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The Garden of Love

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English Literature

Do you feel a pang of grief when a place you visited often and loved deeply suddenly changes? Then you will relate to William Blake's romantic poem 'The Garden of Love'. While, at first glance, the poem might seem simple in its structure, a closer look unlocks the depth and complexity of the poet's emotions concerning love and religion.

'The Garden of Love': Overview

Written InSongs of Experience (complete collection: Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1794)

Written By

William Blake (1757-1827)

Genre

Romantic poetry

Meter

Inconsistent, but dominated by iamb-anapest-anapest

Rhyme Scheme

Stanza 1 and 2 - ABCB

Stanza 3 - internal rhymes

Poetic Devices

Metaphor; Assonance; Polysyndeton

Frequently noted imagery

Garden

Religion

Church

Tone

Expression of surprise; first-person narration

Key themes

Religion

Love

Adulthood

Meaning

The speaker of the poem visits a place called 'The Garden of Love,' where they used to play. The place has undergone a dramatic transformation as a chapel with locked doors has been erected in the middle of the garden. A message over the chapel entryway reads 'Thou Shalt not.' Upon looking back at the garden, the speaker notices that, instead of flowers, the garden is now covered with graves. There are priests wearing black robes, walking in the garden, and binding the speaker's joys and desires with thorny branches.

'The Garden of Love': Context

Pro Tip: When discussing the context of a literary text or a poem, mull over the following questions:

  1. What is the poet's social standing? What are the poet's religious and political beliefs?
  2. How was the national and social environment around the poet when he composed the poem?
  3. What kind of a life did the poet lead? What is their family background?
  4. Is there a specific audience the poet wished to address?

'The Garden of Love': Biographical Context

William Blake is an English poet and visual artist who is affiliated with the Romantic movement in England in the 18th century. His seminal work, titled Songs of Innocence and Experience, was published as a complete volume in 1794. The poem 'The Garden of Love' belongs to the Songs of Experience section of the volume.

The poem touches upon themes of religion, which was a very important aspect of Blake's life. Blake held Christian, nonconformist beliefs and was against any form of organised religion. This is reflected in 'The Garden of Love', where the speaker comments on the conformity and loss of joy upon the erection of a chapel in the middle of the garden.

His poems take on a prophetic quality because of his deep spiritualism. Nonetheless, his poems employ simple, ease-to-read language as Blake firmly believed that poetry could be read, understood and enjoyed by everyone. He was often called too 'radical' and even 'insane' by his contemporaries. Blake was not a successful poet while he was alive, and he died in poverty. Despite this, he is regarded as one of the greatest artists to have emerged from Britain and has contributed significantly to the corpus of romantic poetry.

'The Garden of Love': Historical Context

When Blake composed 'The Garden of Love', England was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, The Church of England was an established authority fighting to remain relevant in these changing times. Blake was against institutions associated with organised religion, such as the Church of England, and also the rigidity imposed by those in power. Furthermore, according to Blake, the growing industry represented enslavement, and he believed it to be a threat to mankind.

'The Garden of Love': Literary Context

Although Blake was not considered important at the time, he is recognised as one of the most important figures in the Romantic movement. Romantic poets celebrated emotions, passion, imagination, and the isolated individual over the collective. Their works were often sentimental and included spiritual, mystic, and supernatural elements. Spiritualism, religion, emotions, and freedom play a crucial role in 'The Garden of Love'.

Blake's works were often centred around abstract concepts that stood in binary opposition, for example, love vs hate, freedom vs imprisonment, childhood vs adulthood, innocence vs experience. Furthermore, Blake was deeply spiritual and religious but denounced any form of organised religion and openly expressed his dislike towards institutions and establishments associated with religion, such as the Church of England. These binary oppositions (in particular freedom vs oppression and conformity vs liberation) and Blake's religious beliefs are reflected in 'The Garden of Love'.

Blake, being religious and holding Christian beliefs, often employed Biblical themes and motifs in his works. The image of the garden in 'The Garden of Love' evokes the biblical Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve were expelled. The poem, which belongs to the collection Songs of Experience, engages with the dark undertones of worldly wisdom, fear, oppression, and inhibition, which also emerge in the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. It is this kind of spiritual mysticism, symbolism, and play on religious themes that characterise Blake's poetry.

Interestingly, the Tate organisation, which exhibited Blake's illustrations, claims that the poem may have been a reaction against the new chapel that was built near William Blake's home at the time in Lambeth. The website of the Tate organisation states that:

This chapel was built by subscription: parishioners paid for their pews. Blake was appalled at the idea that those who could not pay would be excluded from Christianity's 'Garden of Love'.

(Tate, 2014)1

'The Garden of Love': Summary

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.

Pro Tip: A brief summary of the poem is a good way to begin an essay about a poem. Without going into too much detail, write 4-5 sentences that outline the basic meaning or purpose of the poem. The details and the complexities of the poem can be elaborated upon later in your essay.

The poem 'The Garden of Love' belongs to Blake's collection of poetry, Songs of Experience. In the poem, the speaker visits a place they call 'The Garden of Love,' which has undergone a dramatic change. The speaker notes the changes in the garden and elaborates on the chapel they see standing in the middle of the garden. The poem ends on a dark note, with the speaker claiming that the priests walking in the garden have bound the speaker's 'joys and desires.'

'The Garden of Love': Analysis

'The Garden of Love': Form and Structure

Pro Tip: When elaborating the form or structure of a poem, think of the following:

  1. What are the meter and the rhyme scheme of the poem? Are they consistent? If there is a change, is it gradual or sudden? How does this change affect the way the poem reads?
  2. Read the poem in its entirety. Do you notice any repetitions? Is a pattern emerging?
  3. How does the form affect the reading of the poem? Does it influence the main subject or theme of the poem?

The poem 'The Garden of Love' has a simple yet inconsistent structure. The poem consists of 12 lines divided into three quatrains (four lines make one quatrain). The poem, being short and concise, does not employ flowery language. Instead, it presents a clear argument that reflects its precise and concise structure.

The first stanza of the poem may be viewed as the exposition, thus elaborating on the premise of the poem. The speaker returns to a place they seemingly frequented, called 'The Garden of Love,' and notices a big change; there now stands a chapel in the middle of the garden, which they have never seen before. The lines of this stanza are presented in a simple, straightforward manner.

The second stanza of the poem begins with 'and', as does the second line of this stanza. This implies continuity from the previous stanza. The speaker continues to process the change that has been made to the garden, eventually turning to look back to where they came from.

Each line in the third stanza begins with the word 'and', gradually building up the speaker's shock at the transformation of the garden. As the speaker tries to process the changes that have been made to the garden, they notice the priests who appear not only ominous but also menacing in their black robes as they hinder the speaker's happiness.

The structure of the poem and the momentum of the final stanza signify the comparison that the speaker makes between the garden as they previously knew it and how it is now. For example, the repeated use of the word 'and' at the beginning of each line of the final stanza gives the impression that the speaker is fervently listing all the things that are wrong with the garden. Furthermore, the final stanza reflects the speaker's resignation towards the change that has been forced upon the garden and, in extension, upon the speaker themselves.

'The Garden of Love': Rhyme and Meter

Rhyme

The rhyme scheme of the first two stanzas is ABCB.

The rhyming pair of 'seen' and 'green' reflect the speaker's strong emotions as they begin to compare the garden from before to the garden as it presently stands. The use of the past tense, for example, in the word 'seen', reflects the speaker's nostalgia as they remember the green glory of the garden they once knew, which is now a thing of the past.

The rhyming pair of 'bore' and 'door' also presents interesting connotations. The word 'bore' has two meanings: the past tense of 'to bear' and also the state of boredom. For a child visiting a garden to play, a building like the chapel does not hold much interest; now that the Garden is changed and the chapel stands before the speaker, they are forced to bear the loss of the open space and flowers that were significant to them. The door, although meant to serve as a point of entry, remains locked, representing a force that beckons or restricts the speaker.

However, the third stanza adds inconsistency to the poem's rhyme and rhythm. The final stanza consists of internal rhymes, such as in the following lines:

'And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys & desires.'

The change in the rhyme pattern here also reflects the change in the speaker. As one reads to the last line, one realises that the speaker is no longer simply an observer taking note of the surroundings – they are also now a victim of the change that has occurred.

The meter of the poem varies between the iamb and the anapest. The poem does not consistently adhere to one meter or even the same number of syllables in each line, reflecting the shifting thoughts and emotions of the speaker. The final two lines are in anapestic tetrameter and suggest a sense of resignation or acceptance in their final uniformity.

  • An iamb is a metric foot containing two syllables - an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, e.g., destroy; belong.
  • An anapest is a metric foot containing three syllables - two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, e.g., un-der-stand; con-tra-dict.

In this poem, certain lines contain both the iamb and the anapest:

'A Cha | pel was built | in the midst,

Where I | used to play | on the green.

So I turn'd | to the Gar | den of Love,

That so | many sweet | flowers bore.'

'The Garden of Love': Imagery and Poetic Devices

Pro Tip: The imagery refers to the use of language and figures of speech that paint a mental image for a reader. The imagery of the poem hints towards the mood or the tone of the poem. When examining imagery, look out for any descriptive words and ask what emotion or thought they provoke. Also, determine whether the image(s) described is literal or figurative and how this influences the meaning of the poem.

The title itself evokes the image of the garden as a place of peace and tranquillity. As one reads the poem, however, two gardens emerge – one that the speaker remembers, a vast expanse covered in green grass and flowers, and the one that they see presently, with a chapel in the middle and a garden covered in gravestones with ominous figures in black walking about.

The speaker's descriptions of both gardens are evocative of two emotions: nostalgia and dread. When the speaker describes the garden they used to know, they include images of beauty and joy. This is evident in their memory of 'playing on the green' or the 'sweet flowers' that the garden was covered in. This creates a sense of nostalgia with a hint of melancholy, wherein the speaker recalls happier times spent at the place. On the other hand, the door of the chapel with its foreboding warning, the appearance of tombstones, and the menacing presence of the priests in black robes evoke a feeling of trepidation and entrapment.

Tone and Mood

As the imagery suggests, the mood of the poem is nostalgic but also observational and critical. The speaker, who notes the changes around them in the garden, does not have a physical reaction but an introspective, reflective one. They resign themselves to the dramatic change that has taken place around them as well as their fate, which is now controlled by the priests in the garden.

The matter-of-fact tone by which these emotions are delivered shows the speaker's resignation to their changing circumstances. As the poem is narrated in the first person and the speaker reflects on the changes, the nature of the speaker's feelings is implicit and not plainly laid out. Rather than going into detail about their own state of mind, they indicate the changes around them with broad strokes of description and imagery.

Metaphor

Based on William Blake's religious beliefs, we can argue that the chapel stands for a form of organised religion, possibly the Church of England or another religious establishment that William Blake publicly discredited. The priests, who represent the religious establishment, are responsible for restricting the speaker's joy, further implying that William Blake was critical of the clergy that disseminated the teachings of organised religion.

In line with this idea, the Garden of Love can be identified as reflecting William Blake's 'ideal' society in which there is freedom, joy and love. This is also evocative of the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve were expelled after eating the forbidden fruit.

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds which is particularly pronounced when reading a poem out loud.

Although there are numerous instances of assonance throughout the poem, it is particularly evident in lines 8, 10 and 12. Let's examine line 12, for example:

And binding with briars, my joys and desires.

Firstly, in this stanza, there are internal rhymes. In line 12, the internal rhyme is seen in 'briars' and 'desires,' caused by the 'iars'/'ires' sound. Here, the sound of the long 'i' is also noted in 'binding' and 'my'. The connotation of 'I', meaning oneself, and the long 'i' sound in this line emphasise the introspective reflection of the speaker as they contemplate their feelings about the changes to the garden.

As an exercise, mark other instances of assonance in this poem. How does this affect the tone or the reading of the poem?

Polysyndeton

Polysyndeton is a figure of speech in which coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but etc.) are used several times in rapid succession.

The final stanza employs the device of polysyndeton with the repeated use of 'and.' With each line that begins with 'and', the speaker builds up to the final line by noting how each additional change made to the Garden of Love affect them, culminating in the restriction of their 'joys and desires.' This also evokes the speaker's feelings of being overwhelmed, as there is so much for the speaker to take in and make peace with.

'The Garden of Love': Themes

The themes of religion, love and adulthood stand out in the poem 'The Garden of Love'.

William Blake targets organised religion and the Church for imposing restrictions on people and, thus, preventing people from experiencing joy, freedom and profound human connection. The chapel in the middle of the garden is associated with being forbidding and closed off, evident in the use of words such as 'shut' or 'not.'

The phrase, 'Thou shalt not', written on the door of the chapel is reminiscent of the Ten Commandments, adding to the sense of restriction and conformity imposed by religion. The locked door of the chapel also implies gate-keeping, which is indicative of the idea that religion is accessible to some people but not to all. Furthermore, priests, who are usually associated with blessing and forgiving people, are made to appear ominous with their black robes and bindings.

The theme of love lends significant meaning to the poem. Firstly, the title explicitly notes that the setting of the poem, the garden, is a place of love. It implies the sense of belonging, community and collective joy that the visitors of the garden experience. This love, however, is prevented from flourishing because of the erection of the chapel, which now spoils its beauty since the garden is no longer covered in 'sweet flowers' but rather in tombstones. This contrast suggests that, although religion and spiritualism are meant to preach and spread love, this is corrupted by organised religions that limit people and their acts of love.

Blake's collection, Songs of Experience, comments on the loss of innocence and the impact of oppression, social and political tyranny, and limitations imposed as a result of adulthood. A garden is typically enjoyed by children and adults alike, and the comparative tone between the past and present garden hints at the speaker's loss of innocence. The unbridled joy and freedom one experiences as a child are now bound by the religious imposition of the adult world.

As an exercise, compare the lines associated with the original and changed 'Garden of Love'. How do the above-mentioned themes manifest in both the gardens? How are they connected?

'The Garden of Love' - Key takeaways

  • 'The Garden of Love' belongs to a collection of poetry by William Blake called Songs of Innocence and Experience. The complete collection was published in 1794.
  • William Blake criticises the Church and any form of organised religion in 'The Garden of Love'.
  • In the poem, narrated in first-person, the speaker returns to a garden they frequented and observes and criticises the changes to the garden.

  • The themes of religion, love and adulthood stand out in the poem.

  • The poem is a metaphor for the restrictions imposed by religious establishments on mankind.

  • The rhyme scheme of the poem is inconsistent, with the first two stanzas having an ABCB rhyme scheme and the last stanza containing internal rhymes.

  • The meter of the poem jumps between the iamb and the anapest.

  • The overall mood of the poem is nostalgic, critical, and resigned.


1 Tate, 'William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience', Tate.org.uk, 2014.

The Garden of Love

The message of the poem 'The Garden of Love' aligns with William Blake’s belief that religion inspires us to love freely, while organized religion and its representatives impose restrictions that prevent love from flourishing.

'The Garden of Love' is a Romantic poem written by William Blake. It is part of the collection Songs of Experience and it has nostalgic, melancholic and critical undertones.

The mood and the tone of the speaker is nostalgic and melancholic.

The poet views love as the message of religion. The setting of the garden is a place where this love is found and spread. The symbol of the garden is also linked to the Biblical Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve were expelled after eating the forbidden fruit.

Metaphor – the garden can be identified as the 'ideal' society that the speaker dreams of, where there is freedom, joy and love.

Final The Garden of Love Quiz

Question

Which poet wrote 'The Garden of Love'?

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Answer

William Blake

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Question

In which collection is 'The Garden of Love' published?

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Answer

Songs of Experience

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Question

What kind of a poem is 'The Garden of Love'?

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Answer

Romantic poem

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a theme in 'The Garden of Love'?

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Answer

Poverty

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Question

What was England preoccupied with when the poem 'The Garden of Love' was published?

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Answer

The Industrial Revolution

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Question

Which of the following figures is found in the poem 'The Garden of Love'?

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Answer

Priests

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Question

How many stanzas does the poem 'The Garden of Love' have?

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Answer

3

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Question

What is the rhyme scheme of the first two stanzas of 'The Garden of Love'?

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Answer

ABCB

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Question

What is the mood of the speaker in the initial stanzas of 'The Garden of Love'?

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Answer

Nostalgia

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Question

In what year was 'The Garden of Love' published?

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Answer

1794

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