The meaning of Blake’s powerful allegorical poem
Many of William Blake’s greatest poems are written in clear and simple language, using the quatrain form which faintly summons the ballad metre used in popular oral poetry. But some of his poetry, being allegorical and symbolic in nature, requires some careful close reading and textual analysis. ‘The Garden of Love’ is one such example. What is this poem about?
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.
In summary, Blake’s speaker goes into the Garden of Love and finds a chapel built on the spot where he used to play as a child. The gates of the chapel are shut, and commandments and prohibitions are written over the door. The garden has become a graveyard, its flowers replaced by tombstones. This idea of love starting out as a land of liberty and promise but ending up a world of death and restriction is expressed very powerfully through the image of the garden.
Gardens in poetry often tempt us to recall the first biblical garden, the Garden of Eden, and the paradise which Adam and Eve lost when they succumbed to temptation and tasted the forbidden fruit. And ‘The Garden of Love’ is a poem that reflects William Blake’s detestation of organised religion. Blake was a deeply spiritual artist and poet, but he disliked the institutions associated with religion, and this can be seen clearly in this poem, where the garden of love, formerly associated with play and carefree childhood, is now the site of a ‘Chapel’: a physical embodiment of the Church. This is no welcoming chapel, for the gates are shut (perhaps inspiring Christina Rossetti to write her great poem on a similar theme, ‘Shut Out’), and the chapel is marked by commandments forbidding certain things (‘Thou shalt not’ recalling the famous Ten Commandments from the Old Testament).
But even the garden which surrounds this chapel has changed, and has become a graveyard: death has replaced life, as tomb-stones have supplanted flowers in the ground. Then, a final image of the Church’s restrictive power: in the final couplet, where for the first time we get internal rhyme (gowns/rounds, briars/desires) and the tetrameter which had held sway until now gives way to the longer pentameter (leading to a sense of collapse or deflation, rather than welcome expansiveness), the priests are further doling out commandments, by restricting the poet’s ‘joys and desires’.
The message, then, is clear: organised religion is anathema to love, and is about imposing control and restrictions on us, killing our happiness and curbing our natural desires and wishes. The institutions of religion, unlike the joyousness of religious belief itself, turn the world from a garden (symbolising growth and life) into a grave (symbolising death and decay).
If you enjoyed Blake’s ‘The Garden of Love’, you might also enjoy his ‘The Clod and the Pebble’, our discussion of his great spring poem, and his poem ‘A Poison Tree’. If you’re looking for a good edition of Blake’s work, we recommend Selected Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics). We’ve offered more tips for the close reading of poetry here and some tips for writing a brilliant English Literature essay here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.