1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Blake

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 249-50.



Extraordinary as an artist and a poet, Blake (1757-1828) was the son of a London hosier. Apprenticed at fourteen to an engraver, he became a diligent and enthusiastic student. At twenty-six he married Catherine Boutcher, who survived him, and was a most devoted and attached wife. He produced a series of designs and poems which are quite unique in the peculiar spirit of their conception, but replete with beauties of a high order. The designs are drawn, and the poems written, upon copper, with a secret composition (disclosed to him, as he says, by the spirit of his brother Robert); and when the uncovered parts were eaten away by aqua-fortis, the rest remained as if in stereotype. His wife worked off the plates in the press; and he tinted the impressions, designs, and letter-press with a variety of pleasing colors.

Blake thought that he conversed with the spirits of the departed great — with Homer, Moses, Pindar, Virgil, Dante, Milton, and many others; and that some of them sat to him for their portraits. He produced a great variety of works, many of which now command high prices. The principal are The Gates of Paradise, Urizen, Illustrations of Young's Night Thoughts, Jerusalem, and Illustrations for the Book of Job. Blake got from his strange, fanciful illustrations but little worldly gain. He was often extremely poor. Fond of children, he retained a child's heart to the last. Mr. Ruskin says of his poems: "They are written with absolute sincerity, with infinite tenderness, and, though in the manner of them diseased and wild, are in verity the words of a great and wise mind, disturbed, but not deceived, by its sickness; nay, partly exalted by it, and sometimes giving forth in fiery aphorism some of the most precious words of existing literature."