William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker, now thought of as a key figure in the history of Romanticism. His unusual and powerful poetry is also often very obscure, while his visual art is unique and inimitable. Blake lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), and was considered mad by contemporaries for his spiritual perspective, which often turned accepted maxims on their head in order to prompt a re-alignment of thinking. Later, he was held in high regard for his creativity, and mystical vision. Blake believed strongly in the Bible but was hostile to the Church of England and most forms of organised religion, and was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American Revolutions though he later rejected many of their political beliefs; he was also influenced by thinkers such as Emanuel Swedenborg, whose work, like Blake’s, was also based on powerful religious visions.
The best introduction to his poetry is probably the relatively accessible Songs of Innocence and Experience, though his larger, later works read like a ‘new Bible’, dense with self-referential material and full of mystical imagery. Some of the quotes below capture the sense of his spiritually sublime and yet challenging approach:
‘Excessive sorrow laughs. Excessive joy weeps.’
‘Great things are done when men and mountains meet.'
'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom...You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.'
'The most sublime act is to set another before you.'
'And we are put on this earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love'
'To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.'
'Better to shun the bait than struggle in the snare.'
'Exuberance is beauty.'
'For every thing that lives is Holy.'
'Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.’
'When I tell the truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do.'
'Those who control their passions do so because their passions are weak enough to be controlled.'
'A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.'
'Everything to be imagined is an image of truth.'
'It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.'
'If a thing loves, it is infinite.'
'Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?'
'If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.'
'I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.'
'The imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself.'
'The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.'
'To generalize is to be an idiot.'
'The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.'
'Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not be believed.'
'Eternity is in love with the productions of time.'
'He who kisses joy as it flies by will live in eternity's sunrise.'
'For all eternity, I forgive you and you forgive me.'
'He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.'
'Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.'
'A man can't soar too high, when he flies with his own wings.'