November 28 is the birthday of the William Blake (1757, London). He wanted to be an artist, which was an unusual aspiration for the child of a haberdasher; his father sent him to a drawing school, but after five years, he could no longer afford the tuition. He took young William instead to train with an engraver, William Wynne Ryland. The boy, who was then 14, objected, saying, "Father, I do not like the man's face. It looks like he will live to be hanged!" Ryland was indeed hanged for forgery 11 years later, on the Tyburn gallows.
Blake began seeing visions in childhood. When he was four, he began screaming when he saw God "put his head to the window." Four or five years later, he saw "a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars." His parents punished him for telling lies, but they also seemed to realize he wasn't like other children. Throughout his life, he claimed to converse freely with dead loved ones, including his younger brother, who taught him a new engraving process from beyond the grave. He also related a conversation with the archangel Gabriel, who told him Michelangelo painted a better angelic portrait than Raphael. Blake was suspicious that he was speaking to an evil spirit masquerading as an angel. According to Blake, Gabriel retorted, "'Can an evil spirit do this?' I looked whence the voice came, and was then aware of a shining shape, with bright wings, who diffused much light. As I looked, the shape dilated more and more: he waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me, moved the universe. An angel of evil could not have done that — it was the arch-angel Gabriel."
Blake was scarcely noticed in his lifetime, unless it was to be labeled a lunatic. Reviews of his art were mixed, and his poetry was not widely known. Wordsworth said of him, "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." He sold watercolors and illustrations to various patrons, but they tended to buy them out of friendship, rather than a sense that they had artistic merit; if a potential patron should try to make him conform to conventional styles of the day, or make his work less oblique, Blake often responded in anger. "That which can be made Explicit to the idiot is not worth my care," he told one patron.
The 20th century brought a new appreciation for Blake's art and verse. One of his poems, "And did those feet," which appeared in the introduction to his poem Milton, was set to music during World War I; it has become a second, unofficial national anthem in Britain, where it's known as "Jerusalem":
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold,
Bring me my Arrows of desire,
Bring me my Spear; O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have build Jerusalem
In England's green & pleasant Land.
What are your favorite Blake-related spots to visit that are of interest to travelers?