Today is the birthday (1757) of William Blake, English poet, painter and printmaker. Blake was largely unrecognized during his lifetime, but is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. He was considered mad by some of his contemporaries because of his unorthodox views on religion and his, at times, wild imagery, but now is held in high regard for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterized as part of the Romantic movement, or Pre-Romantic because of the era in which he worked. But many historians consider his work to be unclassifiable – it’s just Blake. William Rossetti characterized him as a “glorious luminary” and “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors.” Blake was devoted to the Bible but actively hostile to all forms of organized Christianity, especially the Church of England. He was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American Revolutions, though in later life he rejected many of these beliefs .
William Blake was born 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick St.) in Soho in London. He was the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Blake’s father, James, was a hosier. He attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing, leaving at the age of ten, and was otherwise educated at home by his mother Catherine Wright Armitage Blake. The Blakes were dissenters, and are believed to have belonged to the Moravian Church. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and remained a source of inspiration throughout his life.
Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that he always preferred to drawing. As a boy Blake was exposed to classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Dürer. His father and mother were able to buy prints for him to study and copy, and enrolled him in drawing classes rather than send him to school. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During his boyhood Blake made explorations into poetry and his early work shows the influence of Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, and the Psalms.
In 1772 (aged 14), Blake was apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, for the sum of £52.10, for a term of seven years. At the end of the term, aged 21, he became a professional engraver. Basire’s style of line-engraving was of a kind held at the time to be old-fashioned compared to the flashier stipple or mezzotint styles. It has been speculated that Blake’s instruction in this outmoded form may have been detrimental to his ability to find work or recognition.
In 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period. There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school’s first president, Joshua Reynolds. Over time, Blake came to detest Reynolds’ attitude towards art, especially his pursuit of “general truth” and “general beauty.” Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the “disposition to abstractions, to generalising and classification, is the great glory of the human mind.” Blake responded, in marginalia to his personal copy, that “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” Blake also disliked Reynolds’ apparent humility, which he held to be a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds’ fashionable oil painting, Blake preferred the Classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, records that in June 1780 Blake was walking towards Basire’s shop in Great Queen Street when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison. The mob attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes, set the building ablaze, and released the prisoners inside. Blake was reportedly in the front rank of the mob during the attack. The riots, in response to a parliamentary bill revoking sanctions against Roman Catholicism, became known as the Gordon Riots and provoked a flurry of legislation from the government of George III, and the creation of the first police force. Although some historians believe Blake was forced to accompany the crowd, others have argued that he accompanied it impulsively, or supported it as a revolutionary act.
Blake met Catherine Boucher in 1782 when he was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. He recounted the story of his heartbreak for Catherine and her parents, after which he asked Catherine, “Do you pity me?” When she responded affirmatively, he declared, “Then I love you.” Blake married Catherine on 18 August 1782 in St. Mary’s Church, Battersea. Catherine was illiterate and so signed her wedding contract with an X. The original wedding certificate may be viewed at the church, where a commemorative stained-glass window was installed between 1976 and 1982. Later, in addition to teaching Catherine to read and write, Blake trained her as an engraver. Throughout his life she proved an invaluable aid, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes.
Blake’s first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was printed around 1783. After his father’s death, Blake and former fellow apprentice James Parker opened a print shop in 1784, and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s house was a meeting-place for leading English intellectual dissidents of the time: theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, philosopher Richard Price, artist John Henry Fuseli, early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and Anglo-American revolutionary Thomas Paine. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the French and American revolutions and wore a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in France. In 1784 Blake composed his unfinished manuscript An Island in the Moon.
Blake illustrated Original Stories from Real Life (1788; 1791) by Mary Wollstonecraft. They seem to have shared some views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage. In Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), Blake condemned the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love, and defended the right of women to complete self-fulfillment.
In 1788, aged 31, Blake experimented with relief etching, a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets, and poems. The process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and the finished products as illuminated books or prints. Illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the plates in acid to dissolve the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name). Blake used illuminated printing for most of his well-known works, including Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem.
In 1800, Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham, in Sussex (now West Sussex), to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a minor poet.
It was in this cottage that Blake began Milton a Poem (the title page is dated 1804, but Blake continued to work on it until 1808). The preface to this work includes a poem beginning “And did those feet in ancient time,” which became the words for the anthem “Jerusalem.” “Jerusalem” has always been a favorite in England. Here it is from the last night at the proms:
Blake returned to London in 1804 and began to write and illustrate “Jerusalem” (1804–1820), his most ambitious work. Having conceived the idea of portraying the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Blake approached the dealer Robert Cromek, with a view to marketing an engraving. Knowing Blake was too eccentric to produce a popular work, Cromek promptly commissioned Blake’s friend Thomas Stothard to execute the concept. When Blake learned he had been cheated, he broke off contact with Stothard. He set up an independent exhibition in his brother’s haberdashery shop at 27 Broad Street in Soho. The exhibition was designed to market his own version, titled The Canterbury Pilgrims, along with other works. As a result, he wrote his Descriptive Catalogue (1809), which contains what Anthony Blunt called a “brilliant analysis” of Chaucer and is regularly anthologized as a classic of Chaucer criticism. It also contained detailed explanations of his other paintings. The exhibition was very poorly attended, selling none of the temperas or watercolors. Its only review, in The Examiner, was hostile.
In 1818 he was introduced by George Cumberland’s son to a young artist, John Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the Shoreham Ancients. The group shared Blake’s rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age. Aged 65, Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job, later admired by Ruskin, who compared Blake favorably to Rembrandt, and by Vaughan Williams, who based his ballet “Job: A Masque for Dancing” on a selection of the illustrations.
The commission for Dante’s Divine Comedy came to Blake in 1826 through Linnell, with the aim of producing a series of engravings. Blake’s death in 1827 cut short the enterprise, and only a handful of watercolors were completed, with only seven of the engravings arriving at proof form. Blake’s illustrations of the poem are not merely accompanying works, but rather seem to critically revise, or furnish commentary on, certain spiritual or moral aspects of the text.
Because the project was never completed, Blake’s intent may be obscured. Some indicators bolster the impression that Blake’s illustrations in their totality would take issue with the text they accompany: In the margin of “Homer Bearing the Sword and His Companions,” Blake notes, “Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost.” Blake seems to dissent from Dante’s admiration of the poetic works of ancient Greece, and from the apparent glee with which Dante allots punishments in Hell (as evidenced by the grim humor of the cantos).
At the same time, Blake shared Dante’s distrust of materialism and the corruptive nature of power, and clearly relished the opportunity to represent the atmosphere and imagery of Dante’s work pictorially. Even as he seemed to near death, Blake’s central preoccupation was his feverish work on the illustrations to Dante’s Inferno; he is said to have spent one of the very last shillings he possessed on a pencil to continue sketching.
On the day of his death, Blake worked relentlessly on his Dante series. Eventually, it is reported, he ceased working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Beholding her, Blake is said to have cried, “Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.” Having completed this portrait (now lost), Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses. At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died. Gilchrist reports that a female lodger in the house, present at his death, said, “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.”
In celebration of Blake I must print, “The Tyger,” long a favorite of mine and clearly indicative of his spiritual vision:
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
For a dish to commemorate Blake I have chosen a recipe from A Complete System of Cookery by William Verral, Master of the White-Hart in Lewes, Sussex, published the year after Blake was born, and originating not far from where he lived in Sussex. Follow the link for the complete text of the book. Water Souchy is a fish soup probably adapted from a Flemish dish, Waterzooi. Its name derives from the Dutch term “zooien” meaning “to boil.” It is sometimes called Gentse Waterzooi which refers to the Belgian town of Ghent where it originated. The original dish is often made of fish, either freshwater or sea, (known as Viszooitje), though today chicken waterzooi (Kippenwaterzooi) is more common. All versions are based on an soup-base of egg yolk, cream and thickened vegetable broth. The stew itself contains fish or chicken, vegetables including carrots, onions, celeriac, leeks, potatoes and herbs such as parsley, thyme, bay-leaves and sage.
Verral’s dish is rather bland in comparison, but it contains parsley root, a much overlooked ingredient which I would like to highlight. When you can find it, it comes with parsley attached, and makes a wonderful side dish for fish or poultry, sliced and poached, and served in a cream sauce made from the poaching water and chopped parsley tops (or simply buttered).
Here is the original recipe. It is easy to follow.
This is rather a Dutch dish, and for change no bad one. To make this in perfection you should have several sorts of small fish, flounders, gudgeons, eels, perch, and a pike or two; but it is often with perch only; they ought to be very fresh; take care all is very clean, for what they are boil’d in is the soup: cut little notches in all, and put them a little while in fresh spring water; (this is what is called crimping of fish in London); put them into a stewpan with as much water as you think will fill your dish, half a pint of white wine, a spoonful or two of vinegar, and as much salt as you would for broth. Put them over your fire in cold water, and take particular care you skim it well in boiling; provide some parsley roots cut in slices and boiled very tender, and a large quantity of leaves of parsley boiled nice and green. When your fish have boiled gently for a quarter of an hour take them from the fire and put in your roots, and when you serve it to table strew your leaves over it; take care not to break your fish and pour your liquor on softly and hot; some plates of bread and butter are generally served up with this, so be sure to have them ready.
I followed the recipe, but with quite a few changes. I’ll be building a snowman in Hades before I will find parsley root in Buenos Aires. I used mushrooms just to add some variety. I also think it is better to poach the root and parsley directly in the broth, rather than separately, as Verral suggests. Otherwise the broth is likely to be weak. I used a ton of parsley. I also used lime juice in place of vinegar because in most dishes I prefer citrus juices to vinegar (including vinaigrette). I suppose I could have used Japanese rice wine vinegar, which I quite like. I served additional lime wedges on the side for extra flavor, along with the bread and butter. Verral’s instructions imply he used whole fish; I used fillets and so did not worry about all the pre-cleaning. The Flemish dish originally used either saltwater or river fish; Verral’s list is mostly river fish. I used halibut because river fish is popular only in the northern provinces of Argentina. All in all it proved to be a flavorful dish, which I will try again.