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William Blake's "The Garden of Love"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Blake

Introduction and Text of "The Garden of Love"

William Blake is one of the most overrated poets of 19th century England. Many of his poems present naïve speakers who complain about the simple fact that adults need to learn self-control. Blake's nonsensical "The Garden of Love" exemplifies one of his cockeyed creations that rails against the common sense and sage advice that adults must control the sex urge. In an immature stance unbecoming even an adolescent, his speaker propagates simple blather that lacks any hint of decorum of behavioral standards. Forfeiting any genuine artistic accomplishment, Blake's "The Garden of Love" features his customary load of symbols that remain unworkable.

The piece is displayed in three quatrains with a rime scheme of ABCB. Its last two lines feature internal rimes as well. Employing the ordinary euphemism of "love" for "sexual lust," the speaker would have his listeners believe he is concerned about the highest and most beautiful of human emotions. However, the reader soon discovers that this speaker is merely displaying an adolescent desire to rebel against the spiritual admonition against abusing the sex urge. Similar to, but even worse than, his "A Poison Tree," Blake's immature posturing has resulted in third rate piece of doggerel not worthy of the name "poem."

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Garden of Love

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.

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,

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.

Reading of "The Garden of Love"

Commentary

Blake's nonsensical "The Garden of Love" exemplifies one of his cockeyed creations that rails against the common sense and sage advice that adults must control the sex urge.

First Quatrain: The Horror of a Chapel in a Garden

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 speaker reports, "I went to the Garden of Love," claiming that he has traveled to a location that he decides to call, "Garden of Love." Apparently, the speaker has trekked to that place earlier, but now to his horror he observes that some miscreant has erected "a chapel" smack-dab in the center of that heretofore beautiful lush "garden." The speaker shields himself from appearing to slam any church or religion by failing to name any church who might have put up that chapel. He accomplishes this subterfuge by employing the passive voice, "A Chapel was built in the midst." The chapel's been placed "on the green" where the speaker "used to play."

The speaker's adolescent attitude is revealed as he contrasts the presence of a meditative chapel with his former activity that he euphemistically now refers to as "play." He, of course, wants his readers/listeners to envision "play" as sexual romping. The speaker has no interest in meditation and worship; he wants to "play." And that someone would disturb his playground puts him off in a serious way.

After all, this chapel, this usurping building out in the middle of his playground represents all the things this adolescent speaker disdains. Any curb on the speaker's lustful appetites is judged unwanted interference. His notion of beauty, love, and desirability are all bound up in physical, sense related activity. He will have none of the spiritual life, for his material-level desires run counter to that path.

Second Quatrain: A Concoction of the Blakean Ethic

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,

The nonviable, parallel, symbolic universe concocted by the Blakean ethic is on full display in this piece. Note, for example, that "the gates" of the chapel are closed. A chapel is a building and buildings have doors not gates. Then right on cue in the next line the speaker outs his own mistake by referring to "door": "'Thou shalt not' writ over the door."

The speaker then confuses the aspect of location by claiming that he then turns to the garden of love. Yet he has already been observing this garden which now sported the dreaded chapel. The speaker likely means he is now looking around the chapel to the area that used to have the "sweet flowers" where now he finds graves. But the speaker has not made this distinction, so his readership will remain somewhat confused by his logistics.

Third Quatrain: Mishmash of Balderdash

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.

So after turning his attention the other "garden of love," the speaker notes that he sees tombstones not sweet flowers as before. He also observes, "Priests in black gowns"—he cannot help himself, he had to know his audience would infer Catholicism from this reference. A mishmash of balderdash ensues from the conflation of door and gate, chapel and garden, tombstones and flowers, and now we have these horrid priests placing briars around the speaker's lusts. This final image will not compute on any level.

Cockeyed Nonsense

This speaker resents the seventh commandment: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." His failed posturing as he attempts to castigate religious council that warns humanity of the evils resulting from overindulgence in the sex act has produced a conglomeration of immature blather. This speaker would have it that his sexual promptings be free and unbridled—a sort of 1960s foreshadowing!

This speaker would have human nature be other than it is, or that is, he would prefer that the results of certain human activity not be what they are. The speaker's immature symbolism creates a path that simply leads to perdition despite his employment of "sweet flowers," "a garden," and his "joys & desires." Such adolescent symbolism simply remains cockeyed nonsense.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes