William Blake & Symbolism
William Blake (1757-1837)
He was born in London in 1757
He didn't go to school but was apprenticed by an engraver, and then, at 22, he entered the Royal Academy.
From 1779 he was employed by an engraver , and engraving and painting remained his main source uf income for the rest of his life.
Hi married Catherine Boucher when he was 25. He taught her to read and write and she assisted him in his artwork.
Blake started writing poetry in his late twenties. However, Blake's visionary poetry and art failed to find a sympathetic audience in his own lifetime. For this reason he was forced to look for patrons, and relied on them almost until his death.
Blakes last years were spent in obscurity. He died in August 1827 but his genius only began to be appreciated towards the end of the 19th century.
In 1789 Blake published “songs of innocence”, which he engraved himself.
Instead of printing the book normally, he engraved both the letters and pictures on copper plates with a special technique of his own invention which he called “illuminated printing”. Each book became a unique work of art, expensive to buy and hard to reproduce.
In songs of innocence most of the poems are about infancy and are writen in a childlike way but at the same time introduce the prophetic tone and visionary element which was to characterize Blake's later work. Childhood represents not only a particular age but also a state of the soul, an innocent view of life.
Among his symbols are children, flowers and particular seasons to symbolism innocence.
Meanwhile urban and industrial landscapes and machines represent oppression and rationalism.
Modern critics however, have noted how Blake's symbols function like archetypes, that is, formal representations of collective unconscious. One of Blake's most famous dual symbols is the Lamb/Tiger:
The Lamb is a symbol of innocence of the childhood. The figure of the poet can also be associated to that of the Lamb and the child.
The Tiger is considered to be an image of of creative energy of human life, which aspires to a geometrically perfect form. To Blake this symmetry is fearful because it embodies the contradictory and yet complementary forces of good and evil which are impossible to separate. This is the way Blake saw the French Revolution: as the possibility of absolute freedom which could not be separated from the terror and violence it provoked.
It is important to see how the Lamb and the Tiger reflect each other. Like the Lamb, the Tiger is innocent and in a similar way the violence and the destruction of the revolution are innocent, like the destructive impulses of a child. In an illustration Blake gave a Tiger a Lamb's face to show ho connected the two ideas are.
Blake did not turn away from the idea of revolution towards nostalgia for an idyllic world of the past.