William Blake wrote some of the most powerful, amazing poems in the English language, and he really was as mad as a meat-axe. That’s the short version.
In his excellent Dictionary of World Biography (available FREE from ANU Press as an eBook!) Barry Jones writes:
Blake, William (1757–1827). English poet, artist and mystic, born in London. His father, a hosier, was a follower of Emanuel *Swedenborg. From the very first he was a highly imaginative child who claimed to see angelic visions. Apprenticed to an engraver (1771–78), he studied briefly with the Royal Academy School and then set up shop in 1784 as a printseller and engraver. His first book of poems, Poetical Sketches (1783), was followed by Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience which includes The Tyger (1794), illustrated like all his later books with his own hand-painted engravings. Poems such as The French Revolution (1791) and America (1793) express a temporary political fervour which he did not retain as his views became more and more imbued with mysticism. His mystical and prophetic works include the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1791), The Book of Urizen (1794), The Book of Los (1795) and many others, printed from his own copper plates and illustrated with his visionary designs. Nearly all his works have a highly individual symbolism, but while his early poems are notable for their simple language and serene brightness, his later works, with their symbolic characters—Urizen, the author of restrictive moral law, Orc in rebellion against him and Los, the captive champion of light—create an atmosphere of gloom and mystery. However, despair is set aside and mutual love and forgiveness of sin offer revived hope of salvation in the epics the Four Zoas (1796–1804), Milton (1804–08) and Jerusalem (1804–20). Some of *Blake’s finest artistic work went into the illustrations for the Book of Job (1820–26) and for *Dante’s Divine Comedy (left unfinished at his death). His paintings were ignored by the public but he enjoyed the unfailing support and belief of his wife, the friendship and sometimes the financial help of other artists such as *Flaxman and Samuel *Palmer and he remained serenely happy until his death. Most modern critics have acknowledged him as a lyrical poet and visionary artist of supreme power.
Ackroyd, P., Blake 1995.
Lately I have found some excellent readings from literary critic and psychiatrist Dr Iain McGilchrist. Here are two:
~ London by William Blake ~
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
Blake may be best known for his poem “Jerusalem” which has become a kind of English unofficial national anthem — curious, given that careful reading shows it is rather a powerful critique of the England Blake saw. Some say that as well as what they seem to refer to — the Industrial Revolution — the “dark Satanic mills” may be something completely different!
Leftist folk singer Billy Bragg sings the Hubert Parry setting of “Jerusalem” —