William Blake (November 28, 1757 - August 12, 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, his work is today considered seminal and significant in the history of both poetry and the visual arts. He has often been credited as being the most spiritual writer of his time.
According to Northrop Frye, who undertook a study of Blake's entire poetic corpus, his prophetic poems form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language." Others have praised Blake's visual artistry, at least one modern critic proclaiming Blake "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced."
While his visual art and written poetry are usually considered separately, Blake often employed them in concert to create a product that at once defied and superseded convention. Though he believed himself able to converse aloud with Old Testament prophets, and despite his work in illustrating the Book of Job, Blake's affection for the Bible was belied by his hostility for the church, his beliefs modified by a fascination with Mysticism and the unfolding of the Romantic movement around him. Ultimately, the difficulty of placing William Blake in any one chronological stage of art history is perhaps the distinction that best defines him.
Once considered mad for his single-mindedness, Blake is highly regarded today for his expressiveness and creativity, and the philosophical vision that underlies his work. As he himself once indicated, "The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself."
Blake had a complex relationship with Enlightenment philosophy. Due to his visionary religious beliefs, Blake opposed the Newtonian view of the universe.
Blake also believed that the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which depict the naturalistic fall of light upon objects, were products entirely of the "vegetative eye", and he saw Locke and Newton as "the true progenitors of Sir Joshua Reynolds' aesthetic". The popular taste in the England of that time for such paintings was satisfied with mezzotints, prints produced by a process that created an image from thousands of tiny dots upon the page. Blake saw an analogy between this and Newton's particle theory of light. Accordingly, Blake never used the technique, opting rather to develop a method of engraving purely in fluid line, insisting that:
a Line or Lineament is not formed by Chance a Line is a Line in its Minutest Subdivision[s] Strait or Crooked It is Itself & Not Intermeasurable with or by any Thing Else Such is Job. (E784)
Despite his opposition to Enlightenment principles, Blake thus arrived at a linear aesthetic that was in many ways more similar to the Neoclassical engravings of John Flaxman than to the works of the Romantics, with whom he is often classified.
Therefore Blake has also been viewed as an enlightenment poet and artist, in the sense that he was in accord with that movement's rejection of received ideas, systems, authorities and traditions. On the other hand, he was critical of what he perceived as the elevation of reason to the status of an oppressive authority. In his criticism of reason, law and uniformity Blake has been taken to be opposed to the enlightenment, but it has also been argued that, in a dialectical sense, he used the enlightenment spirit of rejection of external authority to criticise narrow conceptions of the enlightenment.
From a young age, William Blake claimed to have seen visions. The first of these visions may have occurred as early as the age of four when, according to one anecdote, the young artist "saw God" when God "put his head to the window", causing Blake to break into screaming. At the age of eight or ten in Peckham Rye, London, Blake claimed to have seen "a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars." According to Blake's Victorian biographer Gilchrist, he returned home and reported this vision, and he only escaped being thrashed by his father for telling a lie through the intervention of his mother. Though all evidence suggests that his parents were largely supportive, his mother seems to have been especially so, and several of Blake's early drawings and poems decorated the walls of her chamber. On another occasion, Blake watched haymakers at work, and thought he saw angelic figures walking among them.