All stories have the potential to hold wisdom that can offer us instruction on how to live. This holds true not just for the myths and the great works of literature, but also for the stories of great lives. The following is the story of the life of a great poet, who stands as an exemplar today not just in how to live well, but in how to die well too.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite” – William Blake
William Blake was an English poet, painter and print-maker who was born on 28 November 1757 and died on the 12 August 1827. His work and achievements were largely unrecognised during his lifetime, although he is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the romantic age.
Despite his hostility to the Church of England, and indeed all forms of organised religion, Blake revered the bible and drew inspiration from it all his life. The human imagination was, for Blake, the ‘body of god’. He was also influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions.
There was a rambunctious side to Blake’s character. He regularly came into conflict with mentors and authority figures and even one time reportedly threw a schoolboy from a scaffold while working in Westminister abbey. According to his first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, in June 1780, Blake was walking toward great queen street when he was “swept up by a rampaging mob” that stormed Newgate prison. The mob attacked the prison with shovels and pickaxes, before setting the building on fire, during which Blake was allegedly in the front ranks. Blake’s rebellious streak emerged again in August 1803 when he was involved in a fracas with a soldier called John Schofield. This resulted in Blake being charged with assault and uttering seditious and treasonable remarks against the king. Schofield claimed that Blake had taunted him saying, “Damn the King. The soldiers are all slaves”, however Blake was later acquitted. The soldier received his comeuppance when he was later depicted in the illustration to Jerusalem wearing ‘mind-forged manacles’.
In 1782, when he was recovering from a romantic split, Blake met Catherine Boucher. To both Catherine and her parents, he recounted the story of his previous affair which ended with the rebuttal of his marriage proposal. Blake then inquired of her, ‘Do you pity me?’ When she confirmed that she did, he proclaimed boldly, ‘Then, I love you’. Blake married the illiterate Catherine that same year in St. Mary’s church, Battersea, and he later taught her to read and write and trained her as an engraver. Catherine, for her part, helped print his illuminated works, as well as providing constant moral support. Despite rumours of some early turmoil in their relationship, the two remained very close throughout their lives.
On the day of his death, Blake worked feverishly on the engravings he had been commissioned to do for Dante’s Divine Comedy. After a time, he ceased his labours and lay his work down. Blake turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside and cried, “Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.” When he completed this, his last work, which has since been lost, he began to sing hymns and verses. At six that evening, just after promising his wife that he would always be with her, Blake died. A female lodger in the house, who was present at his passing, reported, “I have been at the death, not of a man, but a blessed angel”. George Richmond, in a letter to Samuel Palmer, gives this account of Blake’s death: “He died, in a most glorious manner. He said he was going to that Country he had all his life wished to see and expressed himself happy, hoping for salvation through Jesus Christ – Just before he died his countenance became fair. His eyes brighten’d and he burst out singing of the things he saw in heaven”.
Following his death, Catherine reported being regularly visited by Blake’s spirit. She continued to sell his works but never finalised a business transaction without first “consulting Mr. Blake”. On the day of her death, in October 1831, she remained as calm and cheerful as her husband had been and called out to him, to say she was coming to him, as if he were only in the next room. She was buried with Blake in a grave that has since been lost and forgotten, with only a stone nearby to mark their presence.