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William Blake: London's Greatest Poet

Ask most people who William Blake was and they will probably say that he was the man who wrote the hymn Jerusalem. But he was a great deal more than that.

Blake was a Londoner, born in 1757 who died in 1827. He was a poet, painter, and printmaker, largely unrecognised during his lifetime, now acknowledged as a seminal figure in the history of poetry, art and Western civilisation itself, particularly associated with the period that has come to be called the Romantic Age.

Sometimes in terms mystical and allegorical, sometimes in terms brutal and visceral, he created a vision of a corrupt and terrible present where a decadent, hypocritical and ruthless ruling class lived off the toil and misery of powerless men, women and children who had virtually been turned into components in the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. But he created also a vision of a bright Utopian future that human kind could bring about by love, fellowship and the power of the imagination.

In this brief edited extract from the BBC Two series The Romantics and Us Simon Shama and the rapper Testament explain how Blake and his contemporaries set in motion a new concept of the human species, as beings capable of taking control of their own future and shaping it in accordance with their imaginations into the kind of world in which they want to live. Two centuries later we have made a start on this project but as Testament cleverly points out, we have a long way still to go.

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