In William Blake’s first notable work, Songs of Innocence, he imagines that a poor chimney sweep is visited by angels:
And by came an angel, who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins, and set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Being a chimney sweep was one of the worst fates for a child in London, but because of this vision, Blake writes that "though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm"—a solution that seems vaguely unbelievable even as it soothes. Visions were a sustaining force for William Blake throughout his artistic and poetic life. At the age of four, he saw God "put his head to the window," and at nine, he saw "a tree full of angels." Because of poverty and illness, these visions increased, and the world of angels and dreams made its way into Blake's highly prolific artist life—his poetry, engravings, and watercolors.
Blake was born in London in 1757. His parents, recognizing that he was different from his peers, sent him to art school. But when it became too expensive, he left, and became an apprentice to an engraver. He bought inexpensive reproductions of artists like Raphael, Michelangelo, Giulio Romano, Albrecht Dürer, and Maerten Heemskerck, who were not widely studied during the eighteenth century, and his father brought him plaster casts so that he might learn to draw the human form. One of his many projects was engraving the tombs at Westminster Abbey, and many historians believe he did the preparatory sketches for the engravings as well (it was unusual for an apprentice to do anything besides the most tedious engraving work), stimulating his interest in Gothic themes and forms.
In 1779, Blake began his formal art education at the Royal Academy of Art’s Schools of Design, where he was encouraged to study painters such as Rubens instead of the Renaissance works that his teacher called "stiff and unfinished." Blake pursued his own artistic goals, and a short time afterward published his first book of poems, Poetical Sketches.
In later works, including Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, the engravings and verses are inextricably intertwined, part of a singular vision where neither word nor image is privileged over the other. He produced them with the help of his wife, using a method called relief engraving (which he is credited for inventing) and hand-coloring each plate. His poetic and artistic work is characterized by a unique commitment to imagination as opposed to reason, and the visionary, almost terrifying, and sometimes grotesque nature of his subject matter.
Drawing on religious themes, and preferring a loose, expressive style, his book Songs of Innocence has the quality of a children’s book, with darker, adult political themes just beneath the surface. Angels are depicted alongside men, women, and children, and in the poem "London" he imagines the city as a dark, unreal realm, illustrated with an old man bent toward a child in a shadowy doorframe. The poem begins:
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
The chimney sweeper acts as an almost prophetic reminder of the social evils he witnesses:
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls
At the time of his death, Blake was working on a cycle of drawings to accompany Dante's Divine Comedy. At the William Blake Archive website, visitors can see complete illuminated versions of eighteen books, as well as his drawings, paintings, and commissioned illustrations.