William Blake was born on 28 November 1757 in London, the third child of a working class hosier. He would remain an obscure artist and poet while he lived, but would be posthumously recognized as one of the leading artistic figures of the Romantic Age.
When he was 11 years old Blake’s parents paid £52.10 to have him apprenticed to an engraver, James Basire, for a term of seven years. Blake became an excellent engraver, albeit hampered somewhat by Basire’s old-fashioned style. Once his apprenticeship was over, Blake began study at the Royal Academy, where he would refine his skills as a painter as well.
On 18 August 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, which would be an incredibly happy union for them both. He taught his beloved Kate to read and write and trained her as a fellow engraver as well. An admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminism, Blake believed his wife had the right to be treated as an equal. Blake also supported an early form of the “free love” movement, which was less about allowing multiple sexual partners and more about making marriage something other then de facto prostitution and female servitude. As an advocate of free love (think of it as “set love free” rather than “give it away without cost”) Blake believed that if he did not make his wife happy she should have the right to leave him and contract a union elsewhere.
My experiences with Blake were largely enforced and superficially academic. I read his poem The Tyger in high school and read the cursory pages about his life, but was told bupkis about his radical social and political views. I’m quite vexed about this, because it turns out Blake was in league with “intellectual dissidents” like Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and Joseph Priestley. He advocated the legalization of prostitution, believing it to be unjust that the women were punished while their clients went free, and called for the decriminalization of homosexuality. He was likewise concerned about “the abuse of class power” and “senseless wars and the blighting effects of the Industrial Revolution.” An ardent Abolitionist, Blake not only hated slavery, but he believed in racial equality, a step not all abolitionists were willing to take. Moreover, Black was a theological rebel, believing strongly in the divine while vehemently rejecting the trappings of religious orthodoxy.
All this, of course, made even fellow radicals suspect Blake was mad as a hatter. It didn’t help matters that Blake had ‘visions’, moments of either lucid dreaming or hallucinations wherein he believed he could see the usually unseen aspects of the Almighty. “Aware of Blake’s visions, William Wordsworth commented, “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.” However, I would argue that Blake’s visions were not actually a sign of schizophrenia or insanity, but rather a result of a trance state, which is usually brought on by intense meditation or prayer, a sort of non-directed vision quest.
Many people today are aware of Blake’s theological beliefs, whether they know it or not, because his views have been so influential on modern music, films, and graphic novels. For example, Blake’s illustrated book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is the underlying ideology in Philip Pullman‘s best-selling fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. Blake was also a muse for iconic songwriter Bob Dylan and acclaimed author Aldous Huxley.
For myself, I don’t really enjoy reading Blake’s work as much as I like looking at his artwork, but I have a profound respect for his progressive, ground-breaking thinking. Support for racial and sexual equality even today is heady stuff, and I am delighted by evidence of such idealistic ideology a Georgian fellow. I find myself in agreement with one of the women at Blake’s bedside when he passed away on 12 August 1827, who said “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.” Certainly his wife thought so, since she believed Blake continued to watch over her after his death.