William Blake (1757-1827) – The Anarchist Printer
A one-of-a-kind poet and artist, he was considered crazy in his time, but is now considered one of Britain’s greatest minds. Born in London to religious dissenters, Blake stayed in school only to age ten. He then devoted himself to drawing classes, reading in his free time. He completed an apprenticeship as an engraver. He then joined the Royal Academy of artists, where he rebelled against the school’s president, Joshua Reynolds. At age 25, he married Catherine Boucher, teaching her to read and paint. Blake opened a print shop in 1784 for the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. It became a center for revolutionary thought, including feminism, ending slavery, and supporting the American & French Revolutions. Apart from work, Blake illustrated his own poems, along with characters from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Dante’s Inferno, only becoming famous in the 20th century. Blake and his wife both claimed to have seen visions, and Blake claimed to see angels who told him what to paint. They were also nudists.
The Lake Poets
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) – The Romantic Philosopher
The son of a busy lawyer, William lived in the Lake District in north west England, and spent much of his time in his father’s library, reading and memorizing poetry. At the age of 8 his mother died, and so his father sent him to boarding school, separating him from his sister, whom he wouldn’t see for another nine years. He went to St. Johns College in Cambridge, and then toured Europe in 1790. While there, he fell in love with a French girl, Annette Vallon, and they had a daughter together, Caroline. But, Wordsworth then fled France’s Reign of Terror, never marrying her. By the time he could visit again, Caroline was already nine, and William had fallen in love with someone else – Mary Hutchinson. Wordsworth sent Caroline a yearly stipend throughout her life. Wordsworth was close friends with Coleridge, and the two published books of poetry together, starting a new Romantic movement. Wordsworth defined poetry as, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” In the last seven years of his life he became Poet Laureate, The only one in English history who didn’t write official poetry while Laureate.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) – The Hopeless Romantic
Poet, lecturer, and close friend of Wordsworth, he helped found the English Romantic movement, with his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Suffering from depression, he became an opium addict, which ruined his marriage. Coleridge was a follower of the German philosopher, Kant, and would later inspire the American Philosopher Emerson. As a young man, he and Southey even wanted to start their own utopian commune, called Pantisocracy.
Robert Southey (1774-1843) – The Compassionate Romantic
Southey was a poet, historian, and biographer, who wrote about the lives of Oliver Cromwell and Horatio Nelson. He also wrote the children’s story, “Goldilocks & the Three Bears.” He was expelled from grammar school for writing an article condemning corporal punishment in schools. He went to university where he claimed “All I learnt was a little swimming . . . and a little boating.” He became friends with Coleridge at this time, and the two began publishing books together. Southey and Coleridge married two sisters, Edith & Sara Fricker, a decision Coleridge soon regretted. When he abandoned his wife, Southey had to take care of her and their three children, as well as the recently widowed Mary Lovell and her son. From 1819 to his death he was Poet Laureate of Britain. He also supported the young writer Charlotte Bronte, praising her talent, but at the same time saying, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.”