William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English painter, poet and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich oeuvre, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God" or "human existence itself".
Considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterised as part of the Romantic movement and "Pre-Romantic", for its large appearance in the 18th century. Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the Church of England (indeed, to all forms of organised religion), Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American Revolutions. Though later he rejected many of these political beliefs, he maintained an amiable relationship with the political activist Thomas Paine; he was also influenced by thinkers such as Emanuel Swedenborg. Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake's work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th-century scholar William Rossetti characterised him as a "glorious luminary", and "a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors".
Because Blake's later poetry contains a private mythology with complex symbolism, his late work has been less published than his earlier more accessible work. The Vintage anthology of Blake edited by Patti Smith focuses heavily on the earlier work, as do many critical studies such as William Blake by D. G. Gillham.
The earlier work is primarily rebellious in character and can be seen as a protest against dogmatic religion especially notable in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which the figure represented by the "Devil" is virtually a hero rebelling against an imposter authoritarian deity. In later works, such as Milton and Jerusalem, Blake carves a distinctive vision of a humanity redeemed by self-sacrifice and forgiveness, while retaining his earlier negative attitude towards what he felt was the rigid and morbid authoritarianism of traditional religion. Not all readers of Blake agree upon how much continuity exists between Blake's earlier and later works.
Psychoanalyst June Singer has written that Blake's late work displayed a development of the ideas first introduced in his earlier works, namely, the humanitarian goal of achieving personal wholeness of body and spirit. The final section of the expanded edition of her Blake study The Unholy Bible suggests the later works are the "Bible of Hell" promised in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Regarding Blake's final poem "Jerusalem", she writes: "[T]he promise of the divine in man, made in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is at last fulfilled."
John Middleton Murry notes discontinuity between Marriage and the late works, in that while the early Blake focused on a "sheer negative opposition between Energy and Reason", the later Blake emphasised the notions of self-sacrifice and forgiveness as the road to interior wholeness. This renunciation of the sharper dualism of Marriage of Heaven and Hell is evidenced in particular by the humanisation of the character of Urizen in the later works. Middleton characterises the later Blake as having found "mutual understanding" and "mutual forgiveness".