Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Garden of Love – William Blake

Writers like Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and William Blake highlighted the plight of the common people in their works. Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Hardy, Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist by Dickens “London” and “The Garden of Love” by Blake are examples of such works.

In “the Garden of Love” the poet criticises the role of the public institutions such as the church in the lives of the common people. In the first stanza the poet returns to the village of his birth after a long absence. Like most of us who have been absent from a place for a long time the poet goes to his favourite place of the village – the village green. He has a special name for it – the Garden of Love. To the poet it was a place full of love. The poet uses the term, “The Garden of Love”, as a proper noun highlighting the importance the place holds for him. But what he sees upon arrival is devastating. A chapel has replaced the Garden of Love.

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.

The Chapel represents all the restrictions placed on the natural instincts of human beings by religion. Blake does not have a very high opinion of the role of the Church in public life. In his poem “London,” the poet critics the church for turning a blind eye to the exploitation of children in his contemporary London society. Here, in the village green, a place that was used earlier by children as a playground, stands a chapel. The presence of the chapel would prevent the children from playing there. But a chapel is a necessity. Children are baptized, marriages, funeral masses are conducted in a chapel. It is a place people could go for refuge and spiritual guidance. So the poet goes towards it to have a closer look. Blake is unable to enter the premise. The gates of the chapel are shut. Over the door was written, “Thou shalt not.” It is a useless place that restricts freedom. In his mind Blake sees all the beautiful sweet smelling flowers that used to bloom in the Garden of Love.

So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;

But what he sees is a place full of tombstones. Flowers are symbols of hope and rebirth. Tombstones are symbols of death and decay. Religion, according to the poet, fills the minds of people with thoughts of death and prevents them from enjoying the gifts of nature. The priests are wearing black, a colour of doom and death. They do not like people to have “joys and desires”. So they bind the natural feelings with thorns, religious teachings, preventing free expression. The church of Victorian Era freely prescribed penitence for the sinful nature of human beings. According to the clergy human beings are born tainted with the Original Sin. Therefore the only way to obtain passage to heaven is leading a Spartan life. This line of thought is evident in the famous poem of John Milton- “On His Blindness.” The religious institutions of the Victorian England have lost their way. They have turned a religion that prescribed love into one of gloom and doom.

The poem has three stanzas, four lines each. The phrases “Garden of Love” and “Chapel” have symbolic meanings. They stand for two different groups of people with two diverse ideologies present in the Victorian Society; those who love freedom and free expression and the church that tried to restrict them. Tombstones, the chapel in the village green, thorns stand for religious oppression.       

William Blake was born in 1757and died in 1827. In his long life he had witnessed many of the conflicts that shaped the contemporary society such as the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, Waterloo, and the Declaration of Independence of the USA. Blake lived at a time when the Great Britain was a mighty empire. But in England, where the poet lived most of his life, there was a great socioeconomic disparity between the rich and the poor.

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