The poem “The Garden of Love” by William Blake dramatizes the conflict between official religion and human instincts and emotions, such as love and sexuality. The feeling of love is treated as a path to God, while the institutionalized Christian church as an obstacle for spirituality due to its hostility to natural human feelings. Love and sexuality are understood as more than mere elements of human relationships; they are sanctified. Therefore, the poem’s theme is the conflict of the spirituality determined by the church, and those dictated by the intuition. The irony of the situation appears in a paradoxical juxtaposition of the religion that prevents finding God, and prohibited human feelings as a path to Him.
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In the poem, the speaker visits the garden, where he used to play in his childhood. He tries to find “sweet flowers” (8) of the past; however, there are only graves and tombstones around. The reason for it is the Chapel that was built in the middle of the garden. Now, the garden is no more full of “joys and desires” (12) but a hostile, dark place.
The poem describes a setting that may be understood literally and figuratively. The place could be interpreted as an inner space, where the happiness turned into disharmony. A system of symbols, allusions, and metaphors is used in the poem to construct this meaning:
- The Garden of Love is a central symbol of the poem. It appears in the title, representing an inner space of harmony, joy, and freedom. The garden is an allusion to the biblical Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lived without knowing shame and restrictions.
- Green (garden) – a symbol of freedom and life;
- Black (gowns) – a killing of life by formal restrictions.
- Chapel – may refer to a formal church.
- Priests – except its primary sense, may have a connotation, being understood as an inner mentor and judge;
- “Binding with briars my joys and desires” is a metaphor that expresses how restrictions disrupted the speaker’s happiness.
There is a distinct rhythm, although it changes during the poem. The poem’s meter is mostly amphibrachic trimeter in the first stanza, anapestic trimeter in the second and the first half of the third stanzas. However, it breaks in the last two lines where amphibrachic tetrameter with missing last syllables appears. The rhyme structure of the first and second stanzas is ABCB; in the third one, it changes to ABCD with internal rhymes in lines 11-12. Anaphora is used in the third stanza, with repetition of “and” at the beginning of each line. There are no alliteration, consonance, or assonance examples in the poem.
The poem’s diction is straightforward; bi- and mono-syllabic words are often used to attain this simplicity. It could be perceived as a contemplation rather than formal and structured speech, addressed to the audience. The lines 11-12 are particularly important, as they break the established in the first two stanzas syntax structure by its extended length. The punctuation of line 6 is also remarkable, as full stop after “Thou shalt not.” emphasizes the certainty and inevitability of the restriction, which results in loss of freedom. The lyrical expression is darkened by elegiac mood, representing the loss of freedom of feelings and death of happiness and inner harmony. Overall, the poem’s tone is contemplative, full of sorrow and despair.
Blake, William. “The Poem of Love.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Shorter 13th edition, edited by Kelly J. Mays, W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, p. 1061.