Beginning in 18th century Western Europe, the Romantic Age was an era of increased sensibility and freedom in the lives of individuals. In the field of poetry, the Romantic Age marked an end to the formality of prose. The era demonstrated an increase in decorative and figurative language as well as wider and more inclusive range of poetical influences. One of the most noted poets from this era is the English writer, William Blake. Blake is often regarded by many scholars as the founding father of Romantic poetry. Born during the Enlightenment Era in 1757, Blake famously strove to differentiate himself from the formal and conforming styles of his contemporaries. Known distinctly for his purposeful variation of spelling in his poems as well as for pioneering the use of symbolism and inquisition in poetry, Blake defined much of what society considers Romantic verse today. Moreover, with their religious foundation and highly aesthetic tone, Blake’s highly celebrated poems epitomize the passionate style of poetry in the Romantic Era and solidify Blake’s place in the canon of great Romantic poets.
William Blake was born on November 28, 1757 to James and Catherine Blake. Blake’s childhood and rearing played a fundamentally important role in forming the foundations of his future writing in that his parent’s were dissenters of the Church of England. Both of Blake’s parents disliked the hierarchy of the church and the absolute trust which members entrusted their leaders. Because his mother feared the prospective influence of religion on Blake in the English school system, she herself educated Blake at home. Through his entire life, Blake never studied poetry or writing in a formal school environment. Thus, Blake never learned the rigid structure of the poetry of his era, nor did he learn the logical and scientific foundation that such poetry encompassed. Although as a child, Blake was raised to demur from the Church of England, he was encouraged to read and personally interpret the Bible. Much of Blake’s home education was focused on him developing his own relationship with god. Blake’s knowledge of the Bible gained during this time is reflected in much of his writing in which he uses strong religious undercurrents based in symbolism. This period in Blake’s life is visible most clearly in Blake’s two volumes, Songs of Innocence, and Songs of Experience, the latter of which contains his most famous poem chronicling god’s creation of the tiger, aptly titled, The Tyger.
During his life, Blake directly attacked the reigning cultural era, the Enlightenment. Blake’s dislike for the Enlightenment sparked his passion in writing. The Age of Enlightenment emphasized logic, reason, and the scientific method as the only legitimate path to understanding the world in which we live. According to Enlightenment thinking, emotion, feelings, sensual experience, and intuition were not reliable or reasonable sources of information upon which to understand the world. Enlightenment thinkers thought, rather, to understand the world through objective observations and experimentations. Blake was influenced greatly by the Enlightenment, but its influence on him was inverse to that of other individuals. Blake used the Enlightenment as a guide of how not to live, what not to think, and, most importantly, how not to write. In contrast to the culture and attitude of the Enlightenment, William Blake embraced spiritualism, emotionalism, intuition, sensual experience, and man’s personal experiences as a means of understanding not only the empirical world, but a relationship with God as well.
Blake was also influenced by political movements that occurred during his lifetime. Blake was known for being a staunch libertarian, believing the individual freedoms of persons. He likely garnered these views through his friendship with American founding father, author of Common Sense, and ironically, an Enlightenment thinker, Thomas Paine (Blake met Paine when Paine visited England; Blake then helped him escape to France). Because of his political beliefs and relationships with prominent Americans, Blake was a strong proponent of the American Revolution. Witnessing the revolution during his career, Blake based much of his writing on the ideals and freedoms disseminated in that revolution. The effect this political movement had on Blake is most profoundly seen in his poems “America: A Prophecy” and “Visions of the Daughters of Albion”.
Furthermore, the state of social and economic disparity in England in the mid 18th century had a profound impact on Blake. In a time when discrimination was at its height in Western Europe, Blake was a strong proponent of racial equality. Blake strongly asserted his beliefs regarding the inherent equality of all individuals in the content of many of his poems.
By profession, William Blake was a printmaker. However, throughout his life, Blake expressed himself through poetry and painting. Because Blake had no sponsor for his writing, he had no limits on the content of his writing, and no fear of being offensive or politically incorrect. Blake viewed his poetry as one method of changing society. In his work, he attacked the authoritarianism of political society, the rationalism of the Renasaince peroid, the industrialization resulting from the study of economics, and organized religion as epitomized by the Church of England. He viewed these institutions and manners of thinking as detrimental to creativity (Mooney). In his poems, Blake takes the position that imagination is more important than the rational thinking. He expresses the opinion that imagination, desire and creative energy are the most important sources to understanding the world. He also expresses his belief that tradition religious thinking is wrong when it pits natural desire against the teachings of the church. (Thomas)
Trained as a print engraver, William Blake’s work was not received with enthusiasm by his contemporary audience, nor for over one hundred years after his death. His work was out of step with the “Enlightenment” thinking, as well as with the teachings of the Church of England. He was considered an eccentric, and died poor. His widow had to borrow money for his funeral. Some of his work was actually destroyed after his death as it was considered “blasphemy” or too politically radical, or because it contained too much sexual imagery. Not all critics agree however, and in one frequently quoted paper, Blake’s work is described as the work of an “angry, flawed, crank, ingrate, sexist, madman” and a “religious fanatic second rate draughtsman” (Dangerous Blake by W.J.T. Michell as quoted by introduction to A Blake Dictionary). Even as late as the early 20th century, S. Foster Damon, who was later to become one of the the most eminent authors of books on Blake (he wrote three), had his proposed disseration on Blake rejected for his Phd at Harvard, because the English department at Harvard felt that Blake was too inconsequential an writer on which to base a Phd paper.
Despite his lack of financial success or critical acclaim, Blake is considered one of the most influential poets of the Romanic Era. Today Blake is lauded for his masterful composition of lyrical poetry. Starting in approximately 1920, and furthered with the publication in 1924 of the book William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols, by S. Foster Damon, Blake was rediscovered, and by 1965, Blake was considered one of the six significant writers of the Romantic Era. He was lauded with his independence from the earlier Renaissance artists, and for his emotional and riveting wor. According to Archibald G. B. Russell, in the Letters of William Blake, Blake’s work is filled with “delightful freshness and spontaneity” and is expressed “with a clearness and simplicity which is scarcely to found anywhere else..” She lauds his writings as being inspired with a “child-like enthusiasm.”
Today, the Romantic Age is defined much more solidly than it was during its existence. Romanticism is fundamentally based in the concepts of imagination and symbolism. Through these ideas, poets expressed complex and ideas about nature, religion, politics, and philosophy. During the era, there was a dramatic increase in the importance of poetic aestheticism. Poets concentrated heavily on imagery and embellished language in their poems. One of the defining characteristics of the Romantic Era was the use of first person narrative in poetic writing. This shift in writing style symbolizes the increased personalization of poetry during the period. Poets expressed their own beliefs and ideas rather than those approved by society and tested by logic. Much of these defining principles of the Romantic Era originated in the poetry of William Blake. As the era progressed, Blake’s then unique style became a ubiquitous form of poetry in the western culture.
William Blake founded an era in poetry. His inventive and authentic writing illustrates a generation from a perspective unique from that of his contemporaries. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, his poems have endured through the centuries. Moreover, Blake is infinitely important in the canon of world poets not just for his own work, but for the influence he had on later Romantic poets. His original lyrical style can be seem reflected in the prose of society’s great poets, such as William Wordsworth and John Keats. Blake’s contribution to the domain of poetry is infinate. In all senses, William Blake was the master of Romanticism.
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