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The Garden

The Garden of Love

An illustrated poem by William Blake (1752-1827).
From Songs of Innocence and Experience.

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.

Singing About Experience

"Hear the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees..."

“The Garden of Love” is included in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, probably his most influential collection of poems. The two volumes are arranged thematically in an attempt to rethink typical Christian and Manichean views on good, evil and the fall of man into sin. Typical of Blake’s revolutionary mindset, the poems are often critical of the established order, staking out radical positions against racism and imperialism. This poem in particular is from the Songs of Experience section, and recounts the speaker’s visit to the garden where presumably he played as a child. Instead of reveling in whimsical nostalgia, he now views the place as a death yard tainted by the presence of oppressive religious authorities.

Blake was by no means the only opponent of organized religion in his time period; even before him, there had been plenty who viewed the structures of canonical power as a threat to individual liberty and human happiness. Yet Blake is perhaps unique in that he embraced the spirituality of religious life while rejecting the rigid structures that dictated how that life should be lived. Pro-church critics could remark that he wanted to have his cake and eat it too, and perhaps some feminists might recast his views on free love as chauvinistic paternalism gone wild. Still, Blake’s views that organized religion corrupts the state of both the natural and spiritual world presents a powerful philosophy, one that was embraced by the Romantic poets and artists and continued through to the hippies and their contemporary descendants. Does this poem present a coherent, thoughtful argument in favor of Blake’s anti-church position? Or is it too vague and simplistic to have any real weight in the discussion?

The Influence of Experience

Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience have had a lasting legacy in artistic and popular culture. The Beat poet Allen Ginsburg recorded a version of Blake’s poems set to music, taking the description of them as songs quite literally. U2 (yes, that U2) also released two albums that share the titles of and were inspired by these collections, though we’ll leave it to the hardcore Blake/Bono crossover fans to draw the lines between the two works. Yet perhaps the most lasting influence that the works have had are in shaping our contemporary views on childlike innocence and the informed experience of adulthood.

One comment

  1. Marquis de Shade ( User Karma: 6 ) says:

    It’s such a shame that U2 named that stupid album they force fed us after Blake’s poetry. He’s so much better than that.

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