William Blake was born in London in 1757 into a poor family, so he got a little education. When he was 14 he was apprenticed to an engraver and from him received a good education, so engraving became one of his most important means of expression. Blake also had some visions which helped him to escape from reality, for example when he was 8 he had a vision of some angels; he also used to talk to God or to figure of the past like Dante or Milton. He married an ignorant woman, Catherine Boucher, and taught her how to read, write, draw and paint, so then she could help him in his work. Blake’s first work was “Poetical Sketches”; in the same years he developed a new technique for engraving, “illuminated printing”, which he used for all his life: thanks to this, both words and decoration remained in relief.
In 1789 “Songs of Innocence” were written: they are a collection of poems centred around the figure of the child and focusing on the theme of innocence. Instead “Songs of Experience” shows that innocence is corrupted and destroyed by human experience.
He wrote also some prophetic works, as “America, a prophecy”, in which he celebrated the French revolution and the independence of American colonies. Another his work was “The book of Urizen”; then mixing elements coming from literature he wrote a poem called “Milton”, and “Jerusalem”. Blake engraved all his works and illustrated Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. He suffered from depression, but his last years were better: he found some artists who appreciated his works, then illustrated Dante’s “Divine Comedy” until his death, in 1827.
Songs of innocence and Experience
In his most famous works, the poet saw Innocence as a state of freedom and happiness, linked to childhood, because children represented the power of imagination. The tone is naïve, childlike and the style clear. This idea is not new but it comes from Jean Jacques Rousseau: innocence is not only a period of life but also a state of mind. Instead Experience represents the corruption of innocence, it is a result of disillusionment for the consequences of the French Revolution, in fact the tone is dark, it is a sort of protest for social injustices. He thought that adults lose their imagination because of the experience in life, that has an important role in their develop. But there are some adults who don’t lose innocence, and they are artists: they has their own experiences but also has the gift of imagination. So he thought that imagination can reach ultimate wisdom through the visionary capacity. There are in his poems children, flowers, angels, animals seen as symbols of innocence, while cities, nights, houses represented experience. The sun, swords or animal like the tiger are seen as symbol of creative energy.
William Blake was a total artist but lived in isolation for his unconventional way of living. He was enthusiastic about the French Revolution and its principles, he believed in a free world, with no injustices, thinking that only a revolution would abolish them. He was unable to stand any bonds, and he was a critic of England of his time. He also believed in a world where everyone love each other in a spirit of universal brotherhood, with no barriers; he also criticided the slave trade and the exploitation of young children, as he wrote in his poems.
He considered himself a seer, and was sure that intellect destroys the imagination, the most important men’s faculty.
His works describe the fight among the spirit of intellect and of imagination; he explained his concern with the fight of the soul to express its natural energies when restricted by reason. His philosophy took a Christianity direction, but far from traditional, and the struggle between intellect and imagination find a solution in the coming of Christ.