William Blake: A poet of the modern world

An examination of William Blake’s views on sexuality, creativity and social justice from the 18th century offers insights into what it is to be human in the 21st century.

Read about the book

In contrast to many studies of the work of William Blake, in William Blake: Selected Works, Professor Peter Otto focuses on the importance of Blake’s interest in gender and sexuality, and creativity.

Blake was an English writer, artist and printmaker who lived from 1757 to 1827. He is considered one of the great figures of Romanticism.

Professor Otto, a Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor of English literary studies at the University of Melbourne, has studied Blake’s poetry, paintings and prose, alongside items such as his letters and notebooks. The materials came from several collections, including those at the William Blake Archive, the British Library and the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Blake’s work combines two creative voices – word and image. Blake’s skill in relief etching allowed him to both write and draw on the same copper plate. In contrast to earlier studies, Professor Otto’s research gives equal weight to Blake’s words and illustrations – and to understanding how they fit with each other.

William Blake: Selected Works describes how Blake’s interest in sexuality, criticism of traditional gender roles, and acceptance of same-sex love was influenced by his religious background. Blake’s mother was a member of the Fetter Lane Moravian Church in London, UK. The church held views on sex that were progressive at the time. For example, the church believed that marital and even extramarital sex could be used to become one with Christ.

To demonstrate how this shaped Blake’s work, Professor Otto uses an illustration accompanying the poem Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion. Two women, Jerusalem and Vala, are naked and embracing lovingly. In the poem, Blake suggests that prejudice against homosexuality or different kinds of love harms the human soul and can lead to oppression and war.

William Blake, from Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Chapter 2, plate 28, 1804. Relief etching with pen and watercolour.

Albion denounces ‘unnatural consanguinities and friendships horrid to think of,’ yet Blake draws Jerusalem and Vala full of life, embracing, enfolded in a lily.

Professor Otto’s work also explores how Blake’s works changed in response to historical events – such as the beginning of modern feminism, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

In an 1826 edition of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, for example, the title page for Songs of Innocence includes an important date. In the full-page image, the word ‘innocence’ pushes a tree branch against the margins of the page. Under the branch is the date 1789, the year the French Revolution began.

According to Professor Otto, Blake was saying that innocence is not lost as we grow older, and it can be rediscovered through events like revolution.

Next steps

Professor Otto is researching William Blake’s views on secularisation and the history of imagination. He plans to publish this work as a scholarly book in 2022.


ARC Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award


Otto P (ed) (2018) William Blake: Selected Works. Oxford, UK. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780199644230

Images: Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

William Blake, America. A Prophecy, plate 3, Preludium, 1793. Blue print, pen, black ink and watercolour on cream-coloured paper.

William Blake, Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Chapter 2, plate 28, 1804. Relief etching with pen and watercolour.

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Banner image: Blake's work influences scholars today. For example, his creation of illuminated poetry and imaginary worlds is echoed in studies of virtual reality.

First published on 30 March 2022.

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