William Blake, The Artist

As a nine year old, William Blake claimed he saw a “tree filled with angels”, moreover, he never outgrew or denounced these visions. His favourite artists were those unappreciated in their time, such as Michelangelo. So it is rather obvious that William Blake was not one likely to conform to the norm. William Blake was a true artistic rebel, commenting on contemporary society and placing himself deliberately outside of the literary scene. In the eighteenth century, most authors had very little control of their works as they were printed and sold. William Blake, however, decided to create his own illustrations and print his own works, as a result he kept full control.


The process of creation followed by production was very important to Blake, bearing in mind that he created a concept, for which there had to be a balance between writing and illustrations. The entire work had to be his, as he envisioned a concept and not a mere book. His name on the frontispiece functioned as a signature, similar to a painter signing his work. He was printer and author, thus explicitly stating he was sole creator of this work. William Blake produced his books as a form of art, very luxurious pieces, they were not intended for the book market.

The fact that his books were not meant for the book market, is also made clear by how they were printed. The most economical method of printing at that time was typesetting, for which woodcuts were used. Ink was poured on top of the woodcuts, on the raised letters, then it was pressed on the paper. This form was mostly used by printers at that time. However, there was a different manner, which was more laborious. Copperplates were engraved with a design, poured over with ink and after the ink had been wiped off, it was pressed on paper. The indentations left their mark on the paper. Copperplate-printing enabled the printer to add a lot more detail.

blake_acidWilliam Blake even invented a new form of copperplate printing. He sought to improve the intaglio manner, in which the design was scratched onto a waxed surface before being engraved deeper or a needle was used to map it out into an acid-resistant coating before pouring acid onto the plate. Therefore, he came up with relief etching, whereby the design is painted onto the copperplate with acid-resistant varnish, leaving the unpainted surface to be eaten away and the rest in relief to be printed. Moreover, this had to be done in mirror image. So, it is clear that this was a very laborious process, which could not be done for mass production. Each page had to be etched separately into a copperplate, that lasted only for about 1000 copies. Therefore, Blake focused on producing  individual copies for individual and rich patrons.

Blake made the work even more laborious and time consuming by making extensive use of colours which had to be printed consecutively and separately. True to his nature of a media transcending artist mixing artist categories like painter, printer and poet (cf. supra), themes found within his poetic word sculpting in his poems also shine trough in each individually conceptualised and realised edition where the coloration is used as a supplementary tool to further the themes addressed by and in his works. Corroborating this is a comparison of differences between several editions of The songs of Innocence where coloration differences can be seen to signify the real world interplay between the major themes addressed within the work.

Where the French Revolution was first hailed by British poets, this quickly shifted after the rise of Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins in France, where the so called Reign of Terror was responsible for the mass killings of thousands. A reflection of this can be seen in editions realised around that time where first, in line with the positive way the revolution was seen, bright colours overflowed the title page. But when times changed and the French Revolution totally became synonymous with the Age of the Guillotine and all ideals seemed to be unrealised, dark colours start taking over the title page.


As a true multidisciplinary Blake takes to heart a role frequently envisioned by poets and other artists alike; not solely portraying and representing but by their works alerting people to the world around them.

Importance of Blake’s illustrations for specific poems

The Clod and the Pebble

“The Clod and the Pebble”, a poem from Songs of Experience, is not part of an obvious pair of poems. Moreover, it seems to incorporate both innocence and experience, and demonstrates Blake’s typical contrasting values in one poem.

At first the poem seems to balance both points of view, as the clod and the pebble get an equal amount of lines to express their opinion. The word “but” in line 6 is the turning point from the Clod’s argument to that of the Pebble. The clod expresses an argument of innocence, while the pebble utters a more experienced view. The fact that Blake selects the latter to end the debate with may show his tendency to lean towards favoring that argument, but he may just as well be respecting the chronology (first innocence, then experience – within the different versions of these books, poems sometimes were moved around). However, as both concluding lines of the arguments seem rather balanced, he is as well forcing the reader to make up his own mind.

At the same time, Blake was not just giving textual clues, but visual clues as well. Since Blake was responsible for the engravings illuminating his poems, he could easily “guide” the reader to one opinion or another trough, for instance, meticulous selection of the colours used.


As for the imagery illustrating this poem, it is the environment in which the clod and the pebble find themselves which is depicted here, the clod nor the pebble can be found. The fact that neither of them are shown could imply that they are merely representing abstract ideas.

Blake shows us quite a peaceful scenery, the cattle drinking, and the frogs playing in the brook. Even though the pebble utters quite pessimistic thoughts, there is no explicit visual show of a thread whatsoever.

In other versions, the colours change, this is shown most explicitely in a 1795 version:


Only by changing towards more dark colours, the poem gets a much more gloomy feel to it, leaving the reader with the idea that, even though the stanzas are balanced, the pebble’s judgement is the one favoured by the author (in contrast to the 1794 version shown above, with its more lively and light colours, which seems to emphasize the clod’s opinion of love.)

Later versions, such as a 1825 version:


Once again show a more peaceful and balanced imagery. Blake constantly played around with the colours of his images, switching from light to dark and back, and as such adding more possible interpretations every time he finished another edition.

The Chimney Sweeper

In The Chimney Sweeper, Blake talks about little children –they were the only ones small enough- that had to sweep out chimneys. This sort of child labor was actually very common in 18th and 19th century England. The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence (1789) has a first person narration, the viewpoint is that of a little child sweeper. The ‘weep! weep! weep! weep!’ of the third line evokes a very strong sympathetic feeling with the narrator. “But just because the misery is so concretely realized, the affirmation of visionary joy is more triumphant than in any other poem of the series.” (E.D. Hirsch: 1964)


Blake is definitely a man of contrasts (already indicated in the subtitle: “Shewing the two contrary states of the human soul”) and his mastership in making them ‘work’ becomes apparent in this poem. The poem derives its Songs of Innocence copy B, 1789, 1794 (British Museum): genius and strength from the contrast between the woeful, horrible job in real life and the joyful bliss in the dream. It is the latter part that Blake focused on when he made the illustration that accompanies The Chimney Sweeper. Underneath the actual words one can see the ‘Angel’ figure (line 13) that is pulling a boy (probably ‘Tom Dacre’: line 5) from the earth (or ‘coffin’: line 14) and thus setting him free to go ‘down a green plain, leaping, laughing’. It is this dreamlike setting that fills the young boy with warmth when he has to get up in the morning. Although the child sweeper has a pitiful existence (his mother is dead and he has a horrible job), the poem is eventually one of hope; this feeling is definitely enhanced by the illustration.

The Chimney Sweeper from The Songs of Experience (1794) seems less hopeful. Here the narrator asks the sweep to tell him his story. So, again, most of the poem is told from the child’s point of view. Unlike in the previous poem, the mother here is still alive. Still, the child is all alone in the snow, because its parents “are up to the church to pray” (line 4). This scene of loneliness is brilliantly evoked by Blake’s illustration: one can see “A little black thing among the snow” (line 1) and apart from the snow and the houses, there’s no one else, the streets are completely deserted. The child, then, is all alone “to sing the notes of woe” (line 8).

songsie.b.p45-37.300This poem is, in our opinion, directed against the rigid hierarchy of the Anglican church: “God & his priest & King”(line 11) “make up a heaven of our misery”. The authoritative figures tell the less fortunate they have to grateful for the life God has given them, moreover, they ‘soothe’ the poor by explaining that they will achieve heaven if they work hard enough. The sweeper is, in fact, happy, but not because of the comforting lies the churchmen tells it: “what makes the sweep happy in his misery is not that sinister delusion, Heaven, but the strength of life that is in him.” (E.D. Hirsch: 1964). This is explained in the second stanza.

Again, the illustration of the dirty, gritty sweeper full of soot with is mouth open, seemingly crying “weep, weep” (line 2) is an enhancement of the ideas formulated in the poem itself.

Hence, it is clear that “[t]o read a Blake poem without the pictures is to miss something important: Blake places words and images in a relationship that is sometimes mutually enlightening and sometimes turbulent, and that relationship is an aspect of the poem’s argument.” (Norton Anthology)


Eaves, M. & Essick, R.N. & Viscomi, J. (2012) Works in the William Blake Archive. Viewed on 29/11/2012, http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/indexworks.htm?java=yes

Greenblatt, S. (2006) The Norton Anthology: English Literature Volume D. London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Hagstrum, J.H. (1964). William Blake Poet and Painter. London: William Clowes and Sons.

Hirsch, E.D. (1964). Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. Clinton: The Colonial Press

Song and Poetry: On Poets and Nightingales

Welcome to the third student post on 18th Century Literature and media. After last week’s dramatic reproduction of an 18th century theatre experience, we shall now descend into the realm of Song and Poetry.

Ode to a Nightingale – John Keats

The nightingale’s song served as an inspiration for many poets

The romantic poet John Keats wrote his Ode to a Nightingale  in 1819 after enjoying a nightingale’s song in his garden. This event lead him to compose this ode in the spirit of the romantic era. In order to fully understand the poem, one needs to know two things. Firstly, as Keats had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, he resorted to opiates as a method to alleviate his pain. This biographical fact echoes in the poem, where his numbness caused by opium and alcohol is reflected in the initial stanzas. Secondly, the nightingale is not “just” a bird. Keats, as well as the other poets that will be discussed here, allude to Greek mythology in which Philomela – a princess of Athens – transforms into a nightingale to escape the anger of Tereus.

( In book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philomela’s tragic story is outlined. King Tereus, who was married to Philomela’s sister Procne, showed too much interest in his sister-in-law. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Tereus rapes Philomela, cuts her tongue out and hides her in a shed on top of a mountain. One year later, Philomela’s sister Procne, presuming Philomela has been dead all this time, receives a fabric that confirms Philomela is still alive and also contains a representation of all the harm that has been done to her sister. Procne releases her sister without Tereus knowing, both determined to punish Tereus. They kill the son Procne had with Tereus and fed his corps to the king.  When Tereus founds out the deceit, he tries to pursue the two sisters, unable to catch either one of them given that, while they are running from him, they transform into a nightingale and a swallow. Ovid mentions at the end that both birds will be forever marked with the murder they committed by having their breast covered with bloodstained feathers.)

In Ode to a Nightingale he links the story of Philomela with the bird by describing the nightingale as a “light-winged Dryad of the trees”. Later on in the poem, the reader will see the resemblance between Philomela’s tragic story and Keats’ perpetual pains. Further on in the first stanza, Keats compares his personal drug abuse with the effect of poetry in general. His poetic hallucinations initially rhyme with his personal drug experiences. The flush that drugs or drinking provides level with Keats’ empirical understanding of what a poem should accomplish.

John Keats (1795-1821)

With admiration for the extensive happiness and freedom of the nightingale in the opening stanza of the poem, the mind of the poet slips into a kind of identical happy state. At first sight he appears to reach this mental state by means of alcohol, only he does not. Verse 19 clearly stipulates “that I might drink, and leave the world unseen.” The state he is in is comparable to the effect of drinking too much or taking drugs for that matter, which he alludes to in verse 2 and 3: “as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains”. Notwithstanding the fact that he clearly knows what these drugs can do, for Keats, his poetry is an alternative way to “leave the world unseen”, and therefore a means to forget his personal issues.

The third stanza indicates his desire to escape reality for a while by embarking on an imaginary journey with the nightingale. He wishes to forget the disadvantages of the human condition in this world, like disease, fading beauty and death.

In the next stanza, he directly points out that he has completed his journey by means of poesy instead of reaching for sedatives. Keats makes this clear by rejecting the image of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, whose chariot is drawn by leopards. Turning away from drugs and alcohol, poetry becomes his only beacon in the darkness of human suffering.

The fifth stanza shows us a glimpse of Keats’ imaginative power to create new worlds through words. These impressions of nature seem so truthful that we can imagine that specific portrait of nature, but being ill and not being able to go outdoors, this description is purely imaginary. Keats could only “guess”(verse 43) at the empirical experience of being physically in nature itself.

Returning in the following stanza to the scene of Keats listening to the nightingale singing its song in its natural habitat, he expresses his desires to die while enjoying the nightingale’s song; he is ready to leave this world in this moment of perfect happiness.

The penultimate stanza is the classical example of an ode. The poet praises the universal and immortal character of the nightingale’s song , which can be interpreted as a metaphor for poetry . However, poesy does not carry the same meaning to everyone. Rather, it is open to multiple interpretations, while retaining its beauty.  According to Keats, poetry creates new and better worlds.

The fantastic journey he started by giving himself over to the imaginative power of the nightingale’s song in the third stanza, ends abruptly at the beginning of the last stanza. Keats is torn away from the nightingale’s song by stumbling over his own expression of thoughts. By ending the previous stanza with the word forlorn, his thoughts are pulled back to his current writing activity. In the process of this event, the nightingale flies away and will inspire someone else with its song.

Finch and Cowper

Anne Finch (1661-1720)

Apart from Keats, there have been other poets who have been inspired by the nightingale’s song. One of these is Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, who was a maid of honour at the court of king James II when she first developed an interest in poetry. Finch’s view on the nightingale differs greatly from Keats’, which has been discussed above. Firstly, the bird needs its freedom in order to sing, just as poets cannot be hampered by formal restrictions. Secondly, both poets and nightingales produce their best song when burdened by some form of pain. This belief originates in the myth of Philomela (explained above), whose plumage at her breast is as red as blood. The myth does not say anything about the bird pressing its breast against a thorn while singing its song, but this tragic image of the nightingale hurting itself enforces the idea that Philomela will have to live with the harm that was done to her. The nightingale relives Philomela’s pain by paining itself to be able to sing her pain. In his work The Semiotics of Rape in Renaissance English Literature, Lee A. Ritscher tells us that:

[W]hen Sidney describes the narrator’s pain of unrequited love in “The Nightingale,”(c. 157-1581) he contemplates the rape of Philomela and her post-rape fate. Sidney’s narrator tells of the return of nightingales to the English countryside and focuses attention upon the myth that the nightingale presses her breast against a thorn as a reminder of Philomela’s pain.”

In the same way, Finch underlines that a poet needs some form of pain in order to be able to write to his fullest potential. An interesting note here is that, according to Ritscher, the pressing of the breast against a thorn was not included in Ovid’s version of the myth, but was added at a later date and serves as a way to remind Philomela that the pain of being raped was not so bad after all. As a group of aspiring literature students, we seem to disagree with Ritscher’s interpretation. Rather than reprimanding herself and showing herself the true meaning of pain as opposed to the pain of being raped, we believe that Philomela uses the thorn as a way to voice her pain, much like a romantic poet, or as Wordsworth put it, through “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility”.

In Finch’s poem, there is an interesting interaction between song and poetry. First of all, Finch tries to merge the two concepts. She is asking the Muse for help in order to produce poetry that is fitting to the nightingale’s song. However, she soon realizes that she cannot achieve perfect harmony. She tries to solve this problem by turning to division, which is a musical technique of dividing each note of a melody into shorter, fast-moving notes. Coincidentally, the nightingale is the master of this technique, often using it in its song, and Finch is once again outstripped. This results in a jealous outburst and even a self-reflective moment of doubt on the part of the poet. The lines “Cease then, prithee, cease thy Tune; / Trifler, wilt thou sing till June?” can be interpreted in different ways. Finch is either asking the nightingale to stop singing because she can never achieve such perfection with her poetry, or she is referring to herself and doubting her own qualities as a poet. If we take this into account, we can conclude that the nightingale does not have the same soothing effect on Finch as it has on Keats.

William Cowper (1731-1800)

In Cowper’s poem, the nightingale again undertakes the role of a soothing measure, but on a different level than in Keats’s poem. Since William Cowper was a fervent evangelical Christian, the nightingale becomes a messenger from a divine being, maybe even God himself. It brings the promise of better days during a time of hardship. If we apply this on the poet, this could mean that the nightingale’s song brings inspiration to a poet who may be stuck in a writer’s block. The divine being in question could then become one of the muses.

The nighingale’s song has inspired many a poet. Its tradition in myth associates the song with unutterable pain yet at the same time, provides comfort in the promise of better days.