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William Blake

Jason Whittaker

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0007
William Blake

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William Blake (b. 1757–d. 1827) was a painter, engraver, and poet traditionally considered as being among the first generation of Romantic artists and writers, though sometimes placed in the generation of pre-Romantic artists, such as Thomas Gray and James Thomson, that preceded William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Born and raised in London, where he spent most of his life, apart from a three-year period (1800–1803) during which he resided in Felpham, Sussex, Blake was apprenticed at the age of fourteen as an engraver to James Basire, learning an important craft that formed the basis of a great deal of Blake’s art. He also became a student at the Royal Academy in 1779 and during his lifetime was better known as an artist than a poet. Although not unknown at the time of his death, the early promise as an artist that Blake had been considered to demonstrate during the 1780s and early 1790s had largely been displaced by a reputation for being an eccentric and difficult figure on the fringes of the London art scene. Blake inspired a group of young artists commonly known as the Shoreham Ancients, after the Kent village of Shoreham, where the painter Samuel Palmer owned a house, but within a generation Blake had been almost entirely forgotten. His reputation was restored when his art and poetry were extolled in an influential biography written by Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, “Pictor Ignotus” (see Gilchrist 2010, cited under Biographies), as well as through being celebrated by leading figures associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, most notably the Rossetti brothers and Algernon Charles Swinburne. From the end of the 19th century through the 20th century, Blake’s reputation increased enormously, until he came to be considered one of the leading Romantic figures in both art and poetry. Some of Blake’s poetry had attracted attention during his lifetime, particularly the lyrical verse included in Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), but the so-called prophetic books that he produced in the form of illuminated books, culminating in the epic Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion (c. 1821), were considered too dense and obscure by those few contemporaries who read such works. Blake’s complex personal mythology, incorporating figures such as the tyrant Urizen, rebellious Orc, and the prophet Los, was developed and revised throughout his writing and art to create a profound psychological, sociopolitical, and spiritual vision.

Article.  9071 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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