William Blake

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William Blake (1757-1827) was an English engraver, painter, poet and mystic born in London.

Like visionaries from most world religions, Blake believed that a spiritual light exists behind the world of appearances. His writings and art mostly refer to philosophical, mythological and biblical themes.

Unlike artists who use abstraction to hint at a perceived yet normally unseen reality, Blake’s imagery is quite direct as he attempts to portray his perception of inner light, according to his own vision.

He differs from mainstream Christianity by emphasizing the importance of spontaneous, unguided and unchecked spiritual experience. At times his work is reminiscent of Gnosticism, especially when saying the self and the Godhead may be one. Blake’s beliefs differ from both Catholicism and Gnosticism, however, in that he seems to imply that good and evil are relative ideas constructed by the regimented mind.

This relativistic view is especially apparent in his so-called ‘minor prophecy’, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1791), an arguably grandiose work of undisciplined introspection that leans towards a nebulous, incomplete kind of Buddhism. While not without its literary merit, and also containing a few worthwhile critiques of religious hypocrisy, Heaven and Hell seems to reflect Blake’s personal quest and, perhaps, limited degree of spiritual understanding. Whether it contains any universal, salvific value is a matter of debate. Some might say it’s a useful signpost along the road of spiritual formation while nonetheless incomplete. Others might say it’s misleading.

William Blake’s Newton (1795), colour print with pen & ink and watercolour. Blake’s picture of Newton as a divine geometer was one of a series he created whilst living in Lambeth in the late 1790s.

William Blake (1757-1827) was an English engraver, painter, poet and mystic born in London.

Blake’s best-known paintings are The Canterbury Pilgrims and Jacob’s Dream. He also illustrated Young’s Night Thoughts (1797), Linnell’s The Book of Job (1826), Dante’s Divine Comedy and did imaginative engravings for his own writing.

Other works include Poetical Sketches (1783), Songs of Innocence (1789), Songs of Experience (1794) which include ‘The Tyger’, and the prophetic poem ‘Jerusalem’ (1804-20).

Most of the notables around him thought he was a flake, and his work and ideas were largely unrecognized. Near the end of his life he lived in poverty, spurred on by a band of youthful admirers.


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