The Life and Times of William Blake:

A Look into the Man and his Art

William Blake was both an artist and a poet during the Romantic Period in literature. He was a radical and a nonconformist. Knowledge of his life and history were vague during the times that he published his work, “yet between his death in 1827 and the appearance of the first biography in 1863, a body of memorabilia about Blake emerged which was to create for him a reputation as a unique genius” (Singer 2). Today, Blake is a widely known poet and artist whose works reflected many events and can be interpreted in several different ways. He is basically impossible to classify.

He had his own sources of inspiration (so peculiar and strange that no one else had dared to drink from them), His own strange technique, his own method of printing, his own method of illustrating, and his own secret way of reproducing his illustrations.

(Plowman 15)

William Blake was born November 28, 1757 at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square in London. He was the second child of a hosier, James Blake, and his wife, Catherine Wright. He was an unruly child, refusing to attend school, so he was educated by his parents. His family lived in the lower part of the middle class. Many people, due to this, believe that Blake’s family lived in poverty when he was a child, but they were actually quite prosperous. Blake recollected both his childhood and his intolerance for school in his poem “The Schoolboy” from Songs of Innocence. He became very artistic at a young age. “As soon as the child’s hand could hold a pencil it began to scrawl rough likenesses of man or beast, and make timid copies of all the prints that came near” (Raine 11).

Blake was sent to Henry Pars’ drawing school at the age of ten. He had an awkward taste in art, having an interest in the then unpopular Michelangelo, Rafael, and Romano. At the age of fourteen, Blake began an apprenticeship under James Basire who was an engraver for the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society. Two years afterwards, Basire sent him to make drawings of monuments and buildings at Westminster Abbey. It was here that Blake was able to study Gothic art which was now becoming fashionable. . He often stood on the tombs to see and sketch the scenery. He even made sketches of Edward I’s grave when it was opened.

Blake left art school after seven years. At the age of twenty-two, he set out to work as an engraver. He lived with his father and did work for various magazines. He also attended the Royal Academy, yet this did little for his creativity. He said that the academy had a “cramped imaginative environment” (Raine 24). Many there opposed his Gothic views.

In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher; this displeased his father. She was illiterate and beneath Blake’s social class. Catherine could not even sign her name in the marriage register. She could only sign an ‘X’. Blake left his father’s house because of the dispute, but the marriage went downhill from there. It was said that he was in love with a woman in a slightly higher social class, and Catherine was simply the rebound from the relationship. This mystery woman is mentioned only once in a song from Poetical Sketches. “I curse my stars in bitter grief and woe, / That made my love so high, and me so low”

A year after he and his wife were married, Blake published Poetical Sketches, which he had begun as a young boy of around age eleven. Yet in the happiness of his published piece came the sorrowful news that his father died. Blake and his wife moved next door to his old home. He took in a former peer of his as his partner. His younger brother, Robert, who was his “intellectual companion,” was his pupil (Raine 28). However, after two and a half years, Blake’s finances were failing and his brother fell ill and died at the age of twenty. Blake sat with his brother as he took his last breath and “claimed to see his spirit pass through the ceiling on its way to heaven”