February 11, 1996
William Blake’s poem, “The Garden of Love” tells of a young man’s past, a time when he used to play in a garden untamed by man’s hand. This poem, from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience represents man’s struggle against Nature and what will happen if all of Nature succumbs to the desires of humanity. But, the poem also illustrates the corruption of the church and the fall of man’s innocence into sin. Blake’s images are what give the poem its meaning because they show his ideals and how they are seen before and after man’s fall.
There are two main images within the poem, that of the Garden of Love itself and the chapel. Still even, there are two different ways that the Garden of Love is portrayed. The first connects Blake’s ideal of Nature and what it represents to the Garden and the speaker’s childhood, the state of being innocent and undomesticated. Through the Garden imagery love and happiness are depicted as an connection between man and man as well as man with Nature. As the speaker talks of his time spent in the Garden, it is in the Garden where all his memories give him pleasure.
It is within the first stanza where this untainted image of the garden of Love is seen. The first stanza describes an image of a man, who has gone “into the Garden of Love/ And saw what I never had seen.” These opening lines of the poem reflect a tone of sadness for although it seems as if the speaker has entered this garden before, there is something new and foreboding about the garden. The garden imagery here represents Nature in an untamed, pure and wild part of the order of things. The garden is related to love due to the happiness that it gave the speaker throughout his youth and from the lines it can be inferred that the speaker has spent most of his innocence as a child from playing in the garden and perhaps has returned back to the garden to recapture some of the youth he has lost while growing up.
The Garden of Eden image is the bridge that connects Blake’s representation of Nature and religion within the poem. To Blake, the Garden of Eden symbolizes a purified religion that joins man to Nature in a perfect harmony. Although it isn’t stated in the poem, the fact that the poem is about a specific garden reminds the reader of this. However, the religion that is represented in the poem through the image of the chapel does not reflect this ideal religion instead it is an experienced, corrupt one. It is here where Blake introduces religion to represent the fall into sin and experience- in the concrete form of the chapel.
The speaker then continues to describe the sight which has disturbed him and his childhood memory as a chapel that had been “built in the midst,/ Where I used to play on the green” (lines 2-3). These lines connect the two memories and show that where the speaker, as a child, once roamed to play in the wildness of Nature, now stands a man made building that disturbs not only the delicate balance between man and Nature but all the childhood memories of freedom that the speaker has by replacing them with the rules and confines of human and religious law.
Stanza two opens with a closed image of the chapel, its “gates were shut./ And thou shalt not’ writ over the door” (lines 5-6). It is the “Thou shalt not” statement that Blake has written which draws attention to the fact that this religion is described as being closed and very unkind. This simple statement, that begins each commandment given to mankind by God is similar to the way parents teach their children to behave by telling them No. This reinforcement of all the things one shalt not do contradicts that what Blake believes that religion and love are supposed to teach man. As soon as the chapel is mentioned, then the connection to religion and the Garden of Eden can be made.
Where the Garden of Love represents Nature and man’s happiness and innocence as an overall image, the chapel is a representation of a religion that is corrupt and destructive and very much manmade. When this happens, Blake’s image of the Garden of Love turns into an allusion towards the barred gates of the Garden of Eden where man’s first expulsion into the world has taken place. The only difference here, however, is that where the Garden of Eden was created for mankind by God, it is in the Garden of Love where man and God takes away the ideals of paradise and love. The last stanza shows the idyllic image of the Garden of Love as it falls into the realm of man’s experience and destruction of Nature.
Stanza two ends with the speaker turning away from the man made chapel of denied love and back towards the Garden of Love, “that so many sweet flowers bore” (line 8) but has discovered some major changes have occurred here also. It is interesting to note that each of these last images are not the same happy and natural images that are seen in the beginning of the poem, and are a result of humanity’s direct influence over the Garden of Love. As a result, the land now has “graves/ And tombstones where flowers should be;” (lines 9-10). It is also within these lines where the speaker’s attitude and tone becomes more sorrowful. For who wants to see Nature being replaced with images of death, civilization and the desire of those who would want to control the general population? The graves and tombstones are manmade replacements for the Natural beauty that the flowers once provided. It seems that in choosing the graves as a image of death to replace Nature, Blake shows what man’s fate will be if this is what he truly desires- to carpet the world in concrete.
The final two lines are what condemn the speaker’s desire to recapture his youth. “Priests in black gown were walking their rounds,/ And binding with briars my joys and desires” (lines 11-12) are sealing this person fate away from being connected to the Garden and the love, innocence, and happiness that it all represents. The briars are dense and thorny, a natural plant used almost as if they were barbed wire cutting of the prisoners from the rest of the world. In a sense this is what the priests are doing, keeping the confines of Nature away from humanity. But, even in the Priest’s black gowns it seems as if they too are just doing what they have to do to earn a living. It seems as if they are not happy and would also enjoy being in the wild, natural Garden of Love. However, it is Blake’s connection of the images of the chapel and the Garden of Love to that of man and nature and their opposition to one another that drives the poem and it’s message.
As long as there is a natural world untouched by civilization, man will always hunt it and encroach upon the peace and happiness that the natural world brings to people. Blake’s “Garden of Love” reminds us that there must be a delicate balance between all that is good and all that is corrupt as well as the delicate balance of Nature. Religion, as Blake sees it, is a way to honor God and his creation rather than isolate it and humanity form one another. Sin and love come into question only when religious view becomes distorted and corrupt upon the values for which it is supposed to represent. People need the natural world to survive, it is what brings meaning to our trapped civilizations. To take this away would seal humanity’s fate within the graves, briars, and closed doors of corruption.