Thursday, 26 May 2016

"The Garden of Love" - A Brief Analysis of Blake's Poem

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.

I can’t quite put my finger on what makes this poem so wonderful. My grandmother, a rebelling ex-Catholic, used to read it to my mother when she was a child, and my mother subsequently read it to me as I was growing up. I suppose that’s why this poem has stuck with me for such a long time – I have a personal connection to it. Hopefully, though, I can try to explain my affection for it in more objective terms.

Clearly, the poem is about Blake’s struggles with religion, particularly the stringent rules of the orthodox Anglican Church. But it’s also about the change he himself has gone through in his movement from “innocence” to “experience” as expressed in the titles of his books (Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience).

Hence, with experience, he sees what he “never had seen” – the harsh rigidity of church authority. Where previously he could “play on the green” (recalling the themes of innocent freedom in his earlier poem “The Echoing Green”), there is now a threatening Chapel with shut gates and with “Thou shalt not, writ over the door…”

Likewise, graves and tombstones now stand “where flowers should be.” In Blake’s mind, the church has destroyed everything good in the world – the freedom of childhood, the freshness of the natural world, and, inevitably, the beauty of love. These are things he could enjoy in his childhood innocence, but now that he has matured, his freedom has been torn from him.

There’s a strong sense of nostalgia that lingers throughout the poem, mostly because of the contrasts between the present and the past – the chapel contrasted with green grass, and graves contrasted with flowers. But this nostalgia is also created, perhaps, by the buoyant anapestic trimiter (“A Chapel was built in the midst,” – “Du-dum du-du-dum du-du-dum”). This metre shares the rapid and somewhat cheerful sound of the dactyl, perhaps signifying Blake’s attempts to recall his past innocence and exuberance.

And yet, the rhyme scheme may imply that Blake’s yearning for his past will never be fulfilled, just as the rhyme scheme is never fully fulfilled: only two lines per stanza rhyme, and the rhyme scheme collapses completely in the final stanza. Likewise, the metre changes in the last two lines, moving to an anapestic tetrameter. This symbolizes two things: the failure to recall past innocence (reflected in the return to a slower, less lighthearted metre), and the change that has taken place in the Garden itself. It’s this metrical variation in the poem that I find so exciting.

Thus, the green of the garden has been replaced by the “black gowns” of the priests. Here we recall Blake’s words in his poem “London” where he says that “Every blackening church appals” (my italics). In his mind, the Church brings decay and sadness to all that we should champion. Therefore, the priests are seen “binding with briars” Blake’s “joys and desires”.

So, in his experience, Blake realizes the austere control placed on people by the Church and, as a non-conformist, he rallies against this. Blake may also be attacking a new chapel that was built in Lambeth near his home at the time. It was built by subscription, meaning that parishioners paid for their pews, and Blake was appalled by this. Like Chaucer, he hated the idea that those who could not pay would be excluded from eternal life with God – “the gates of this Chapel were shut”.

Blake takes arms against the authoritarian nature of the Church and the fact that it consumes all goodness in the world. Although he was technically a Christian, he hated the Church for its attempts to suppress sexuality and desire, both of which he saw as central to the human condition. So, in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” he writes: “Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. / He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.”

“The Garden of Love” is, in many ways, representative of Blake’s rebellious spirit, evident in both his mythological artwork and his more avant-garde poetry. I suppose that is really what I love about this poem, and I guess that’s why it was adored by my mother and my grandmother before her. Blake, as a Romantic poet, was ahead of his time, forever a champion of equality and freedom. For that, at least, he should be remembered.

No comments:

Post a Comment