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William Blake felt that all men possessed visionary power… He did not jealously guard his vision; he shared it through his work and called upon us to animate the creative spirit within us.
To take on Blake is not to be alone.
Blake’s work heals the division of art from craft. He is equally a writer and image maker.
Blake was among humanity’s deepest and farthest seers — of truth, of beauty, of the universe in a grain of sand, of the human condition in a fly. His poetry and art went on to influence generations of creators as varied as Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, who built his own singular sensibility upon a Blakean foundation, to Allen Ginsberg, who so cherished Blake that he recorded a strange and wonderful LP singing Blake’s Songs of Innocence with an electric orchestra.
British poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757–1827) was a revolutionary force during the Romantic Age, bringing groundbreaking works such as Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience to life with unique illustrations made through a relief etching process that he pioneered.
The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence… William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein… He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation.” - Patti Smith
Blake was determined to make what he wanted to make and to make it on his own terms—in a world unready for the art and unfriendly to the terms.
Rather than cut the shapes onto the plates with his sharp steel burin, he painted directly onto the copper with a quill or brush dipped in acid-resistant varnish, then bathed the plates in acid, which stripped a layer of the surface to revealed the embossed shape of what he had drawn. A complaint made in chemistry and creative restlessness.
It came to him, he said, as a message from his dead brother’s spirit.
Unseen by his own world, he saw deep into the worlds to come, channeling his visions through anything at hand. It was not the medium that mattered, but its pliancy as he bent it to his vision of the mystery that is itself the message—the message we call art: He was a painter, a poet, a philosopher without meaning to, an early prophet of panpsychism, a mystic who lived not to solve the mystery but to revel in it, to encode it in verses and etch it onto copper plates and stain it onto canvases and seed it into souls for centuries to come.
The new technique gave Blake full creative freedom and full control of production. Suddenly, he could combine text and image on a single page, in a single process, which neither traditional engraving nor etching could do—both required separate space for lettering and a second production pass for type-setting the words.
There was only one challenge with his invention: Because the print was still made by pressing a plate onto a page, any text he painted onto the plate was printed backward.
So he learned mirror-writing.
Suddenly, William Blake had unfettered himself from the production machine, giving his creative might free rein. His new process, he estimated, enabled him to make what he wanted to make for a quarter of the cost. He was a one-man operation, creating in his own space and with his own hands what ordinarily took entire teams of artisans and craftsmen, each with different training, using different tools, working in different workshops.
The magnitude of his innovation was not lost on Blake. In 1793, he composed and printed his Prospectus, addressed “TO THE PUBLIC,” in which he announced that he had “invented a method of Printing both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered.” It was nothing less than a manifesto for creative self-liberation.
Precisely because he was his own standard, because he wanted to make exactly what he wanted to make, it was enough for him that a handful of devoted fans became his collectors and commissioned work he was inspired to make. It was just about enough to live on. And it was never what he lived for. (Centuries later, this ethos—which I believe is the natural state of the creative spirit—still raises eyebrows as radicalism.)
In the very act of this choice, he was modeling a kind of moral beauty that reached beyond art, into life itself—an unwillingness to accept the limitations imposed upon any present by the momentum of its past, a winged willingness to do whatever it takes to transcend them, which begins with a new way of seeing: seeing the limitations and seeing the alternate possibilities. For the Eye altering alters all.
Becoming a furiously prolific, mystically inspired artist while living in poverty and near-obscurity—“considered insane and largely disregarded by his peers,” as BBC History puts it—required fortitude and almost superhuman belief in himself, especially since his belief system was largely self-created. While Blake considered the Bible “the greatest work of poetry ever written,” and its themes and narratives spoke to him throughout his career, his own religious tendencies took the form of the mythology he elaborated through the fantastical illuminated books.
Songs of Innocence and Experience
The Songs of Innocence were published by Blake in 1789, and he produced a combined version of Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1794. A complete copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience contains fifty-four plates etched in relief with touches of white-line work in a few designs.
The Songs are now often studied for their literary merit alone, but they were originally produced as illuminated books, engraved, hand-printed, and coloured by Blake himself. The Songs of Innocence and of Experience were intended by Blake to show ‘the two contrary states of the human soul.’ The text of the poem and the accompanying illustration formed an integrated whole, each adding meaning to the other.