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William Blake (1757–1827) stands out as one of the most visionary and complex poets and artists of the Romantic period. His work is notable for its innovative use of language, profound mythological and religious symbolism, and its reflection of his radical political views. Blake’s artistic genius was not fully appreciated during his lifetime, but in the 20th century, his work was re-evaluated, and he is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both poetry and visual arts.

Literary Background

Blake was largely self-educated, which allowed him a creative freedom that formal education might have stifled. He read widely among the Bible, the works of Milton, and the literature of the Renaissance. The Neoclassical tradition that dominated English literature in the 18th century was a significant influence on his formative years, yet he reacted against its rationalism and order in his own creative expression, aligning more closely with the burgeoning Romantic movement that valued emotion and nature.

Early Influences

The Bible had a profound impact on Blake’s thoughts and imagery. His deep interest in spirituality and mysticism shaped much of his poetry, which often explores themes of redemption and divine conflict. He was also inspired by the works of Milton and the mystical writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Blake’s apprenticeship with engraver James Basire introduced him to Gothic art, which also influenced his poetic imagery and personal mythology.

Poetic Schools or Movements

Blake is often associated with the Romantic movement, though his work is distinct for its elaborate myth-making and prophetic tone. Unlike his contemporaries, who often wrote about nature, Blake’s poetry dives into the realms of the visionary and the spiritual. His work is characterized by a rebellion against oppressive institutions, a trait common among Romantic writers, but his idiosyncratic symbolism and mythology set him apart.

Poetic Oeuvre: Phases and Themes

Blake's poetic work can be divided into two phases: his early work, which includes poems such as "Songs of Innocence" (1789) and "Songs of Experience" (1794), and his later prophecies, like "Milton" (1804-1810) and "Jerusalem" (1804-1820). His early poems are simpler and more accessible, yet they contain the seeds of his later complex mythological structures. The "Songs of Innocence and Experience" contrast two opposing states of the human soul, the innocence of childhood with the corrupt and oppressive nature of adulthood and society.

In his later works, Blake developed a personal mythology filled with complex symbolism and characters, reflecting his views on the nature of humanity, divinity, and society. These works are esoteric, requiring a deep understanding of his mythos and language.

Influence and Honors

Blake’s influence on English literature and art is profound. His style and ideas anticipated the free verse of the modernist poets and the symbolic complexity of poets like W.B. Yeats. He inspired the countercultural movements of the 20th century and continues to be a reference point for artists and writers who value imagination and a critical stance against authoritarianism.

Despite the depth and breadth of his work, Blake received few honors during his life and remained largely unrecognized by the public until after his death. In the arts, his style has been a key precursor to Symbolism and Surrealism.


William Blake was a radical innovator in both thought and expression. A man of profound imaginative power, his poetry traverses the realms of innocence and experience, creation and destruction, and heaven and hell. A key figure of the Romantic movement, yet not entirely of it, Blake’s legacy is that of a prophet-artist whose works continue to challenge, inspire, and evoke the divine and the revolutionary spirit of humanity. Blake’s oeuvre is a testament to the power of poetry and art to confront and transcend the boundaries of perception and societal norms. His synthesis of the visual and the literary has rendered him a unique and enduring figure in the canon of English literature.

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