For those who want to learn about eccentric poets who changed the traditional form of poetry, look no further than William Blake.
When asked about Blake, Dr. Stuart Dischell, UNC-Greensboro English professor, said, “Had he lived in another historical era, he would have been burned at the stake or declared a prophet. Like Shakespeare and Chaucer, he was an enemy of sanctimony and hypocrisy.”
During Blake’s youth, he became enchanted with the Bible. At the age of 10, he began to excel in drawing because his parents enrolled him in drawing classes rather than school. Blake was taught how to read and write by his mother.
Most of Blake’s diction was self-imposed, instead of using widespread words at the time. This makes Blake’s poetry truer to heart and also makes it stand out. At an early age, Blake was taught how to engrave many artworks which he thought were inferior to his own works.
He would carry on engraving for an occupation while still writing poems and working on art at the same time. He used the engravings for illustrations and writings, a pioneer in the blending of visuals and poetry.
Blake’s contemporaries thought he was insane, as it is said that he could experience hallucinogenic visions related to biblical prophecies.
When asked if Blake was a prophet or madman, Dr. Anne Wallace, UNCG English professor, said, “I myself don’t know how to make that judgement. People in many times and places have found Blake’s visions of experience compelling and beautiful — that, I think, makes him an artist, which is what leads us to his work today.”
It is undeterminable whether or not Blake experienced hallucinations; however, his vividly descriptive poetry leaves room for interpretation. Among Blake’s prophecy poems, is the unconventional, “Jerusalem.”
In “Jerusalem,” Blake makes a prediction that London will eventually become the “new” Jerusalem. Blake’s contemporaries cite “Jerusalem” as a confirmation of insanity. He remained an outcast until the day he died.
As a result, Blake’s non-prophetic works became more critically acclaimed. These poems are known for intricate symbolism and skillful lines, complemented by visual aesthetics. The poet became posthumously venerated by future poets and scholars, but like many prominent poets, he was largely unknown for his time.
In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Blake displays his unique style and vivid imagery, “Once meek, and in a perilous path, The just man kept his course along The vale of death.” This is signature Blake — a symbolic and unconventional outlook on a widespread idea.
Blake loved to be deceptive in his work. In “The Songs of Innocence and Experience,” readers must decide if the poem has intellectual subtext, or is as outwardly innocent and juvenile as it initially appears. This ambiguity is exactly what Blake wanted.
Blake, yet again, disguises hidden messages in an innocent tone in “The Piper.” Blake opens with a child in a cloud, this child could represent innocence, but also Jesus Christ.
“Pipe a song about a lamb:
So I piped with merry cheer.”
Blake then pipes a song to the child.
“Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read—”
Blake is told to convert his song to literature and he does. This sing-song biblical poetry is speculated by historians to also be linked to his religious hallucinations. Blake, it is believed, wrote poetry because God “called” for him to do so.
However, Blake’s religious undertones were considered rebellious for his time. “The Tyger,” for example, was radical in that it questions the nature of whether or not God is inherently good.
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
While not an obvious metaphor for most, that is Blake’s intent. He strives for ambiguity, and wants readers to struggle to initially understand his works.
The ambiguity of “The Tyger” served the purpose of protection. If understandable to the masses, Blake could have been expelled from England.
Today, much of his originally rebellious poetry is lost in the perception that it is too dry and metaphysical. While Blake may not be as popular as other poets from his time, modern poets can still look to him for creative inspiration in their works.