Accessible Art History
William Blake: Poet & Printer
I'm thrilled to share this guest blog post by my friend, Dominique. She runs the account and blog, Some Sources Say and it is a great resource for anyone that loves history! Dominique wrote this piece on William Blake, a Romantic era poet and printer. We hope you enjoy it and don't forget to give Dominique's blog and Instagram a follow!
I first came across the work of William Blake whilst at school whilst studying English Literature. A key figure of the Romantic Movement, but largely unappreciated during his own lifetime, Blake wrote some beautiful poetry and created some stunning art throughout his life. I was fortunate enough to see some for myself at the Treasures of the British Library exhibition.
Figure 1 Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807)
Blake was born in London on the 28th November 1757, the third child of James and Catherine Blake. His family supported his artistic leanings, and he went on to train as an engraver. He was apprenticed, for probably around the normal seven years, to printmaker James Basire. Blake would continue in this profession after his apprenticeship ended, creating illustrations for works like Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life and a later edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. On the 18th August 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, she believed in his artistry and helped him with the printing process for some of his works. He died in 1827 aged 69.
There is so much you could write about Blake, from his politics to his religious views, but today I’m going to focus specifically on his illustrated poetry book Songs of Innocence and Experience published in 1794.
This was an updated version of his first illustrated poetry book Songs of Innocence which he published in 1789. The volumes were created in-house so to speak by William and Catherine, so not many original copies were made. Blake kept autonomy over his work and sold volumes independently to their friends and any other interested parties. The books were signed “The Author and Printer W Blake”.
The poems may seem simple on first reading, but many cover serious topics, and reflected Blake’s views on societal issues, for instance child labour (as seen in The Chimney Sweeper) and oppressive laws (as seen in London). This isn’t too surprising when you consider Blake coined the famous phrase “Dark Satanic Mills”. Some of the poems in the series have a corresponding poem, for instance Little Boy Lost and Little Boy Found.
Some of my favourite poems from the Songs of Innocence and Experience include The Tyger and The Poison Tree. The former explores themes of creation and nature through a fearsome tiger, which is both beautiful and dangerous. Academic Dr Stauffer describes The Poison Tree “Blake's best-known depiction of personal anger's destructive effects”.
The Songs of Innocence and Experience “is regarded as both a visual and literary work of art”. I would highly recommend going to the British Library’s website where you can view an entire facsimile copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (link in the sources below).
British Library: https://www.bl.uk/works/songs-of-innocence-and-experience
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: William Blake
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Catherine Blake (nee Boucher)
SparkNotes: Songs of Innocence and Experience
Wikipedia: William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, And did those feet in ancient time, The Tyger, The Poison Tree,
Some Sources Say
Some Sources Say is a history blog where we dive into archival records & secondary sources to discover fascinating historical people, places & events!
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