The Garden of Love
by William Blake
I went to the Garden of Love.
And I 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
And binding with briars, my joys and desires.
There once lived a man in eighteenth century London who was one of the most persuasively forceful figures in British society. Unfortunately for his contemporaries who viewed him as erratic, they never perceived him as brilliant like he truly was. His name was William Blake. He was a painter, illustrator, printer, and, of course, a fascinating poet. His friends often introduced him to middleclass patrons, but he often alienated himself because of his indignation (Bentley). Despite this, he is most popular for his invention of illuminated printing, which his brother, Robert, taught him from the grave (Richardson).
We do not have a proper description of the process written by Blake himself, but modern researchers have been able to reconstruct the process (Essick). Most researchers agree that Blake painted his designs and texts in reverse onto a copperplate in an acid-resistant liquid known as “stop out”. He would then pour acid onto the plate and etch away the uncovered metal surfaces, leaving the painted areas in shallow relief. After this, Blake applied ink to the plates and printed them with light pressure in an engraver’s rolling press. Some books were hand tinted with watercolors by his wife, Catherine Blake, as well (Essick). His illuminated books brought together poetry, painting, and engraving, making this Blake’s greatest accomplishment. One such work that used illuminated printing was Songs of Innocence and Experience.
One poem from Songs of Innocence and Experience is “The Garden of Love”, which is about a person going to a Chapel, where they find their once enjoyable place as a child become a place of melancholy and sadness. “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,” (SIE, copy Z). As he goes to the Garden of Love, he finds a chapel that had never been there before. The Chapel was built where he used to play as a child, so it represents the invasion of Christianity into a pure land.
Once the man reaches the Chapel, he finds that the doors are closed, and that he cannot enter. “And Thou shalt not. Writ over the door,” (SIE, copy Z). This line comes from the instructions in Deuteronomy 6:9 to write “Thou shalt Love the Lord thy God,” (Johnson). However, many critics do not understand the line fully. Some contend that it represents the Ten Commandments. Hence, it reflects Blake’s cross attitude to organized religion and God. It also appears that “Love” in this poem is the name for Jesus Christ. Jesus warned his followers, “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven,” (Cervo). To Blake, Jesus was made of flesh because he descended from heaven and took a mortal body, so the divine Jesus is human. Therefore, Blake is divine (Damon).
Love comes from God, but who is God? In A Vision of the Last Judgment, Blake writes, “Thinking as I do that the Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being, & Being a Worshipper of Christ, I cannot help saying: ‘The Son, O how unlike the Father!’”. Blake viewed Jesus, unlike God, as being kind, loving, and forgiving (Cervo). According to Blake, the Father is cruel, envious, and intrusive (Cervo). Hence, God is perpetually angry and vindictive (Damon). In this poem, Blake grieves over the return of God’s qualities to Christianity (Cervo). He wrote, “And Priests in black gowns, were walking their / rounds, / And binding with briars, my joys & desires,” (SIE, copy Z). The priests represent the encroachment of God onto “the green”, so the phrase “Thou shalt not” shows the invasion of a strange God into Christianity (Cervo).
Another stance that one may argue is that the poem reflects how the lower classes often could not attend church. Well, some believed that it was of little use for impoverished people to go to church, for their lifestyles had already corrupted them. According to Mrs. Sarah Trimmer in The Oeconomy of Charity, “It will be of little use to persuade the poor to go to their proper places of worship if, when they do so, they either find the doors shut against their entrance, or no accommodation for them,” (Johnson). Therefore, the poor man in the poem turns around and sees the Garden of Love, meaning the Garden of Jesus’ Love, with many sweet flowers that turn into a land full of graves and tombstones. “And I saw it was filled with graves, / and tomb-stones where flowers should be,” (SIE, copy Z). The man will never reach the land of God if the priests continue to destroy his joys and desires and if he cannot enter the Chapel, but why is it so important to enter the Chapel? Is it an illness of some sort? The vines in the image, destroying essentially everything upon which they grows, appear as though they are devouring the Chapel, representing the rotting tendencies of the Christian faith.
The poem’s illustration includes three figures, facing right, who are on the ground praying before an open grave. Two gowned children pray with a gowned priest who is holding a book, gesturing toward the grave. Next to the figures, there is an ornate tombstone, a vine-covered wall, a window with diamond-shaped panes, and a shadow. The priest dressed in black represents Blake’s abhorrence with God and the church. Children, on the other hand, are pure, but if they remain with the priest, they might as well lose their souls. All three are praying for a deceased person, possibly someone another child who had died, which often occurred in those days. The church, in addition, remains illuminated whilst the land away from it remains in the shadows, which could mean that true faith in Jesus will bring enlightenment, and everything outside of it (God) will cause despair.
Blake’s reputation as an eccentric artist who was often irritated with Christianity and organized religion is reflected in “The Garden of Love” (Bentley). In the sequence of manuscripts of Songs of Experience, Blake becomes increasingly against religious, social, and political injustice and repression (Phillips). Hence, this poem along with its illustration is about Blake’s resentment of an angry God and its infringement on Christianity.