An Explication of William Blake's "THE GARDEN OF LOVE"
By John R. Mabry
I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what T never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;
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 joy and desires.
-William Blake (1757-1827)
The Garden of Love by William Blake is such a haunting poem. It is very much like a nightmare in that the images, like figures in a dream, are symbols which abide at the very core of all of us (or at least, we who are Christians). Symbols which are ordinarily considered benign turn on us, becoming monstrous and wicked.
The experience of Blake's poem is very like that. In the first stanza he paints for us a very trusting and child-like scene. "Garden" and "love" both have pleasant associations. "Garden" is sweet, fresh, quiet, beautiful. It also suggests order, attention and especially wonder. And "love"? No word in our language lends itself to so much meaning, yet is so elusive to definition. "God is Love" is certainly important to this idea, and so is care, gentleness, protection, and, loosely, all things "good".
This garden is a very special place to the Speaker. The fourth line tells us that he used to play in the Garden. "Play" tells us he was probably a child when he knew this place; and "used to" let's us know that he plays there no longer. Although the Speaker doesn't say so, we readers probably don't imagine this means he simply started playing somewhere else, but instead we assume that he no longer plays, and therefore is no longer a child. This assumption is mandatory, for the meaning of this poetic allegory rests on the contrast of youth (and it's associations of joy and innocence) to maturity (and it's associations of knowledge and experience).
Upon returning to the playground of his youth, the Speaker is surprised to find that a chapel has been erected right in the middle of it. A chapel is a building with religious connotations. It is a house of God, a place of prayer.
I would like to suggest that the Garden of Love is an internal estate, a place that exists only "within" the Speaker. It is the place where his childhood wonder lived, and played. It was the source of his joy and awe. If we grant that, then to find the chapel in the midst of it suggests that in adult life, God and the Church are a primary source of wonder, or as Canadian poet Bruce Cockburn writes prayerfully "In the place my wonder comes from, there I find You."
Moving to the second stanza, we are surprised to find that the chapel is not what it seems from a distance. "The gates of this chapel were shut," barring access to his wonder and direct contact with God (although allowing direct contact with priests, as we shall see). The inscription over the door is even more disquieting, that such a negative statement should summarize and define the Church we so cherish. The gravity of the message "Thou shalt not" is aided in that all three words are stressed, slowing us down while the mouth reforms for every syllable. There are few readers who cannot, I think, identify with the oppression of the Law (which the inscription symbolizes) or it's influence on our lifestyle and world view.
Disappointed, the speaker turns to find consolation in the wonder of his youth, only to face the horror painted vividly for us in the third stanza. Suddenly his childhood Eden has been transformed into a macabre vision of death, apparently as a result of his investigating the chapel, perhaps symbolizing that his once awe-stricken rose-colored world has been usurped by the Church, who has painted everything over with black morbidity. The final images nail the horror home as "Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, And binding with briars my joys and desires", physically enacting the script "Thou shalt not" written over the door of the chapel. The long "o" sounds in line "foster the feeling of doom," and the words "walking their rounds" give the impression that this is not an impassioned or infrequent occupation of the priests, but rather routine, methodical and perpetual. The internal rhyme in each of the last two lines slow us down, emphasizing the oppression and again suggesting a cyclic, ongoing action. It is also ironic that such horrid images should be captured in the last line by such delicious rhyme, rhythm and alliteration.
The effectiveness of this poem (as in most good poetry) lies in the skill of the author to take us with him, and to allow us to experience his emotions. Not to just explain what happened to us, but to have it happen to us. To allow the willing reader to "posses" the speaker and experience his adventures first-hand. In The Garden of Love we enter with the same expectations as the Speaker, deceived by the title and relaxed with the positive images. But his horror becomes our horror, we are repulsed with him, and despair with him.
Blake was a brave man to state these sorts of thought in the time he lived, and received much criticism for his unique vision, but I feel that few thinking Christians can deny their identification with his view (or at least this work's view) honestly. It is too easy to discard what cuts too close to the bone.
[Just a thought: In a way, it takes some artistic talent to.read a poem, even to one's self, effectively. The ability to decode emotions and images is an art in itself.]