Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright…
For many people, that’s the one line of William Blake’s poetry they think they know. But the prolific, self-published poet an artist has a great cultural reach. You probably know more than you think.
When I first came across his poetry at university, it struck me by its freshness. It was unlike anything else I’d ever read. It has stayed with me down the years until – finally – it surfaced in my new novel, The Peacock Room.
Born in 1757, Blake was the son of a small businessman who ran a shop selling stockings in Broad Street, Soho. The family was respectable but not rich, and Blake was expected to work for a living.
He had shown an interest in art from an early age, so was apprenticed to be an engraver, engraving the designs of other artists. Although he enrolled as a student in the Royal Academy of Arts, he never felt he got the artistic recognition he deserved.
As a boy, Blake loved to walk from central London down to Peckham, where he saw angels in the trees of Peckham Rye. Maybe he found solace in the countryside – he grew up in a violent time, having witnessed the destructive Gordon Riots. He was certainly radical in his youth, and wore a cap which showed his support for the revolution in France.
He married Catherine, the daughter of a market gardener from Battersea, in 1782 when he was 25. Despite their long and seemingly happy marriage, they never had children. A year after his marriage, Blake published his first book of poems. At this time, too, he bought a printing press and set up in business.
Blake wrote the first drafts of the poems that were later published as Songs of Innocence and Experience (including The Tyger, Infant Joy, and London) in about 1785. He was part of a literary circle, and there are records of him singing his poems aloud to the company.
But he was frustrated that all the calls on his talent were for his skill as an engraver, to engrave the work of others. A few admirers asked him to produce his own illustrations, for example to illustrate Bible stories or books of poems. He did the work to keep the money coming in, but his heart was in his poems and art.
Blake and Catherine moved to Lambeth in south London in 1790, where they lived for 10 years close to the river in Hercules Buildings. It was here that many of his best-known works were written.
Blake had devised a process by which he engraved the poems and their illustrations on one plate, which he would then print and hand-colour. He was excited that this liberated him to print his own books, but disappointed that they did not meet with great success. Few of his copies of Songs of Innocence and Experience were sold, and even fewer of his later prophetic books.
He gained more success as an illustrator of other people’s books, and for a time because quite sought-after. However, he had a habit of falling out with his patrons and publishers, which didn’t help. In 1800 Blake moved to the village of Felpham on the Sussex coast, where he worked for a local landowner, Thomas Butts. Although he loved the place at first, Blake became frustrated at the work he was asked to do, such as engraving work for Butts’ own books of (dire) poetry. However, during his two years by the coast he began two major new works, Milton and Jerusalem.
The stay in Felpham was brought to a dramatic end when Blake was accused of sedition by a soldier with whom he had an argument. At the time, during the wars with France, this was incredibly serious and Blake could have been in danger. However, Butts paid for a good lawyer and the villagers of Felpham sided with Blake in court. He was acquitted of the charge.
The Blakes returned to London, where William continued to work as an artist and engraver. His one and only exhibition, put on by his brother above his Soho shop, was not a success. He toiled on, mostly in obscurity, although he formed friendships with up-and-coming painters such as Samuel Palmer.
Blake died in his bed in 3 Fountain Court, off The Strand, on 12 August 1827, singing his own songs of praise.
The facts of Blake’s life are – Felpham excluded – uneventful. He lived and worked mostly in obscurity. But the legacy of his work is incredible. In the years after his death his work was reassessed by – among others – the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, the writer Aldous Huxley, the rock band The Doors, graphic novelist Alan Moore and the Women’s Institute, who sing Blake’s anthem Jerusalem at their meetings.
I wanted to explore a little more of the life, and influence, of this most original mind. The Peacock Room is the result.