William Blake

On this date in 1757, poet and artist William Blake was born in London to shopkeepers. He enrolled in a drawing school at age 10, then apprenticed to an engraver at 14. After his seven-year apprenticeship, he became a journeyman copy engraver at age 21. He was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art’s School of Design in 1779. His book of poetry, Poetical Sketches, was published in 1783. Blake set up a printing and publishing partnership in 1784 and invented relief etching in 1788.

His first decorative, “illuminated” books of aphorisms, All Religions Are One (1787) and There Is No Natural Religion (1788), were influenced by the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. He had become disillusioned with Swedenborg by the time he produced Songs of Innocence (1789) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). He began to rub shoulders with London’s leading rationalists and reformers, composing and engraving designs for Mary Wollstonecraft‘s Original Stories from Real Life (1791). He met William Godwin, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine.

It was said Blake tipped off Paine about an impending arrest and helped him flee. Although Blake lived in the imagination and was theistic rather than rational by temperament, he was also staunchly unorthodox: “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.” (“Proverbs of Hell,” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.) His ethical advice? “A truth that’s told with bad intent /  beats all the Lies you can invent.” (Auguries of Innocence.)

Wordsworth wrote after Blake’s death, “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.” (D. 1827)

Freedom From Religion Foundation