From today’s Writer’s Almanac on NPR:
It’s the birthday of poet William Blake, born in London (1757). He started seeing visions when he was a young boy — God in the window, angels in trees. He apprenticed to an engraver, and spent his life as a little-known printmaker and poet.
In 1809, Blake opened an exhibition of his art on the first floor of his brother’s hosiery shop. He called the show “Poetical and Historical Inventions.” He left the show up for a year, but not many people attended, and not a single piece of art was sold. There was only one review of the show, by an art critic named Robert Hunt, who described Blake as an “unfortunate lunatic” in his review.
Blake died in poverty in 1827, at the age of 69. In the 30 years after publishing Songs of Innocence and of Experience, fewer than 20 copies had sold. Three years after his death, he was mentioned in a popular six-volume encyclopedia of British artists. The real breakthrough came when Alexander Gilchrist, a young admirer of Blake, set out to write his biography. Gilchrist died before it was finished, but his wife, Anne, took over the task. In 1863, Life of William Blake was published — it was subtitled Pictor Ignotus, or “unknown artist,” because Blake was so obscure. Besides telling Blake’s life story and claiming that he was not, in fact, insane, Gilchrist quoted many of Blake’s poems, and included his illustrations. The Life of William Blake was hugely popular, and for the first time, Blake was considered a major English poet.
William Blake said, “The imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself.”