The Garden of Love by William Blake

The poem, The Garden of Love by William Blake, is the antithesis to The Echoing Green of Innocence, as it uses the same setting and rhythm to stress the ugly contrast. Blake firmly believed that love cannot be sanctified by religion. The negative commandments of the Old Testament, ‘Thou Shall Not’ could not enshrine the most positive creative force on earth. For Blake, sexuality and instinct is holy, the world of institutionalized religion turns this instinct into imprisonment and engenders hypocrisy. Those rules, which forbid the celebration of the body, kill life itself.

Here, in this poem, the poet rebels against the idea of original sin. Man was expelled for eating of the fruit of knowledge and, cast out of Eden, was shamed by sexuality. In the poem, the poet subverts orthodoxy and the patriarchal authority figures of the Nobodaddy and God and his Priests. The Dissenting tradition to which Blake’s family belonged believed in “inner light” and “the kingdom within”. Moral laws without any rationale are not to be obeyed. In ‘The Garden Love’, interfering priesthood and the powers of prohibition blight innocent affections. The Church of Experience like the King and State rely on such powers to ensure obedience. A contemporary reference linked with the poem is that of the Marriage Act of 1753, passed by Lord Hardwicke. These Acts stipulated that all marriages had to be solemnized according to the rules of the Church of England in the Parish Church of one of the parties in the presence of a clergyman and two witnesses.

With the loss of rural society and extended families in villages this legislation was perhaps necessary, especially in urban centers. However, for Blake this was equal to curbing individual freedom. For him, each prohibition created repression, therefore in The Garden of Love, we see a bleak, unproductive landscape of unfulfilled yearning where sterile resentment, fear, guilt and joylessness replace the open freedom of innocence.

The Garden of Love Analysis

I went to the Garden of Love,

And saw what I never had seen:

A Chapel was built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.

The twelve lines of the William Blake’s poem The Garden of Love belong to the state of Experience that characterizes the present day world. Experience stands in total contrast to the state of Innocence.

The poet revisited the Garden of Love, open green piece of land where he used to play with boys and girls together. He was dismayed to see there what he had never seen earlier. He found that in the green open place, a Chapel (church) had been erected in the middle of the place were boys and girls together used to play. Institutionalized religion thus destroyed the Garden of Love. In the world of Experience, the harmony between man and nature no longer existed. Earlier the Garden of Love seemed to be in state of idyllic beauty, but the present day scenario of the place is one of utter sadness and gloom.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;

So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,

That so many sweet flowers bore.

In the second stanza, the poet gives further description of the place of his revisit. The gates of the Chapel were closed. And the closed door had got written on it ‘Thou Shalt Not.’ So, the visitor (the poet) turned his attention to the place of the Garden of Love where it used to bloom a number of flowers but found them missing. In fact, the very idea of chapel and the negative “Thou Shalt Not” suggests the concept of private property, which is the source of all inequality and helplessness in society. The gate is closed to the passerby and on it is inscribed the warning ‘Thou Shalt Not’. The warning is emblematic of the classic dictum of the Old Testament God-Jehovah who is seen as a prohibitive and a vindictive tyrant.

And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tomb-stones where flowers should be:

And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

The lines of the third stanza depict he adverse changes that have enveloped the Garden of Love during the present time. The Garden portrays an aura of total unease and misery. At present, the garden seems to be filled with graves and tombstones which are images of death, and so horrendous and undesirable. Even the priests wrapped in black gowns forebode an ill-omen and an act of mourning and despair. The priests depict a total official manner devoid of any compassion or even forgiveness. This seems to be the basic factor that binds the narrator’s desires and joy.

It could be that earlier, the Garden presented the state of innocence where an environment of gaiety and mirth prevailed and everybody could enter the place without any discrimination whatsoever. But now it seems that the Garden has been lent or sold out to a private individual who exerts the sole authority and hence, the others are devoid of any joyous moment. The present day scene looks quite dismal where even such a simple resort as the garden is unable to escape the evils of industrialization and subsequent phenomenon of private ownership.

Personal Comments

The Garden of Love is another allegorical poem satirical of the Church. It is an attack on the morality which puts restrictions on sexual love. The speaker finds that a great change has come over the Garden of Love. He finds that a field of activities which should be spontaneously enjoyed has been made ugly by the interference of religious notions which insist on man’s guilt and shame. The Church has spoiled the beauty and natural vigor of the pleasures which were once there to be enjoyed and substituted reminders of man’s morality and eventual corruption, which are consequences of sin.

In The Garden of Love, there is a strong condemnation of the Church in its approach to sexual matters, and it is difficult not to agree with the attack made by the poet.

In all religion, there is a tendency to elevate the spiritual at the expense of the physical, and in all religions there are sects which take this tendency to an extreme, viewing the promptings of the body as low, especially the sexual urge. The effect poem falls on this aspect as well as on the prohibitions imposed by the “Chapel”. “Thou Shalt Not” does more than restrict activity: it alters the complications of doubt and perplexity. The damage done by the “briars” is a self-imposed once they have been placed.

The speaker here relates a personal history: he talks of “my joys and desires” as being “bound”. He has now reached a position where he can see that what has been done to him was an evil. The tone of the poem is indignant, and the “priests in black gowns” are sinister figures. The obvious solution is to remove the evil by changing his notions about sexual matters and so liberating himself from the prohibitions imposed by the Chapel. But it may be too late for that.

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  • Avatar SM says:

    A great insight and a joy to read. Very useful

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      That’s lovely feedback. Thank you.

  • Avatar urrr says:

    ur gay

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      That does explain a lot.

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