William Blake (1757 – 1827) an English poet, painter, and printmaker was born in London to James, a hosier, and Catherine Blake. From early childhood, he spoke of his visions. When he was four, he saw God “put his head to the window”; when he was nine, while walking through the countryside, he saw a tree filled with angels. At age ten, he expressed a wish to become a painter, so his parents sent him to drawing school. Two years later, Blake began writing poetry. When he turned fourteen, he apprenticed with an engraver. After his seven-year term ended, he studied briefly at the Royal Academy.
In 1782, he married an illiterate woman named Catherine Boucher. He taught her to read and write, and also instructed her in draftsmanship. Later, she helped him print the illuminated poetry for which he is remembered today. They had no children. In 1784 he set up a printshop with a friend, but this venture failed after several years. For the remainder of his life, Blake made a meagre living as an engraver and illustrator for books and magazines.
Blake’s first printed work, Poetical Sketches (1783), is a collection of apprentice verse, mostly imitating classical models. He published his most popular collection, Songs of Innocence, in 1789 and followed it, in 1794, with Songs of Experience. Both books of Songs were printed in an illustrated format reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts. The text and illustrations were printed from copper plates, and each picture was finished by hand in water-colours.
Blake was a nonconformist who associated with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day. In defiance of 18th-century neoclassical conventions, he privileged imagination over reason in the creation of both his poetry and images, asserting that ideal forms should be constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions. He declared in one poem, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Works such as The French Revolution (1791), America, a Prophecy” (1793), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), and Europe, a Prophecy (1794) express his opposition to the English monarchy, and to 18th-century political and social tyranny in general. Theological tyranny is the subject of The Book of Urizen (1794). In the prose work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), he satirised oppressive authority in church and state.
In 1800 Blake moved to the seacoast town of Felpham, where he lived and worked until 1803. He taught himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Italian, so that he could read classical works in their original language. In Felpham he experienced profound spiritual insights that prepared him for his mature work, his great visionary epics written and etched between about 1804 and 1820. Milton (1804-08), Vala, or The Four Zoas (1797; rewritten after 1800), and Jerusalem (1804-20) have neither traditional plot, characters, rhyme, nor meter. They envision a new and higher kind of innocence, the human spirit triumphant over reason.
Blake believed that his poetry could be read and understood by common people, but he was determined not to sacrifice his vision in order to become popular. In 1808 he exhibited some of his water-colours at the Royal Academy, and in May of 1809 he exhibited his works at his brother James’s house. Blake’s final years, spent in great poverty, were cheered by the admiring friendship of a group of younger artists who called themselves “the Ancients.” In 1818 he met John Linnell, a young artist who helped him financially and also helped to create new interest in his work. It was Linnell who, in 1825, commissioned him to design illustrations for Dante‘s Divine Comedy, the cycle of drawings that Blake worked on until his death in 1827.
William Blake’s Shorter Poems
Many of the poems printed below, with their eccentric capitalisation and punctuation (or lack thereof) have been taken from the Satiric Verses and Epigrams section of the Blake Archive. Others have been taken from The Notebook of William Blake (known also as the Rossetti Manuscript from its association with its former owner Dante Gabriel Rossetti). This was used by Blake as a commonplace book from c.1787 (or 1793) to 1818.
About these poems Rossetti had this to say: “The shorter poems, and even the fragments, afford many instances of that exquisite metrical gift and rightness in point of form which constitute Blake’s special glory among his contemporaries, even more eminently perhaps than the grander command of mental resources which is also his. Such qualities of pure perfection in writing verse, as he perpetually, without effort, displayed, are to be met with among those elder poets whom he loved, and such again are now looked upon as the peculiar trophies of a school which has arisen since his time; but he alone (let it be repeated and remembered) possessed them then, and possessed them in clear completeness. Colour and metre, these are the true patents of nobility in painting and poetry, taking precedence of all intellectual claims; and it is by virtue of these, first of all, that Blake holds, in both arts, a rank which cannot be taken from him.”
Brief Poems by William Blake
Me Time has Crook’d. no good Workman
Is he. Infirm is all that he does
I was buried near this Dike
That my Friends may weep as much as they like
He is a Cock would
And would be a Cock if he could
You think Fuseli is not a great Painter. I’m glad:
This is one of the best compliments he ever had.
P——loved me, not as he lovd his Friends
For he lovd them for gain to serve his Ends
Thy Friendship oft has made my heart to ake
Do be my Enemy for Friendships sake
On H——- the Pick thank
I write the Rascal Thanks till he & I
With Thanks & Compliments are quite drawn dry
They said this mystery never shall cease:
The priest promotes war, and the soldier peace.
Terror in the house does roar;
But Pity stands before the door.
Madman I have been calld Fool they Call thee
I wonder which they Envy Thee or Me
He has observd the Golden Rule
Till hes become the Golden Fool
old acquaintance well renew
Prospero had One Caliban & I have Two
Cr—— loves artists as he loves his Meat
He loves the Art but tis the Art to Cheat
Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street.
A Petty sneaking Knave I knew
O Mr Cromek, how do ye do
The Errors of a Wise Man make your Rule
Rather than the Perfections of a Fool
Great things are done when Men & Mountains meet
This is not Done by jostling in the Street
If you play a Game of Chance know before you begin
If you are benevolent you will never win
Great Men & Fools do often me Inspire
But the Greater Fool the Greater Liar
Her whole Life is an Epigram smack smooth & nobly pend
Platted quite neat to catch applause with a sliding noose at the end
When a man has married a wife, he finds out whether
Her knees and elbows are only glued together.
Grown old in Love from Seven till Seven times Seven
I oft have wishd for Hell for Ease from Heaven
The Hebrew Nation did not write it
Avarice & Chastity did shite it
Do what you will this life’s a fiction,
And is made up of contradiction.
He who binds himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
If you have formd a Circle to go into
Go into it yourself & see how you would do
I washd them out & washd them in
And they told me it was a great Sin
In a wife I would desire
What in whores is always found
The lineaments of Gratified desire.