William Blake’s “The Garden of Love” was first published in book two of Blake’s famous work, Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. The first book in this series, The Songs of Innocence, deals with simplistic themes and a benevolent God. In 1794’s The Songs of Experience, however, Blake portrays the other, darker side of the human soul and a tyrannous God of repression. Blake’s use of vivid imagery and contradiction in “The Garden of Love” is intriguing especially when considering the historical and biographical contexts in which the work was composed.
Many Romantic works come from both the poet’s individual perceptions as well as the social consciousness of that era. “The Garden of Love” is no exception. This poem functions to brutally satirize both the oppression of the Church, which had a societal impact, and the urbanization of Lambeth, which had a personal impact on Blake’s life. As Blake has been known to do, he utilizes contrast to make the decay of his world blatant to the reader. Such contrasting is visible when the image of a life-giving garden decays into an image of death. This parallels the events that took place in Blake’s own life, when his rural home became swallowed up by urban sprawl.
This particular poem was written in 1793, shortly after Blake and his wife moved out of London to a house in an area known as Lambeth Marsh on the Thames River. This new home was surrounded by a large garden and rested in a relatively new development known as Hercules Buildings. Blake and his wife had relocated to Lambeth possibly because of its rural appearance, and Blake considered it to be his own Garden of Eden (Ackroyd 128). In “The Garden of Love,” the speaker mentions that the green on which he used to play is destroyed when a Chapel is built upon it. How exactly did the presence of the new Chapel ruin Blake’s serene garden? What is it that the Blakes “shalt not” do? In addition to the presence of the Chapel, other events were taking place in Hercules Buildings that may have impacted “The Garden of Love.” The poem has a sense of deterioration; the flowers turn into tomb-stones while the playful green becomes replaced by an ominous church.
In addition to the personal significance of this poem, Blake’s writings in the 1790’s were also focused on the impact the French Revolution had in England. Many liberties were repressed in England shortly after the British had declared war against the French (Reinhart 29). Though the British Government is not identified specifically in the verses of “The Garden of Love,” the Church is. Also, since I noticed that Blake’s other poetry and artwork contained deistic themes, I question his own religious upbringing. I assume Blake’s religious background has provoked the disdain toward the Church in “The Garden of Love.” The final line of the poem, “And binding with briars my joys and desires,” is a forceful...