The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

William Blake 1757 - 1827

Introduction

William Blake was an engraver, a painter, and a poet.  He was little known as a poet during his lifetime, although an interesting connection with another writer is that he illustrated Mary Wollstonecraft's highly successful book for children, Original Stories from Real Life. Blake's reputation became established late in the 19th Century, due in part to his rediscovery by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites.

One of the strongest features in Blake's philosophy was his belief in imagination as an active creative force. He attacked rationalism, authoritarianism, industrialization, and organized religion as destructive of creative and spiritual energies.

William Wordsworth is reported to have said "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."

Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) is a relatively early work: Innocence was first published in 1789; Experience, in 1794. The years between these two dates saw the most bloody acts of the French Revolution: the September massacres (1792) and the execution of the Royal Family (1793), followed by the Reign of Terror.

Blake's Songs illustrate two imaginative realms: the state of innocence and the state of experience. Another way of expressing this contrast is to say that the two states represent two different ways of seeing.

Northrop Frye's distinction between the imagined states of innocence and experience:

world of innocence: unfallen world / unified self / integration with nature / time in harmony with rhythm of human existence

world of experience: fallen world / fragmented divided self / alienation from nature / time as destructive, in opposition to human desire

Further Web Pages for Blake:

 

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