‘The Garden of Love’ is a poem from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, a collection Blake produced and published in 1794. The image depicts a sort of religious education, the priest reading and gesturing, the two children, heads bowed, listening attentively, but also uncomfortably.
Looking more closely at the picture, it is apparent that as the priest reads from (presumably) the Bible, he gestures and directs the adolescent children towards the grave. The picture suggests that the religion the priest preaches is one of death. Why death? The age of the children is significant here: as the poem makes clear, this is a work about how sexuality, death and morality are linked together by the Church. The adolescent children are a boy and girl, on the edge of ‘experience’ (like Adam and Eve), and the nature of their sexuality – at least how it’s being set out by the priest – is represented symbolically in the image: the male and female genitals hinted at by, respectively, the phallic gravestone to the right of the priest and the open grave before him. Sexuality – in the eyes of religion – is sinful, mortal, deathly.
The poem reads:
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.
The poem and the engraving do not illustrate each other so much as present different perspectives on a common theme. In the poem, a scene of love has been dominated by an inaccessible chapel while all around graves have taken the place of flowers: the symbols of life have been transformed into the symbols of death. The poem is about the impact of a ‘thou shalt not’ religious mentality when simply ‘applied’ (here by the priest) to human lives, and in this case, the subject of human love.
How Religion binds Desire
This poem doesn’t deal with the Bible itself, but rather looks to the use to which the Bible and ‘Christianity’ are being put in Blake’s society. Blake is not dealing with specific doctrinal points or acts of the Church, but is considering the way in which pernicious structures of thought are unthinkingly circulated as ‘religion’, and what the impact of that circulation might be on human minds and lives. For these reasons, Blake presents the ‘Christianity’ of his culture not as a social movement enacting the Spirit-oriented life advocated in the Gospels, but as an institutionally oriented tyranny that co-opts the Bible to sustain its own ends. The ‘religious’ in Blake’s culture constitute a status quo concerned primarily with the maintenance of existing power structures and hierarchies. Blake is therefore concerned with our complicity in systems in which religion becomes both ideological (the embodiment of a set of largely unconscious ideas) and hegemonic (dominant within its particular social structure). ‘The Garden of Love’ speaks to this situation precisely because there’s no space for reflection or questioning in the poem. The chapel has simply been ‘built in the midst’; there’s no meaningful relationship between the chapel and the garden – between religion and love – but rather one of colonisation or occupation. The human corollary of this is the priest and the children whose relationship shows how ideology is indoctrinated and internalised (presumably under the name of ‘what the Bible says’ or ‘what God wants’).
Jesus vs. ‘Christianity’
Indeed, one of the curious things about mainstream Christianity is how innately conservative it has become down the centuries. The conservative nature of Christianity is so familiar that it no longer strikes us as odd. Why should it? It should, because the maintenance of traditional values and gender relations, and the endorsement of obedience to institutions like state, marriage and the family all sit uneasily with a religion whose founder seemed to be at best indifferent, or hostile, to them. On this regard, the real puzzle is why those who maintain orthodoxy pay such scant regard to Jesus.
Blake is unusually articulate on this topic, and he has a disconcerting ability to make visible the gap between Jesus and ‘Christianity’. He shows that in the Gospels this preoccupation with moral law (the “stony law” as he calls it) is identified with the scribes, and he argues that when we judge one another. we take on the role of the accuser, which is, in biblical terms, the role of Satan [“diábolos” meaning “to accuse” in Greek, or “Satan” in Hebrew]. Blake thinks the conflict between Jesus and the scribes arises precisely because Jesus comes to replace a religion of judgment (which blocks relationships between people) with one of compassion (which opens us to the experience of God in one another). Jesus offers the paradigm of how moral idolatry can be overcome through his ministry of the forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness of sins means a relinquishment of the barriers of judgement that block relationships between people, and it reopens the possibility of collaborative hermeneutics. This is evident in ‘The Garden of Love,’ where ‘religion’ is embodied in and constricted by the repressive morality that it inculcates. Blake takes this contemporary model of Christianity back to the Bible and shows how incompatible it is with the Gospels.
Despite his recognition now as one of the greatest poets and engravers of his day, Blake was largely unknown during his lifetime. Significantly, he is still by and large ignored by the theological community to whom he has most to offer. For Blake is another Christian radical, who saw through the fissures in his fragmenting culture the possibilities of a new kind of human life.
Jonathan Roberts is Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool and author of William Blake’s Poetry and Blake. Wordsworth. Religion. He writes on Romantic literature, the relationship between literature and the Bible, and the history of interpretation they share. The article above is from their fascinating work of Biblical reinterpretation, The Bible for Sinners: Interpretation in the Present Time.