Literature

A Short Analysis of William Blake’s ‘The Garden of Love’

By Dr Oliver Tearle

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.

The Garden of Love: summary

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 Garden of Love: analysis

The message of ‘The Garden of Love’ appears to be fairly clear, therefore: 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). Blake was by no means the first writer to criticise organised religion and argue that it fell short of the ideals it purported to espouse – we find many Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers, such as Thomas Paine in his brilliant The Age of Reason, propounding such a viewpoint – but to put it in such vividly symbolic and clear terms is a testament to Blake’s gift as a poet.

But is the poem’s meaning as straightforward as this analysis suggests? Perhaps not. In his excellent study of Blake’s poetry, Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, D. G. Gillham observes that the fault may lie as much within the speaker himself as it does in organised religion: Gillham suggests that a religious conversion (robbing the speaker of his enjoyment of nature, which has become tainted when viewed from a religious perspective) or sexual disenchantment may be at the root of the speaker’s attack on religion in this poem. ‘In short, the speaker is a fool or a hypocrite,’ Gillham adds, noting that whilst the speaker’s criticism of the Church may hold some truth, his ‘distorted’ view of the Garden of Love puts the blame back on himself as much as on outside forces.

Indeed, in the same book Gillham makes a similar argument about a number of other Blake poems, such as ‘A Poison Tree’: in that poem, the speaker grows a poisoned apple with which to tempt his foe, and is victorious when his enemy steals into his garden to eat the deadly fruit. But the speaker, Blake suggests, has also been ‘poisoned’ or corrupted by the act of deceiving his foe, because he resorted to dishonest and underhand tactics to vanquish him. In this respect, we might view the two poems as offering a productive dialogue about the nature of self versus other. Of course, in both poems, Blake uses the (richly symbolic) landscape of the garden to present his idea. We have analysed ‘A Poison Tree’ here.

So, perhaps the speaker of ‘The Garden of Love’ is not exactly beyond reproach himself. What evidence is there in the poem for such an interpretation? The idea that the speaker has undergone some late religious conversion is supported by the poem’s opening stanza:

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.

‘I went to the Garden of Love, / And saw what I never had seen’: in other words, he had never noticed the Chapel there before. The wording of the third line (‘A Chapel was built in the midst’) allows for the possibility that the Chapel has always been there, and it is merely the speaker’s blinkered vision that prevented him from noticing it. This suggests a religious conversion.

What this also implies is that the ‘Garden of Love’ is a mental, symbolic garden, where a Chapel has both been there all the time and not been there; where the speaker has been able to play on the green even though a Chapel is constructed there, a structure he has managed to ignore until now. And as Gillham observes, if the Garden is of the mind, and the Chapel that despoils it is also of the mind, the corruption stems from the speaker’s own mental attitude rather than an external reality.

Or, to put it another way, it is the mental and moral views we bring to something that either taint it or brighten it. Someone who worshipped a religion that taught the worshipper to be suspicious of arcs of different colours would see little beauty in a rainbow!

A note on metre: like many Blake poems, ‘The Garden of Love’ is written in quatrains (rhymed, in this case, abcb, although the final two lines of the final stanza depart from this and instead use internal rhyme on gowns and rounds and briars and desires), but instead of using tetrameter (i.e. four feet per line), Blake uses a more variable trimeter rhythm. This means there are three main stresses per line, rather than four:

I WENT / to the GAR- / den of LOVE,
And SAW / what I NE- / ver had SEEN:
A CHA- / pel was BUILT / in the MIDST,
Where I USED / to PLAY / on the GREEN.

We have marked the breaks between each foot with a / mark. As you can see, the main pattern in each line (consistent in the first three lines) is to have a two-syllable foot (e.g. ‘And SAW’) followed by two three-syllable feet. This means we can identify the basic ground-plan of the poem’s metre as something called anapaestic trimeter, with iambic substitutions. In other words, in each of those first three lines we have an iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed) and then a pair of anapaests (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed).

As suggested above, the Christina Rossetti poem ‘Shut Out’ (1862) provides a neat complement to Blake’s poem, and may even have been written with it in mind. Like ‘The Garden of Love’, it is written in simple quatrains, albeit with a different rhyme scheme. It begins:

The door was shut. I looked between
Its iron bars; and saw it lie,
My garden, mine, beneath the sky,
Pied with all flowers bedewed and green:

From bough to bough the song-birds crossed,
From flower to flower the moths and bees;
With all its nests and stately trees
It had been mine, and it was lost.

A shadowless spirit kept the gate,
Blank and unchanging like the grave.
I peering through said: ‘Let me have
Some buds to cheer my outcast state …’

You can read the rest of Rossetti’s poem, and our analysis of it, here.

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.

6 Comments

  1. “The Garden of Love” deserves to be one of the most memorable short lyrics in the English language. A favorite Blake lyric of Allen Ginsberg’s by the way.

    And thanks for pointing us to the Christina Rossetti poem, new to me, which does seem to be a complementary expression reflecting in some part on the Blake.

    • And it wasn’t just organised religion Blake railed against; it was the whole of society!. He called it eternal Death or Ulro and put the ‘blame’ on Single Vision. To simplify his complex mythology he saw humankind as in a fallen state, largely because we have forgotten our ‘divinity’ and relied on the rationalising mind. Imagination and self-inquiry are necessary to release ourselves from Urizen’s manacles!
      It is sobering to think that things have got worse since his days. In many ways he predicted the wage-slave situation most of us find ourselves in today. And what about mechanisation/consumerism and the devaluing of the human spirit? I’ve even been told there are robot servants in Japan today!

  2. Nice one, Mr Blake.

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

  3. Love this poem. It nails it on the head, the corruption of organised religion. When you look at how most religions end up, you have to agree with Blake!

  4. Pingback: 10 of the Best William Blake Poems | Interesting Literature

  5. Pingback: 10 of the Best Poems about Gardens | Interesting Literature

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