British and Irish Literature William Blake
Jason Whittaker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0007


William Blake (b. 1757–d. 1827) was a painter, engraver, and poet traditionally considered as being among the first generation of Romantic artists and writers, though sometimes placed in the generation of pre-Romantic artists, such as Thomas Gray and James Thomson, that preceded William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Born and raised in London, where he spent most of his life, apart from a three-year period (1800–1803) during which he resided in Felpham, Sussex, Blake was apprenticed at the age of fourteen as an engraver to James Basire, learning an important craft that formed the basis of a great deal of Blake’s art. He also became a student at the Royal Academy in 1779 and during his lifetime was better known as an artist than a poet. Although not unknown at the time of his death, the early promise as an artist that Blake had been considered to demonstrate during the 1780s and early 1790s had largely been displaced by a reputation for being an eccentric and difficult figure on the fringes of the London art scene. Blake inspired a group of young artists commonly known as the Shoreham Ancients, after the Kent village of Shoreham, where the painter Samuel Palmer owned a house, but within a generation Blake had been almost entirely forgotten. His reputation was restored when his art and poetry were extolled in an influential biography written by Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, “Pictor Ignotus” (see Gilchrist 2010, cited under Biographies), as well as through being celebrated by leading figures associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, most notably the Rossetti brothers and Algernon Charles Swinburne. From the end of the 19th century through the 20th century, Blake’s reputation increased enormously, until he came to be considered one of the leading Romantic figures in both art and poetry. Some of Blake’s poetry had attracted attention during his lifetime, particularly the lyrical verse included in Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), but the so-called prophetic books that he produced in the form of illuminated books, culminating in the epic Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion (c. 1821), were considered too dense and obscure by those few contemporaries who read such works. Blake’s complex personal mythology, incorporating figures such as the tyrant Urizen, rebellious Orc, and the prophet Los, was developed and revised throughout his writing and art to create a profound psychological, sociopolitical, and spiritual vision.

General Overviews

Detailed scholarly insight across the range of Blake’s works and mythology began with S. Foster Damon’s William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols (London: Constable, 1924), but important key works that provide a basis for interpreting that mythology more comprehensively began to appear in the postwar period, most notably Frye 1990, Erdman 1991, and Damon 1988. These texts, foundational to Blake studies, start from the assumption that all of Blake’s works can be approached in a philosophically, aesthetically, and politically coherent manner. Although subsequent generations of scholars have critiqued this approach, it was nonetheless extremely important in stimulating the critical reception of that work. Of the contextual interpretation begun by Erdman 1991 and continued in particular by Bentley 2001 (cited under Biographies), Clark and Worrall 1999 is a collected edition that includes some of the best examples of this type of historicist criticism. Similarly, a great deal of attention has been paid to Blake’s modes of production, stimulated in particular by Viscomi 1993, one of the most important books to have been published on the engraver since the 1990s. More recently, the tendency within Blake criticism has tended to concentrate on particular works or aspects of Blake’s poetry and art rather than comprehensive overviews, although Eaves 2003 and Williams 2006 are both useful collections of introductory essays. Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly (formerly the Blake Newsletter) is an authoritative source of information, reviews, and essays on Blake.

  • Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly. 1977–.

    Formerly the Blake Newsletter (1967–1976), Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly is the journal of record for Blake’s work, containing peer-reviewed articles by leading scholars in the field as well as reviews of the latest publications. The journal is edited by its founder, Morton D. Paley, and Morris Eaves.

  • Clark, Steve, and David Worrall, eds. Historicizing Blake. New York: St. Martin’s, 1994.

    An important collection of essays by established and new scholars, such as Iain McCalman, Jon Mee, Edward Larrissy, and Andrew Lincoln, this was one of the first books to return attention to Blake in his historical contexts, in contrast to the post-structuralist and formalist readings of Blake that had largely dominated Blake studies since the 1970s.

  • Clark, Steve, and David Worrall, eds. Blake in the Nineties. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

    A follow-up to Clark and Worrall 1994, this collection of essays by authors such as Robert N. Essick, Nelson Hilton, and Joseph Viscomi is a landmark contribution to the New Historicist perspectives on Blake that transformed the study of his work in the 1990s. Taken together, the two books provide key reevaluations of the cultural and literary contexts within which Blake produced his poetry and art.

  • Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Rev. ed. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1988.

    A Blake Dictionary is an accessible and genuinely useful guide to the often complex and bewildering mythology to be found in Blake. No synthesis of Blake’s work is attempted in this particular book, and many of Damon’s entries can be contested individually in terms of their interpretation, yet this is an important starting point for understanding the prophetic books.

  • Eaves, Morris, ed. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521781477

    With essays by some of the most important Blake scholars, including Saree Makdisi, David Bindman, and Joseph Viscomi, this companion represents an excellent starting point for understanding various aspects of Blake’s life and work. The text is divided into sections dealing with general perspectives on Blake’s art and with his work, from the early illuminated books to Jerusalem.

  • Erdman, David V. Blake: Prophet against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times. 3d ed. New York: Dover, 1991.

    Originally published in 1954 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press). Although Erdman’s consistent image of Blake as a radical patriot has been greatly complicated since this book’s appearance, it remains an essential cornerstone of Blake studies. Returning to original sources, Erdman demonstrated almost for the first time how much Blake was a politically and socially engaged poet across all his works, rather than an abstract mystic.

  • Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

    Possibly the single most important book on Blake in the 20th century and one of the first to offer a comprehensive overview of the more obscure, later prophetic works. Interpreting Blake’s poetry as a reaction to the empirical philosophies of John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Sir Isaac Newton, Frye proved himself to be one of the greatest—and most sympathetic—of Blake’s systematizers.

  • Viscomi, Joseph. Blake and the Idea of the Book. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

    This book radically transformed the field of Blake studies by concentrating on Blake’s craft as an engraver to an unparalleled degree. Applying rigorous and detailed analysis of the material conditions in which Blake created his illuminated books, Viscomi was not only to clarify and improve such elements as the dating of those works but also to demonstrate how the unique ways in which those books were made could revolutionize their interpretation.

  • Williams, Nicholas M. Palgrave Advances in William Blake Studies. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    This collection of introductory essays is an excellent guide to Blake’s work, in painting and engraving as well as poetry. The collection is divided into two parts: textual and cultural approaches. It offers insight into some modern-day theoretical approaches to Blake, for example, in the fields of queer studies and reception theory.

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