A poet, painter and engraver of great originality, William Blake's work has been variously classified as a product of a mystic, or a naïve uneducated fellow, or a holy fool, or a raving lunatic, or a revolutionary, or a wise artist-poet of genius. He received no formal education but was educated at home – mainly by his mother. She must have been fairly a good teacher, for besides reading much in Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible, he knew French, Italian, Hebrew, Latin and Greek. He worked as an illustrator of Dante's works, Virgil, the Book of Job, Gray's "Poems", Young's "Night Thoughts", Chaucer.
He also illustrated his own work, being convinced that image and word were united. Blake earned his living by engraving and illustration; the poetry he wrote, he claimed, was gleaned by listening to his own ghosts and spirits, and he only sparingly allowed his poetic work to be published. As a poet, he might be termed a symbolist. Blake saw not an outer reality, as you or I might see things, but symbols in nature and man; the poet glimpsed what was hidden, seing a higher reality, one more grand than what met the eye. Blake created his own legends, peopling his poems with mythic figures whom he invented. His initial poems, entitled "Poetical Sketches", came out in 1783; their tone was simple, much akin to folk songs. "Songs of Innocence" appeared in 1789; in 1794 "Songs of Experience" was published, whereby both books for the poet were antithetically conceived.
For Blake "Innocence" meant inner harmony; thus bliss was best expressed in and only granted to an unselfconsciously living human child; as soon as "Experience" or the knowledge of good and evil enters, fateful mistakes occur, destroying inner harmony. Therefore each human being must struggle to regain his original inner harmony. In 1793 he came out with "Visions of the Daughters of Albion", introducing many figures from his own personal mythology: for instance, Orc, the archetypal rebel; Urizen, a dark symbol of constrictive morality. Urizen makes another appearence in "America: a Prophecy" (1793). Blake was not much appreciated in his time, though it would be exaggerated to claim that he was completely isolated, as many have suggested; yet it was mainly left to later generations, particularly of the twentieth century, to see his importance. His practice of remarking myths and legends in terms of what best suited the poet did point the way to the aesthetic work of later writers.