“The Garden of Love,” by the English poet William Blake (1757–1827) is one of the lyrics contained in his collection titled Songs of Experience. That collection, in turn, is usually paired with another gathering of Blake’s lyrics titled Songs of Innocence. As the titles of these volumes suggest, the poems in each collection deal with opposed but complementary states of mind and perception. The lyrics in the Songs of Experience are usually darker and more disillusioned in tone than those in the Songs of Innocence. Certainly this is true of “The Garden of Love.”
The opening line of the poem—“I went to the Garden of Love”—is significant in several ways. First, it already establishes the importance of the individual speaker (the “I”) whose perspective the poem reflects. The “I” in this case, as in so many of Blake’s poems, is an individualist who does not necessarily or automatically conform to the expectations or values of others. He goes to a garden of love, a word that suggests a place where beauty is deliberately cultivated. The fact that this is a garden of love may indeed remind us of the first and most important of all gardens: the biblical Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise full of beauty and established because of God’s love so that love and happiness among his creatures might flourish.
The first line of “The Garden of Love,” then, might just as easily appear in one of the Songs of Innocence. In line 2, however, dark experience enters the poem: the speaker is now confronted by something he never before “had seen” in the garden. His sense of surprise helps create our own. He sees that a “chapel” has been “built in the midst” of the garden (3)—not at an entrance, not off to the side, but directly “in the midst.” In a poem by a much earlier writer (such as the devoutly Christian seventeenth-century author George Herbert), the existence of a chapel in the midst of a garden might seem entirely appropriate, because writers such as Herbert saw the church as one of the fullest reflections of God’s love for his creatures. To a poet such as Herbert, the placement of a church in the very middle of a garden of love would have seemed entirely fitting.
Blake, however, was not a poet like Herbert. Although a sincere Christian, Blake felt that the established church had often corrupted and profaned the ideals associated with Christ. Our first hint that the speaker may be dismayed by the erection of the chapel in the middle of the garden of...
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