“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.” — poet/engraver/visionary William Blake


“I mean, don’t you think it’s a little bit excessive?”
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. William Blake.”
“William Blake?”
“William Blake!”
“William Blake???”
“William Blake!!!”
Bull Durham

William Blake was a poet virtually unknown in his own lifetime. He was also an engraver. He did illustrations for children’s books, religious books, volumes of poetry. His artwork is now quite literally priceless.

William Blake was born in 1757 in London, the third of five children. He went to school until he was 14 and then got a job as an apprentice to an engraver, which is how he ended up making his (paltry) living. He lived in near poverty for his entire life. At 25, he married the illiterate Catherine Boucher. Blake taught her how to read, and they became collaborators in bringing out volumes of his poetry. He did engravings to illustrate his poems. Catherine bound the books, got them ready for publication. The entire thing was a joint production. They did all the work themselves.

Page and illustration from “Songs of Innocence and Experience”

Blake related a story from his childhood: one day he looked up into a tree and saw that it was full of winged angels. He spoke about such visions openly and much of his poetry has a phantasmagorical religious transcendence. They’re really not like anything else. However, that’s not all there was to him. Much of his poetry is made up of biting social critique, reminiscent of Dickens’ broadsides against enforced poverty, ignorance, cruelty towards children – although Blake is even harsher in many ways. Blake wrote about the poor, about social conditions, about overworked children. As T.S. Eliot said of him, “He is very eighteenth century.”

Blake is one of the most quotable of poets. Similar to Shakespeare, his thoughts/images have entered the lexicon.

My favorite Blake quote is:

“The eagle never lost so much time when he submitted to learn from the crow.”

This idea has helped me survive Twitter.


His long poem Marriage of Heaven and Hell is overwhelming. (Here’s a link to the whole thing, complete with Blake’s accompanying engravings: Marriage of Heaven and Hell.) Blake was a man of his era and held views that have to be understood in the context of his time (this will be true of all of us eventually). Not many poets offer a whole philosophy of life. Some try, but it’s cliched because ultimately they don’t have much to SAY, and their thought processes are like everybody else’s thought processes. Banal. Blake’s mind was not like other people’s. He created a whole system of belief, complete with mythological characters carrying specific symbolic resonances. It was not a world-view. It was a world.

His poetry is the literary version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Van Gogh did not interpret the sky. He experienced the sky and painted what he saw. At least that’s what I think. What may seem symbolic or exaggerated to Blake’s readers, especially contemporary readers, was how he actually experienced life. He was very radical. He’s STILL radical.

Holy Thursday
by William Blake

‘Twas on a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two in red and blue and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames waters flow.

O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among:
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor.
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Blake’s “Angel of the Revelation”

…and now we saw it, it was the head of Leviathan, his forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple like those on a tyger’s forehead. Soon we saw his mouth and red gills hang just above the raging foam tinging the black deep with beams of blood, advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence. — William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Allen Ginsberg “promoted” William Blake to his peers and acolytes (meaning: a whole generation). Blake’s star was way fallen by the 50s/60s. People read “Tyger Tyger” in school, but that was about it. Ginsberg was on a mission to bring Blake back into currency. (Here’s an in-depth essay about Blake and Ginsberg.)

Blake leant himself posthumously to the wild 1960s as a kind of Grand Mentor (which is rather absurd if you think about it, but it’s a clear indication of his work’s staying power).


The poem excerpted below is one of his best-known. He wrote a number of poems about the plight of chimney sweeps, but really the poems are indictments of a heartless society, treating its most vulnerable members with brutality and indifference. Blake was a visionary poet, yes, but he did not turn his eyes away from earthly matters.

The heartbreak is in the details: the overworked/dying child is so young he can’t even pronounce “sweep” properly yet. It comes out as “weep, weep, weep” (a double-meaning, of course).

The Chimney Sweep

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, and 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; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, –
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and 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 and 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 and 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, and never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

Camille Paglia, another modern Blake “promoter”, devoted a whole chapter to him in Sexual Personae, and also wrote about him in Break, Blow, Burn, and probably elsewhere, I can’t keep up. She wrote a lot about the chimney sweep poems, saying, hauntingly:

Blake’s artificially whitened children are overexperienced and knowledgeable. An unsettling analogy can be found in a Roman imperial sarcophagus decorated with leering obese putti, fetid with adult sensuality. Blake’s cherubs are depraved by adult tyranny.

Some of William Blake’s extraordinary engravings below:

Christ in the sepulcher guarded by angels – 1805

Whirlwind of Lovers (Illustration to Dante’s Inferno)

The Ancient of Days – 1794

Isaac Newton – 1795



Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

There were almost no outward events in Blake’s life.

William Blake:

Allegory address’d to the Intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding, is My Definition of the Most Sublime Poetry.

T.S. Eliot:

It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Some of his lyrics were known and admired by Coleridge and other literary men, and his paintings were valued by some of the better artists of his time. Almost unknown, however, were what are widely (and rightly) now regarded as his most important achievement, a series of visionary poems culminating in three brief or foreshortened epics, works demonstrating probably the greatest conceptual power ever to appear among poets.

From “Who”:
By Allen Ginsberg
From Great Consciousness vision Harlem 1948 buildings standing in Eter-
I realized entire Universe was manifestation of One mind –
My teacher was William Blake – my life work Poesy,
transmitting that spontaneous awareness to Mankind.

F.R. Leavis:

He had no public: he very early gave up publishing in any serious sense. One obvious consequence, or aspect, of this knowledge is the carelessness that is so apparent in the later prophetic books. Blake had ceased to be capable of taking enough trouble.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Not so much the French Revolution but the English reaction against the spread of revolution is Blake’s starting point.

William Blake, letter to William Hayley, Oct. 23, 1804:

Dear Sir, excuse my enthusiasm or rather madness, for I am really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take a pencil or engraver into my hand …

W.B. Yeats, A Vision:

I had never read Hegel, but my mind had been full of Blake from boyhood up and I saw the world as a conflict—Spectre and Emanation—and could distinguish between a contrary and a negation. ‘Contraries are positive’ wrote Blake, ‘a negation is not a contrary’, ‘How great the gulph between simplicity and insipidity’, and again, ‘There is a place at the bottom of the graves where contrareities are equally true’.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Yeats acknowledged [“The Mental Traveller”]’s influence upon his mythological book A Vision. Few poems in the language do so much so grandly and so grimly in just over a hundred lines.

Camille Paglia, Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems:

Romantic writers glorified childhood as a state of innocence. Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, written in the same year as the French Revolution, combines the Romantic cult of the child with the new radical politics, which can both be traced to social thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is the boy sweep, rather than Blake, who speaks: he acts as the poet’s dramatic persona or mask. There is no anger in his tale. On the contrary, the sweep’s gentle acceptance of his miserable life makes his exploitation seem all the more atrocious. Blake shifts responsibility for protest onto us.

Robert Graves:

The prophetic robe with its woof of meekness and its warp of wrath was forced on [Blake] by loneliness and his modest station in life.

George Orwell, “Politics vs. Literature: An examination of Gulliver’s Travels, Polemic, Sept-Oct 1946

Even if he had not written Part III of Gulliver’s Travels, one could infer from the rest of the book that, like Tolstoy and like Blake, he hates the very idea of studying the processes of Nature.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

It is one of the disturbing paradoxes about Blake that, lifelong rebel though he was, his mature work increasingly seems conservative in the longest perspectives we can achieve. An enemy of the rationalists, he was a great rationalizer; an exploder of the mythologies, he remythologized so extensively as to help preserve the cultural life of many phenomena he wished to bury. Though he has been reclaimed for the latest movements of social, political, and artistic revolt from late nineteenth-century England down to the present moment, he is further away from any and all of us than he is from the Enlightenment he prophesied against.

T.S. Eliot, in condescending mode:

We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy … that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house.

Hart Crane:

I feel that Eliot ignores certain spiritual events and possibilities as real and powerful now as, say in the time of Blake.

George Orwell, As I Please, Tribune, January 26, 1945

I want to correct an error that I made in this column last week. It seems that there is a plaque to William Blake, and that it is somewhere near St. George’s church in Lambeth. I had looked for one in that area and had failed to find it. My apologies to the L.C.C.

Algernon Charles Swinburne:

Too much of Blake’s written work while at Felpham is wanting in executive quality, and even in decent coherence of verbal dress, is undeniable … Everything now written in the fitful impatient intervals of the day’s work bears the stamp of an over-heated brain, and of nerves too intensely strung. [This was because of] the sudden country life, the taste and savour of the sea, which touch sharply and irritate deliciously the more susceptible and intricate organs of mind and nature. How far such passive capacity of excitement differs from insanity; how in effect a temperament so sensuous, so receptive, and so passionate, is further off from any risk of turning unsound than hardier natures carrying heavier weight and tougher in the nerves, need scarcely be indicated.

Allen Ginsberg, from Psalm IV, (1960):
I lay broad waking on a fabulous couch in Harlem
having masturbated for no love, and read half-naked an open book of Blake
on my lap
Lo & behold! I was thoughtless and turned a page and gaze on the living

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

The psychosexual design of “Infant Joy” is hovering…[God Creating Adam] seems to show an unnatural sex act, homosexual and sadomasochistic. Criticism is squeamish about admitting these perversities in Blake.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Blake, for all his gifts, is not a poet of the eminence of Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton, yet he gives his readers not only what can be expected from a great poet, but a profundity of schematized psychological insight comparable to Freud’s, and a disciplined intellectual inventiveness comparable to Hegel’s. His difficulty for readers, and his unique value, is that he offers even more than that, for he is, as he insisted, a prophet, in the precise sense that Isaiah and Ezekiel (he would have added Milton) are prophetic poets. His poems, which are always poems, are astonishingly ambitious, even for the Romantic Age, into which he survived. They propose nothing less than to teach us how to live, and to explain to us what has made it so hard to live as fully human rather than merely natural beings.

W.B. Yeats, The Works of William Blake:

‘Vision, or imagination,’ writes Blake, ‘is a representation of what actually exists, really and unchangeably. Fable, or allegory, is formed by the daughters of Memory.’ A vision is, that is to say, a perception of the eternal symbols, about which the world is formed, while allegory is a memory of some natural event into which we read a spiritual meaning. In vision the meaning chooses its own symbol by a kind of affinity, while in the case of allegory we choose out some corporeal accident, and build into our memory of it a little vision, for allegory, according to Blake, contains ‘some vision’ always, and lift it up into a personification of a spiritual or natural meaning.

William Blake, on distinction between “Allegory & Vision”:

Fable or Allegory are a totally distinct & inferior kind of poetry. Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists, Really & Unchangeable.

Notes from the Edge
By Judith Wright

I used to love Keats, Blake
now I try haiku
for its honed brevities,
its inclusive silence.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Blake’s chastity is diametrically opposite to that of Spenser and Shakespeare, for whom it signifies spiritual integrity and force. Like Sade, Blake sees chastity as unnatural, energy-killing. But in urging Thel, a sick rose, to cure herself by surrendering to communion, Blake is closer to Shakespeare of the comedies, where all are given in marriage, than he is to his fellow Romantic poets, for whom solitude is imaginative perfection. Shakespeare, subordinating sex to society, makes a Renaissance escape from the problem confronting Blake. Trying to eliminate society but redeem sex, Blake keeps finding himself in Leonardo’s rockscape. Every inch he saves for sex is lost in the desolate mile of mother nature.

Max Byrd:

Admirers of Blake are always expressing surprise that he should have been called mad by anyone — ‘The legend of Blake’s “madness” never seem to cease, despite all scholarly rebuttal,’ complains Harold Bloom. Such puzzlement is unrealistic. The legends of Blake’s madness persist because he wrote poetry that describes Milton entering his left foot, because he claimed to speak daily and hourly with the spirit of his dead brother and with other spirits, because he wrote long incomprehensible poems about unheard-of beings with names like Enitharmon and Golgonooza. In almost any age of human history such a man would have seemed insane … What is striking in a way about Blake’s career is not that so many people considered him insane but that so many people did not.

S. Foster Damon:

It would be cruel to print even the names of those critics who have frankly pronounced Blake mad because they could not understand him.

So THERE, Max Byrd.

Hubert Norman:

Though the prevailing state with Blake was one of exaltation and belief in his own capabilities, there were also periods of extreme depression, and the condition may, with little doubt, be classified as one of maniacal-depressive insanity. The fluctuations in his mental condition were so marked as to be in themselves sufficient evidence of marked nervous instability, and these alternations were so pronounced as to be inconsistent with the normal periodicity which is to be noticed in those whose sanity is not impugned. When, too, we find that in addition to these alternations there is evidence of diminished control – as shown in undue excitability and impulsive violence, of hallucinations of sight and hearing, and of delusions of persecution – there is no doubt that the boundary which separates sanity from insanity has been crossed. Those who protest against this plain statement do not seem to realize that they do Blake less than justice.

George Orwell, “Review of Collected Poems of W.H. Davies“, The Observer, December 1943

Like Blake, he appears to avoid silliness by not being afraid of it; and perhaps (like Blake again) this appearance is partly deceptive, and he is less artless than he seems,

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Blake was politically of the Permanent Left, like Shelley in the next generation, and to him the Augustan trinity of Reason, Nature, and Society was a three-headed beast or triple whore responsible for the sufferings of the lower classes of England, out of whom he had come and with whom he defiantly remained. The Revolution did not come to England, the repression of Pitt did its work well, and Blake learned the joyless wisdom of public timidity. He secretly raged, in his notebooks and his poems, but he accurately said of his outward obedience: “I am hid.”

Edward Thomas:

In his youth, [Blake] had a gift of simple and fair speech; but he lost it. Although he could always catch the heavenly harmony of thoughts he could seldom mount them on a fitting chariot of rhythm and rhyme. His fine passages were the direct gift of the Muse, and are followed by lines of other origin.

George Orwell, “Dickens”, March 1940

Blake was not a politician, but there is more understanding of the nature of capitalist society in a poem like ‘I wander through each charter’d street’ than in three-quarters of Scottish literature.

William Blake to Dr. John Trusler, 1799:

You say that I want somebody to elucidate my ideas. But you ought to know that what is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Sade and Blake’s sadomasochistic systems are rebuttals of Rousseau’s maternal naturism. The awful energy of Blake’s sinister females is equivalent to the eerie stillness of Goethe’s brooding Mothers. Nineteenth-century Romantic literature and art are dominated by the femme fatale. Blake feels this coming and tries to stop it. Ironically, in grappling with mother nature, Blake has not so much laid her ghost as raised and immortalized it. Our movements against nature lock us to her. Blake’s daemonized poetry gathers a storm cloud over sex that will never clear.

lol ridiculous, but entertaining and thought-provoking. Only she would write a paragraph like that.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Blake prophetically indicted the English conservative cultural tradition in its totality.

Michael Schmidt:

Blake insisted that he wrote the Prophetic Books “from immediate dictation and even against my will.” He doesn’t always know what he’s saying.

Northrop Frye:

A modern writer on Blake is not required to discuss his sanity, for which I am grateful. I could not do so without being haunted by one of his own epigrams: ‘The Man who pretends to be a modest enquirer into the truth of a self evident thing is a Knave.'”

T.S. Eliot:

What his genius required, and what it sadly lacked, was a framework of accepted and traditional ideas which would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own, and concentrated his attention upon the problems of the poet.

Tall poppy syndrome? Does he realize what he is asking is, essentially, “Blake, please be more like everybody else”?

William Blake:

The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling…How do we distinguish the oak from the beech, the horse from the ox, but by the bounding outline? How do we distinguish one face or countenance from another, but by the bounding line and its infinite inflexions and movements?

Seamus Heaney:

Conquest, difficulty, labour: these terms indicate the nature of Yeats’s creative disposition. From the start, he was enamoured of Blake’s conviction that energy is eternal delight, yet the development of his own thought brought him more and more to the conclusion that conflict was the inescapable condition of being human.

An Acre of Green Grass
By W.B. Yeats
PICTURE and book remain,
An acre of green grass
For air and exercise,
Now strength of body goes;
Midnight, an old house
Where nothing stirs but a mouse.

My temptation is quiet.
Here at life’s end
Neither loose imagination,
Nor the mill of the mind
Consuming its rag and bone,
Can make the truth known.

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.

F.R. Leavis:

A completely and uncompromisingly individual idiom and technique … individual, original, and isolated enough to be without influence.

William Blake on Rubens:

[His] original conception was all fire and animation, he loads it with hellish brownness, and blocks up all its gates of light … most Contemptible. His Shadows are of a Filthy Brown somewhat of the Colour of Excrement.”

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

He hoped to rescue English culture from what he interpreted as its decadence, by restoring poetry to what it had been in Milton and the Renaissance writers before Milton, and by raising English painting to what it had never been, the spiritual art of Michelangelo and Raphael.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Like Spenser, [Blake] left a message that remains unread.

T.S. Eliot on “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience”:

The emotions are presented in an extremely simplified, abstract form. This form is one illustration of the eternal struggle of art against education, of the literary artist against the continuous deterioration of language.

Allen Ginsberg, from “One Day,” journals, 1961
I say I heard Blake’s voice
There was something wrong with me
aural hallucination

George Orwell, Review of Cricket Country, by Edmund Blunden, Manchester Evening News, April 20, 1944

On the other hand, [cricket’s] two bitterest enemies of all are “Beachcomber” and “Timothy Shy”, who see in it an English institution which they feel it their duty to belittle, along with Wordsworth, William Blake, and Parliamentary government.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

The Miltonizing poets of Sensibility failed, in Blake’s opinion, because they were not sane enough to overthrow a worldview Blake regarded as totally mad, and which he associated with Bacon, Newton, and Locke in metaphysics and with Dryden, Pope, Dr. Johnson, and Sir Joshua Reynolds in the arts. This worldview is so savagely caricatured by Blake that we need to be very wary about accepting his version of it as being in any way adequate to those thinkers and artists.

T.S. Eliot:

You cannot create a very large poem without introducing a more impersonal point of view, or splitting it up into various personalities. But the weakness of the long poems is certainly not that they are too visionary, too remote from the world. It is that Blake did not see enough, became too much occupied with ideas.

William Blake:

Think of a white cloud as being holy, you cannot love it, but think of a holy man within the cloud, love springs up in your thoughts, for to think of holiness distinct from man is impossible to the affections. Thought alone can make monsters, but the affections cannot.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Blake attacks all hierarchies.

This entry was posted in Art/Photography, Books, On This Day, writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.” — poet/engraver/visionary William Blake

  1. Desirae says:

    I love his art. It’s so forward looking in terms of style – I see his influence on the Surrealists, for example. It’s modern art before the term existed.

  2. mutecypher says:

    “I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans.”

    “How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?”

    He was a gift, as surely as the sunrise.

  3. Pingback: The Sheila Variations | nolafusion

  4. KathyB says:

    When Adam delved and Eve span,
    Who was then the gentleman

    And this

    Jerusalem [“And did those feet in ancient time”]
    By William Blake

    And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon Englands mountains green:
    And was the holy Lamb of God,
    On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

    And did the Countenance Divine,
    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here,
    Among these dark Satanic Mills?

    Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
    Bring me my arrows of desire:
    Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
    Bring me my Chariot of fire!

    I will not cease from Mental Fight,
    Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
    Till we have built Jerusalem,
    In Englands green & pleasant Land.

    Happy Birthday, William Blake

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.