Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets

Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils by William Blake, London, 1826. Wikimedia Commons

The Artistic Life of William Blake

As mentioned in the introduction, William Blake is amongst the most tame of the Romantic Poets – don’t worry, we’ll get onto the degenerates shortly – but his extraordinary literary output deserved to be mentioned in any list of the Romantics. Blake (1757-1827) was the son of a London hosier, and trained as an engraver. The poet’s unusual background was to prove a vital part of his artistic expression, as he laboriously illustrated the published versions of his esoteric literary outpourings. Throughout his life, Blake claimed to have received ecstatic visions of angels and demons, which formed much of his artistic output.

But whilst many of his poems took the form of religious visions, their eccentric subjectivism is at the essence of Romanticism. This is nowhere clearer than in the poem Jerusalem, a prophetic tale of the fall of Albion, an embodiment of man, Britain, or the West in general, where he explains that: ‘I must Create a System, or be Enslave’d by another Man’s’. Though chiefly meditated through his religious views, Blake’s statement demonstrates how he insisted on the importance of a personal engagement with Christianity, in response to the Puritanical version of the faith and the materialism of the Enlightenment.

Blake’s work railed against the nature of conventional morality and organised religion, both shockingly anti-establishment views in their time. Most shocking of all, Blake was to some degree opposed to marriage, seeing it as a type of institutionalised slavery. He also rejected the definition of chastity as a Christian virtue, a desperately unpopular move in the sexually-repressed period through which he lived. Such views meant that Blake was not acknowledged as a great poet in his day (the fate of all great poets, according to Shelley), and at the time of his death he was viewed as gifted but insane.

This did not stop his philosophical and theological ideas and freeness of poetic form influencing Wordsworth and Coleridge and scores of others, though Wordsworth apparently agreed he was mad. These younger poets saw in Blake a vision of what a self-determining artist, unbound by the rules of poetic tradition, conventional standards, and wisdom, could become. Thus whilst there is no evidence that Blake, a happily married though childless man, had multiple sexual partners, drank heavily, or took laudanum, his work undoubtedly had a profound influence on culture, mostly via the medium of others, around the dawning of the 19th century.