children.
Blake’s true vocation was not engraving, however, but writing poetry, which he illustrated. His first small book, Poetical Sketches (1783), was published through a conventional printer, but he self-published all his succeeding works. In 1788 Blake developed a process he called Illuminated Printing whereby he could print text and engravings simultaneously, and in 1789 he published Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The latter contains one of Blake’s most famous poems, “Tyger,” the first verse of which is familiar to nearly every student of English literature:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Blake also published The Book of Thel that same year.
With The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93), Blake began to defi ne and illustrate his own mythological world, one that reinforced his intense dislike and mistrust of the prevailing orthodoxies of his time: organized religion, divisions by class and gender, and stultification of social conventions. He and his wife Catherine joined the New Church of Emanuel Swedenborg in 1789. Blake was naturally drawn to Swedenborg’s gentler, mystical form of Christianity in which truth came from personal revelation, not priestly academics and arguments.
Swedenborg’s mystical revelations also influenced— and perhaps abetted—Blake’s desire for what the 20th century called free love and the right for adults to engage in sex unfettered by ideas of sin or social ostracism. Additionally, Swedenborg subscribed to the kabbalist belief that God was composed of dynamic sexual potency and that true, perfect union with the Divine was akin to orgasmic intercourse. However, for the true adept such intercourse was an exercise of the mind featuring concentration on the male and female characteristics of Hebrew letters and leading to intense arousal without release, thereby pushing the adept into a trance. (Swedenborg also reportedly enjoyed more conventional sex and had a mistress in London.)
Blake subscribed to the idea of sex as sacred communion, perhaps joining his friend Richard Cosway and other Moravians in ritual nudity and orgiastic ceremonies. Cosway, a painter as well as a magician and a mesmerist, combined his erotic pursuits with drug experimentation and the search for alchemical transmutation. Blake felt that intercourse should be pursued often and gladly as an example of divine union, and he often included sexual imagery—some more explicit than others—in his poetry and art. Blake illustrated that point in The Four Zoas (1795–1804), in which he drew a naked woman whose genitals resembled an altar or a chapel with a phallus superimposed like a statue. Blake’s libido reportedly created discord early in his marriage to Catherine; when they could not have children, Blake supposedly proposed bringing a concubine into their home, much as an Old Testament patriarch might have done. But he backed down when Catherine tearfully objected; from all accounts, their marriage was happy thereafter.
One other anecdote about Blake’s casual approach to nudity and sex: In 1790 Blake and Catherine moved from London to a house in Lambeth that was graced with a garden and summerhouse. One day when Blake’s friend and most important patron Thomas Butts, a government official, called, he found the couple sitting in the summerhouse, “freed from those troublesome disguises” that man had worn since the Fall, according to Butts. Blake heartily welcomed Butts into the garden, saying, “Come in! It’s only Adam and Eve, you know!” Before Butts’s arrival, Blake and Catherine had been reciting passages from Milton’s Paradise Lost.
His friendship with Richard Cosway illustrated many of Blake’s associations and pursuits. He was a Freemason, as were most of the English intellectuals of the late 18th century, and was an admirer of Count Cagliostro, the flamboyant con artist and Rosicrucian. He sought the alchemical transmutation of base metal into gold but came to believe that true transformation meant the release of the illuminated soul from the darkness of matter. He was a Neo-Platonist, a Paracelsian, and an astrologer. He saw visions of angels and imputed contradictory characteristics to them as sacred beings or indifferent bystanders. He studied mesmerism, magnetism, Demonic possession and exorcism, and the healing effects of electricity, even suggesting that electric therapy would cure Catherine’s rheumatism. Superstitious, he subscribed to the notion that his ill luck resulted from magical interference. He was a radical and a libertarian, once risking conviction as a traitor for angrily refusing to kowtow to a drunken English soldier during the wars with Napoleon. He chafed against authoritarianism of any kind.
Blake refined his mythology in several more books, such as Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793); The Book of Urizen (1794), in which he recasts the Book of Genesis; The Book of Los (1795); and his epic poem Jerusalem, which he wrote and illustrated from 1804 to 1820. He was profoundly affected by the American and French Revolutions and their democratic ideals and wrote The French Revolution in 1791 and America: A Prophecy in 1793. He illustrated the Old Testament of the Bible, most memorably the Book of Job, and wrote and illustrated Milton (1808). His was a vision of Everyman reborn in freedom and equality.
But his work sold poorly, and when he died in London on August 12, 1827, he was placed in an unmarked grave. Blake’s mystical explorations and defiance of authority only really became widely accepted in the latter part of the 20th century to generations that shared his vision of Christianity recast and the lure of a spiritual, philosophical, psychological, and sexual renaissance. Blake summed up the enlightenment of a single, beautiful revelation in the poem Songs 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.
Further Reading :
- ACKROYD, PETER. Blake: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
- “Blake’s Life and Times.” Available online. URL: www.newi. ac.uk/rdover/blake/blakes_1.htm. Downloaded July 8, 2004.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Angels. 2d ed. New York: Facts On File Inc., 2004.
- “The Resources of William Blake.” Originally published in Manas, September 6, 1978. Available online: URL: www. theosociety.org/pasadena/sunrise/28-78-9/ph-mana.htm. Downloaded July 8, 2004.
- Schuchard, Marsha Keith. “Why Mrs. Blake Cried: Swedenborg, Blake and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision.” Available online. URL: www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeII/ BlakeTextOnly.html. Downloaded July 8, 2004.