The Garden of Love by William Blake - Summary & Analysis

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The Garden of Love

I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Weeping, weeping.

Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.

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 turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

Summary and Analysis


      The Garden of Love is an allegorical poem, mildly satirical of the Church. Blake does not approve of religion as a set of codes of morality and ethics. The poem is a slight but sure attack on the rigid codes of morality imposed by the Church that negates the essential and tender human emotions such as love. The poem begins with an unexpected sight of a church and ends in a gruesome fantasy.

The first line of the poem, 'The Garden of Love', itself is significant. The poet visits the garden with his sweet memories gathered in childhood when he used to frequent it.
The Garden of Love


      The first line of the poem, 'The Garden of Love', itself is significant. The poet visits the garden with his sweet memories gathered in childhood when he used to frequent it. But there he comes across an unexpected sight - a Chapel in the middle of the Garden of Love. To his wonder he finds the doors of the chapel shut and the words Thou shalt not written over it. Eventually the poet turns to the Garden of Love where a more unanticipated sight awaits him. Instead of bunches of flowers he sees graves and tomb-stones and priests in black gowns walking around them. Caught in the gruesome surroundings the poet feels the impact of the priests as oppressing his desires and joys. The chapel symbolizes the negation of love and the prohibition of human instincts. The chapel does not recognise the natural instincts of man. Furthermore, the poet notices signs of death all round him. The priests in black gowns accomplishing the rituals indicate the priestly prohibitions that destroy the delights of love. The negation of natural delight is equivalent to death which is hinted by the presence of tomb-stones in the garden of love.

Mystical but Simple:

      On the poetic beauty of 'The Garden of Love' Mr. C.A. Tulk maintains: "This ('The Garden of Love') is a curious and mystical poem, which as yet can be but partially understood - but at the same time is highly poetical. Now approaching a new subject, the elegant dream of Thel, which seems born in the perfume of the lily, so charming, so fairy-like, as are all its illustrations, there is only one work that we remember like it in excellence, the Sakuntala (Kalidasa's Abhignana Sakunthalam) for it wears all the freshness of Indian simplicity and innocence."

The Horror of Experience:

      The Grave in the Garden : The astonishing fact about The Garden of Love is that this poem is a blend of deep allegorical implication, powerful symbolism and the 'satirical temper' which is quite applicable to almost all the 'Songs of Experience.' The satire is inspired by violent emotions and has a merciless tone. But to an observant critic these are not the most prominent characteristics of the poems. The poems impact lie in their lyrical beauty. As C.M. Bowra says: "Indeed no English poet, except Shakespeare has written songs of such lightness and melody." C.M. Bowra's judgement is plausible and convincing since we find irony and satire enveloped in lyrical splendour in Blake's poems.

      In 'The Garden of Love' the horror of experience (as exemplified in the last stanza) is all the greater because of the contrast, explicit or implicit, which Blake suggests between it and innocence. Again Mr. C.M. Bowra's assessment emerges worthy of attention. In 'The Echoing Green' he (Blake) tells how the children are happy and contented at play, but in 'The Garden of Love' to the same rhythm and with the same setting, he presents an ugly antithesis. The green is still there, but on it is a chapel with 'Thou shalt not' written over the door, and the garden itself has changed :

"And I saw it was filled with graves,

.....          .....          .....          .....

And binding with briars my joy and desires."

      In the state of experience, jealousy, cruelty and hypocrisy forbid the natural play of the affections and turn joy into misery. Blake's tragic appreciation of the restrictions which imprison and kill the living spirit was no purely personal thing. It was his criticism of society, of the whole trend of contemporary civilisation. We must not be unmindful of the fact that the 'chapel' which represents traditional religion with its 'Thou shalt nots' is also associated with the society. When Blake defies traditional religion of dead values and oppressive codes of don'ts. Blake is, as a matter of fact, deploring those who abide by these codes too. That is what C.M. Bowra has in mind when he says: "His (Blake's) compassionate heart was outraged and wounded by the suffering which society inflicts on its humbler members and by the waste of human material which seems indispensable to the efficient operation of rules and laws."

Symbolism: the Universe in a Grain of Sand:

      Blake is one who sees a macrocosm in a microcosm and visualises a universe within a grain of sand in front of his eyes. Blake's purpose is not to elaborate a small fact into a universal truth but, in the manner of most skilful symbolists, to concentrate the essence of a universal truth into a small fact. It is here that the poet is unlimitedly helped by his symbols. Only symbols can leave distinct and everlasting impressions on the reader's mind where words more often than not fail to provoke warmth and the intended effect. Viewed from this angle Blake's ingenuity may be felt as depending upon his apt use of symbols. For example in 'The Garden of Love' the poet does not explain in detail human emotions such as love. He conveys it by means of his symbol 'the garden' which suits his purpose the most. This can be felt only if we analyse the symbol and its myriad implications. A garden of resplendent flowers infuses rapture in our mind just like love. The flowers of the garden bloom freely like unchecked lovers. Again the poet symbolises the oppression on love with the help of a phrase from the Ten Commandments, 'Thou shalt not'. The tombs and graves bring in the sense of lurking death. The presence of these horrible agents (grave, tomb-stone, clergymen clad in black) in the garden achieves the effect of dreary oppression which love suffers at the hands of the false values of traditional religion.

      Actually, Blake's poetic progress through his songs of Innocence and Experience depends not upon his progress through a variety of styles, nor is it indebted to his development of thought in the strictest sense of the word, but a good measure to his expanding vistas of symbolic reference and implication.

A Worshipper of Energy:

      Blake disapproves of the religion that intervenes and rules over the human instincts. He also rules out the traditional religious notion that sexual instincts are to be curbed and checked for they constitute a sin against God. Blake finds no harm in human sexual urges and that is why he reproaches the 'Thou shalt not' attitude of the conventional religious codes. According to Blake, such compulsory restraints on love or the libido paves the way to unnatural sexual perversions. Blake's religious views are based on the intellect and originate from a thorough painstaking perusal of the Bible. According everything is good in God's eves. Blake is not didactic in the real sense of Word because he displays no moral tendency in the traditional manner. His poems are the absolute affirmation of that energy (sexual potential or cruelty or strength or any sort of such energy) which is eternal delight. He adored energy as the fountainhead of life and inspiration to live; and there was no vice, only a weakness, a negation of energy, an enervation or exhaustion of the wings that droop and lie frozen on the snowy surface.

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