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William Blake

It is said of William Blake that he was a madman and also that he was a genius. To me he was a genius, and the power of his imagination is breath-taking. What is most striking about William Blake’s work is the passion that it instils. You cannot simply like Blake’s work; if you respond to his vision then you love it with a passion that seems to come from the man himself. His ability to encapsulate ideas that are felt rather than thought is amazing.

There are many websites that have analysis and critical appreciation of Blake’s work such as and

William Blake had a unique view of the world, and like other Romantic poets with whom he is often classified, he believed in the power of the imagination to create. He saw nature uniquely also. He said, ‘the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicules and deformity…and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself’. (Letter 23RD August 1799). It is his imagination expressed through extraordinary imagery that is so compelling. His nature is not always cosy and pleasant: who else would use the image of something as beautiful as a rose to explore ideas of corruption as Blake did in ‘The Sick Rose’. Even the most simple of his poems makes the reader, like Blake, reflect on the world and man’s place in it.

Although much of his poetry is long and prophetic and could therefore be seen as ‘difficult’, he is also a genius of what we would now call the ‘sound bite’. Works such as Auguries of Innocence and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell consist of short statements of profound meaning. Blake was indeed able ‘to see a world in a grain of sand’. His work was also time consuming and therefore costly, due to the way his works were engraved and coloured. This expense limited the market for his work so that he never gained the reputation or income his work deserved.

His spiritual life had many influences; from a child he saw visions and his belief in angels transferred to his art work and his poetry. Blake disliked authority, which he saw as corrupt and this view extended to organised religion. Although Blake was interested in the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg and was influenced by him to some degree, he came to ridicule Swedenborg’s ideas. Although Blake disliked organised religion he was still a spiritual man and interested in the connection between man and God, which he explored through much of his poetry such as The Book of Urizen, The Song of Los and The Four Zoas, and Songs of Innocence.

As a man who found authority and the institutions of government corrupt, Blake, like many of his contemporaries, was supportive initially of the American and French Revolutions. From his works it seems logical that Blake was a man who wanted to see change in the work but he was not a revolutionary. He was a thinker rather than a man of action. He was of the view that ‘prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion’. His poem ‘London’ expresses the corrupt nature of several institutions, including marriage.

Like many men of genius, Blake was ahead of his time in taste and thinking and remained unappreciated in his life time. He lived most of his life in poverty and even some of his friends thought of him as mad. However, his work endures and is as relevant now as it was in his time – the difference is that his art and his poetry are now appreciated. Blake has a place in the world of art through his engravings and his paintings; they are skilfully executed and powerfully imaginative. He also is a poet if considerable skill. His rhyme schemes are simple generally, often using alternate rhyme or rhyming couplets and he uses plain language on the whole, but the combinations of words and the images engendered are the work of genius: he has the ability to say so much with so few words.

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Born and grew up in 28 Broad Street, London

Blake lived in London for most of his life, and it was a strong influence on his work.

Sent to Pars’ Drawing School

This was not a conventional school and Blake did not receive a formal education, but read literature and philosophy of his own choice. He formed his own ideas and these were reflected in his drawings and poetry, which were always different to those of his contemporaries. He was always a man of vision. As a child, Blake reported seeing angels. These visions occurred throughout his life and both his poetry and his art can be described as visionary – powered by both his imagination and the visions he experienced.

Apprenticed to James Basire, engraver to the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society.

It was here that Blake learned copy engraving. Through his apprenticeship, Blake developed his own unique style and subject matter for later engravings. The engravings that accompany his poems, such as those with Songs of Innocence and Experience help the reader to interpret the meanings embedded in the poems. He was interested in mythology and British history, and these too are reflected in his art.

Blake completed his apprenticeship and became a journeyman, working for various book publishers.

Blake was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts' Schools of Design to study painting. Blake’s refusal to compromise and his self-belief made him a difficult pupil.

The influence of the Gordon Riots

These riots spread throughout London and Blake was swept along by the cause as they stormed Newgate Prison. Blake’s poem London is a profound and savage attack on the corrupt nature of the city.

Blake married Catherine Boucher

They met in Battersea, which was then a village outside of London. They lived at 23 Green Street in London. Blake’s marriage to Catherine was one of love and mutual support, he taught her to read and write as well as to draw and paint. She devoted herself to him. Catherine worked with Blake on producing Songs of Innocence.

Blake became a freelance engraver

Most of his work was for Joseph Johnson, a radical book seller. Johnson published work by Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley) and William Godwin. Johnson, who had been involved in establishing London's first Unitarian Chapel in 1774, also influenced Blake's religious views.

Poetical Sketches, Blake's first book, was published

This was printed with the help of Blake’s friends. Although not nearly as popular now as his Songs, it contains some delightful poetry in Blake’s simple rhyme scheme.

Blake opened a print shop with James Parker at 27 Broad Street, London

The business was not successful and in 1786 Blake resumed his work for Joseph Johnson.

Published An Island in the Moon

An Island in the Moon is the name given to an untitled, unfinished prose satire published by Blake. It demonstrates Blake's increasing dissatisfaction with convention and his developed interest in prophetic modes of expression. Perhaps here he was laying the foundations for later, epic works.

Robert Blake died from tuberculosis

Robert was William Blake’s most beloved brother. After Robert’s death, Blake continued to see Robert’s spirit.

Published All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion

These are complex accounts of Blake’s thinking on such things as reason, energy and desire.

Read these texts online


William and Catherine attended the first service of First General Conference of the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in East London

Blake had always being an independent thinker and although he was influenced by Swedenborg, Blake did not remain a supporter of Swedenborg views.

Published Tiriel and The Book of Thel

These were shorter books of prophecy, part of Blake’s development of myth-like characters and events.

Read more about The Book of Thel

1789 and 1894

Published Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

In these poems Blake explores the contrary states of the human soul.

More images from the Songs of Innocence and Experience


The influence of Swedenborgianism

Emmanuel Swedenborg was a philosopher and mystical thinker – it is easy to see why Blake was attracted to his ideas.

The New Church established by Emmanuel Swedenborg


Published The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

These poems sparked the beginnings of Blake’s philosophy and creation of an imagined universe, which he developed in later works. This collection is also a satire on the teachings of Swedenborg.

William and Catherine moved to Lambeth and published a range of work.

During this year, Blake was working on several pieces of new work, including Continental prophecies, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America a Prophecy, Europe a Prophecy, The First Book of Urizen, The Book of Los The Song of Losand The Book of Ahania. These became longer works of prophecy and the start of of Blake’s mythology. The collections gave Blake’s ‘creation’ story and his view of the nature of God.

Published The Four Zoas

This was a long prophesy on an epic scale, and was left unfinished.

Read more about The Four Zoas


Blake moved to Felpham in West Sussex

Blake was commissioned by William Hayley to decorate Hayley's library with eighteen heads of poets and to make the engravings for a Life of Cowper. It was here that Blake began work on his epic poems, Milton and Jerusalem. These poems are long and complex, containing a mixture of prophecy, social criticism and biblical legend. Some lines of verse from the preface to Milton have become Blake’s most influential work, although not always immediately associated with him. It is now known as Jerusalem and became a hymn and an English anthem after being set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916.

Blake was accused of treason after a confrontation with a soldier in his garden.

Blake was cleared of the charges but his antipathy towards authority was further entrenched by this incident.

Read more about this confrontation


Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

Blake’s work received no notice and certainly no acclaim. His work is now held in several museums and art galleries.

See some of his work here


William Blake died and was buried in the Bunhill Fields, now in the London Borough of Islington.

Blake’s grave was unmarked but other distinguished writers and thinkers such as John Bunyan and Isaac Watts were also buried there, so he is in august company.

Find his grave


The publication of Auguries of Innocence in the companion volume to Alexander Gilchrist's biography of William Blake.

An augury is a sign or omen. The poem is 132 lines and contains paradoxes which juxtaposes innocence with evil. These thoughts or statements seem to be the essence of Blake’s view of his world and what is right and what is wrong with it. The best of these is '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’ – beautiful images which are almost beyond explanation but which one can feel the truth of.

Algernon Charles Swinburne published an essay in appreciation of Blake’s work.

Swinburne refers to Blake’s life as ‘a long dim life of labour’ and Blake as ‘a man as worthy of remark and regret as any then famous’.

Read Swinburne's essay here


Ralph Vaughan Williams set 10 of Blake’s ‘songs’ to music.


Modern adaptations

Blake’s imaginative works have inspired the imaginations of others. His striking paintings are detailed and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Particularly, Blake’s image of the Red Dragon, used in several of his paintings, features in the novel Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris and in the first film of the novel, The Manhunter. Another film of the novel was made in 2002 using the original title of Red Dragon.

About the Contributor

Sue first encountered William Blake at the age of 10 when she learnt ‘The Tyger’ off by heart at school and has loved his work ever since. She studied Blake at University and later introduced his poetry to many of her students, particularly ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, which she has also taught at A Level.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience Activity Pack
All worksheets are preceded by comprehensive teacher’s notes which clearly lay out learning objectives, Assessment Objectives and suggestions on how to deliver the activities and include them in your SOW.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience Comprehensive
This guide is designed to lead both teachers new to the poems and teachers who know the poems well towards areas of analysis that will surprise and challenge their students. Recodrings on CD also included!