Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Death of William Blake

Only hours from his death on the evening of August 12, 1827, William Blake, though exhausted from his long struggle against an illness of the liver, could not stop creating. He had spent most of his sixty-nine years making exuberant art, in image as well as word, and his demanding muse would not let him rest. Inspiration yet burned within, in spite of the closing darkness. Blake refused to put down the tools of his craft.

A few days before becoming bedridden, he had spent his last shilling on a pencil. He required it for his final work, a series of illustrations from The Divine Comedy. Even though he knew that he wouldn't complete his drawings of Dante's paradise—he was feeble and feverish, with a chronically upset stomach and yellowing skin—he continued to compose. He was bent on inventing until he could move no more.

This last desperate devotion was to a calling that had probably killed him. His lifelong engraving practice had exposed him to noxious coppery fumes damaging to his immune system. Lethal as well as enlivening, his muse, in exchange for genius, had exacted his breath. Blake was art's martyr.

And so, committed to the last of the flame consuming his, his joy outweighing the pain, he continued, as he lay on his deathbed, to sketch, driven to convert, for one final spell, his quick thoughts into lively lines. But his brain soon slowed, beginning its descent into the inevitable dimness, and his competent hand faltered. Now, he believed, was the hour. He would have to leave his configurations of heaven undone. He set his instruments aside, his now-dull pencil and his paper riddled with shades.

Faint, he turned toward those attending him, among whom was his wife Catherine, his faithful partner for forty-five years. He saw her crying. Maybe what happened next was a final surge of affection, or perhaps a desperate hope to make the moment stay. Whatever the reason, Blake's haze cleared. His mind revived. He recovered his pencil and paper, reports say, and exclaimed to her, "Stay, Kate! Keep just as you are—I will draw your portrait—for you have ever been an angel to me." This picture he did complete, though it is now lost.

Now finished and feeling the fatigue return, he again laid down his implements, now for good. He silently said farewell to his earthly exertions—all those pictures and poems, forged in visionary fury—and relaxed, ready for his flesh's demise. As his consciousness gently waned, he sang hymns of his own design, about the eternal bliss to which his spirit would soon rise. He expired at six o'clock, his lyrics still trilling in his head. Catherine remained calm. Perhaps she believed that her life would change but little; she had once said of her husband, "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company. He is always in Paradise."

This is an excerpt from my new book, My Business Is To Create: Blake's Infinite Writing, published by University of Iowa Press:


  1. My mom heard you speak a while back and since then I've been following your blog and waiting for a chance to acquire and read your books! I've enjoyed your postings. If I may, though, I would like to comment that your white font on black background is a tad difficult to read.

    Thank you for all your work! I know you've made a big difference to many people, and I won't be suprised if I end up one of them :)

  2. Today is a William Blake Birthday.
    Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
    I like William Blake Quotes

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