Arguably known as much for his painting skills as for his poetry, British Romantic poet William Blake (1757-1827) was recognized for neither during his lifetime. Blake has been posthumously recognized for the philosophical undercurrents in his self-proclaimed prophetic works.
Blake was said to be influenced at one point, as were many writers of his time, by the ideals of the American and French Revolutions. His vocal criticism of organized religion and idiosyncratic viewpoints likely did nothing to help him gain prominence in literary circles during his lifetime; however, the rise and fall of many writers’ reputations throughout the centuries has more to do with the ideologies and sentiments of modern critics than actual fair analysis of one’s work in the context of their own time and circumstance.
The third of seven children, Blake was homeschooled by his mother after age 10. He entered into an apprenticeship for seven years to become a professional engraver, after which he became a student at the Royal Academy. In 1781, he married the illiterate Catherine Boucher, who he taught not only to read and write, but how to engrave. She subsequently helped him in his craft for the rest of his life.
Blake’s most recognizable poems include “The Tyger” and “The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I Was Very Young,” both of which are found below.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I Was Very Young
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.