Such cultivation, in Blake’s eyes, was impossible under the constraints of formal education and organized religion. Like many working-class children of his time, Blake was home-schooled by his mother. He would later acknowledge that this upbringing allowed his creativity to flourish, writing in one of his poems, “Thank God I never was sent to school / To be flogged into following the style of a fool!”
Religiously, he was profoundly influenced by his father’s faith, Swedenborgianism, a cult sect of Christianity that rejected organization, priesthood, and severe dogmas and instead nurtured the mystical and the benevolent. Blake believed that the human and the divine were one and the same, and that exercising the imagination was itself a spiritual act.
He earned a living primarily as an engraver.
Though today Blake is known as one of the “Big Six” English Romantic poets—along with William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—his principal vocation during his lifetime was that of an engraver. Interested in art from a young age, he attended Henry Pars’s Drawing School on the Strand, where he learned how to draw the human figure from plaster casts. At the age of 14, he began a seven-year apprenticeship to James Basire, a conservative, somewhat old-fashioned commercial printmaker known for his architectural prints. With Basire, Blake picked up the the ins and outs of etching and engraving, from polishing copperplates to sharpening tools and coating plates with acid, and eventually etching plates himself. Aware of his apprentice’s talent, Basire sent Blake to Westminster Abbey, where he sketched medieval monuments in preparation for engraving. It was there, in the chapel’s ornate interior, Blake discovered his love for the Gothic.