Let’s take a walk through William Blake’s inspired poem with this The Garden of Love analysis… 🚶♂️
The Garden of Love – Analysis
Through The Garden of Love Blake explores various thematic polarities often seen in literature: freedom/constraint; nature/man; innocence/experience and he also presents love/religion as having a polarised relationship.
He critiques the institution of the Church as being oppressive and makes biblical allusions which help to explore Blake’s exposition that the organised Church is hypocritical and contradicts that which the Bible intended.
It is important to remember that Blake was very spiritual and sensual, not an atheist: it is the organised religious aspect of the Church which the uniformed ‘Priests’ symbolise that he is criticising.
About the Author
William Blake was born to James and Catherine in 1757. In many ways he had an idyllic childhood: he had little formal schooling and plenty of time to pursue his creative interests.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Blake came from a humble middle-class background of Dissenters. He was deeply affected by the revolutionary events of the time he lived in, which included the French, American and Industrial Revolutions.
Blake has been referred to as many things: a scholar; a visionary; a thinker; a mystic; an engraver. From the age of eight he had visions of angels, fairies, spirits and prophets. He rebelled against the political and societal status quos of his time and was a critic of organised religion, especially the Church of England which he perceived to be a repressive force.
He wasn’t, however, anti-God or atheist, instead developing his own spiritual path and writing about his own mythopoeia. He was a critic of institutionalised marriage, taking inspiration from Mary Wollstonecraft, and rejected the notion that sexual expression was sinful unless it was procreative.
Blake was a thinker ahead of his time, publishing art that encompassed both the written word and beautiful engravings. He believed in freedom for body and mind, the expression of love and the vitality and spirituality of the imagination. He rejected the rationality of the Enlightenment and is regarded as an important figure in what is now known as Romanticism.
The Garden of Love is made up of three quatrains: three stanzas with four lines. The first stanza introduces the Garden of Love to the reader and the speaker communicates that they are returning to a place they knew well in childhood. Things have changed.
There is an element of surprise but the tone remains fairly neutral. The second stanza moves into a definite negative tone introducing the idea that the Garden of Love is no longer a playful, loving place. The third stanza furthers this with images of death and religious oppression.
It could be argued that the end of the third stanza is so bleak that it almost feels like an incomplete sonnet, wherein the final couplet which could have offered a change in tone has been left out, leaving the reader with a sense of emptiness or incompletion. The three quatrain form, with each focusing on a change in perception by the speaker, highlights the different states of innocence and experience the speaker undergoes.
This poem was originally published in Blake’s collection Songs of Innocence and Experience. The poems therein were divided into two sections: one pertaining to poems about the innocence of childhood and the naïve state this leads to and the more gruelling Songs of Experience, where the social injustices of Blake’s world are laid bare and explored.
Blakes uses a range of language devices: assonance; alliteration; allusion; end stopped lines; caesura; polysyndeton; metaphor; pronouns.
Blake uses allusion throughout the The Garden of Love, with the title of the poem itself referring to the Garden of Eden. Blake’s use of biblical allusion not only illustrates his ideas about the oppressiveness of the institution of the Church and organised religion, but by using biblical allusion to criticise organised religion he draws attention to his perceived hypocrisy of the Church.
The speaker presents the reader with two versions of the garden: one before the Chapel was built and one after. The first is spoken of fondly and arguably, could represent Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden of Eden prior to their fall, where they lived in innocence without shame.
The introduction of the Chapel with its ‘shut’ door could represent the door to the Garden of Eden being closed upon Adam and Eve after they sinned. In this allusion, the speaker could be seen to be having their Garden of Eden closed to them, however they do not speak of themselves with condemnation, implying that they do not believe they are sinful and therefore, neither were Adam and Eve. What is condemned are the actions of the Church: its controlling and judgemental oppression.
This idea is furthered by the allusion to the Ten Commandments in the second stanza. ‘Thou shalt not.’ and the use of the full stop highlight the restrictions put in place by organised religion; it emphasises the many things the Church prevents people from doing rather than focusing on the community and love religion is supposed to offer its followers.
Blake uses a plosive alliteration to good effect in the final line: ‘binding with briars’. This evokes a violent feeling of constriction and emphasises the punishing image of pain.
Blake’s use of polysyndeton in the final stanza serves to create a cumulative effect. The building up of the images feels overwhelming and the repetition of ‘And’ creates a feeling of compulsion and inexorability.
Blake uses symbolic imagery of nature, religion and death. The title sets up the expectation that the poem would be filled with rich imagery of beautiful flowers, however it is the exact opposite. The flowers that are mentioned are spoken about in absence, juxtaposing the harsh tombstones that are now in their place.
The flowers and their demise therefore symbolise the way the Church has oppressed the natural, loving nature of humanity and placed it under strict rule, thereby preventing love and joy from flourishing. Similarly, ‘the green’ represents both unbridled natural expression and the spaces that most medieval settlements set aside for use by the community.
The green would be a place for people to come together and celebrate, and would often have the phallic symbol of a May Pole used as part of May Day fertility celebrations. Blake therefore implies that the manmade structure of a chapel and the institution of the Church have put an end to this revelry and freedom.
The images of death and religion are presented as being intertwined. The tombstones have replaced the flowers and arrived with the Chapel. The priests dressed in black walking amongst them reinforce this relationship between religion and death and symbolically Blake is implying that organised religion has caused a kind of death.
It also serves to remind the reader of one of the underlying tenets of Christianity, that a life lived according to Christian doctrine will lead to a fulfilling afterlife in paradise. Blake illustrates that the oppressive church is preventing society from living a rich and satisfying life with the promise of ‘life’ after death.
The Garden of Love uses two different metric systems: Lines one to ten use anapestic trimeter, which gives a melodic meter similar to that of a ballad. The final two lines switch to iambic tetrameter and also change the rhyme scheme, introducing the internal rhyming of ‘gowns/rounds’ and ‘briars/desires.’
This abrupt change represents the dramatic changes the speaker has witnessed in the Garden of Love, the images of which culminate in these last two lines. The rhyming serves to highlight the relationship between the two words: ‘gowns/rounds’ highlights the uniformity and institutionalisation of the priests, with rounds suggesting an ominous obligatory surveillance, like that of a jailor rather than someone filled with spiritual love. Likewise, the destructive relationship between ‘briars/desires’ is emphasised.
The three quatrain structure takes the reader on a journey of realisation. The first line builds a positive image and the second with its use of a colon builds a sense of anticipation. Blake uses end-stops throughout the three stanzas. This keeps the ideas he is presenting simple and understandable.
It also closes off the potential for change; the effects of the Chapel on the green are irreversible and so symbolically are that of the institution on society. The final lines also reflect this. The initial rhyme scheme and meter were melodic and structured; this is disrupted by the influence of religion in the last two lines, with the final image being one of despair.
Blake explores several themes common in literature and presents them as polarities: nature/man; freedom/constraint; innocence/experience (childhood/adulthood) and he portrays love/religion as having a polarised relationship.
- Nature is presented as being decimated by man; the manmade construction of the Chapel in what was a natural space abundant with flowers reflects this.
- Equally, love is presented as being restricted by organised religion. The innocent expression of love represented by Adam and Eve prior to their fall from the Garden of Eden is shown as being controlled and dominated by the Church.
- There are two suggestions of the polarity between innocence and experience. Firstly, the innocence of man or Adam and Eve prior to the fall of man. Secondly, the speaker’s own innocence of playing on the green which has been taken away by the construction of the Chapel.
- Writer DG Gilham raises the question of whether the garden is in fact symbolic of a mental state, or that the speaker’s perspective has merely changed – perhaps the Chapel had always been there but they hadn’t realised before. The garden could represent a religious conversion that now prevents the speaker from enjoying the pleasures they used to.
Our The Garden of Love analysis offers you a revision option for developing your pre-1900s poetry comprehension in preparation for the A Level English exams. But don’t forget that you can access a wide range of assessment support through our blogs here! You can also subscribe to Beyond for access to thousands of secondary teaching resources. You can sign up for a free account here and take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too.