I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.
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 turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
This is one of my favourite poems by William Blake. It talks about love – that starts off so joyful and free but after a while gets restrained by social conventions and dies slowly (thus the graves) when it cannot be fulfilled. The sense of proper behaviour was an important aspect of the courting process in the last century and the chapel/church was against any form of intimate behaviour.
The garden of love – The dominant image evokes two gardens in the Old Testament. Firstly, it evokes the Garden of Eden before the Fall of humankind. When Adam and Eve were in the garden, they were able to love without shame and self-consciousness. It was a place, therefore, of innocent, uninhibited sexual expression. The state of the garden discovered by the speaker is therefore akin to Eden after the Fall, when sexuality is surrounded by shame, repression and prohibitions (see Big ideas from the Bible > Garden of Eden; Adam and Eve; Second Adam.)
The second garden is found in the Old Testament poem, the Song of Songs (sometimes called The Song of Solomon.) This is an unashamedly erotic poem in which garden imagery is used as a metaphor for sexual enjoyment. However, the contemporary Christian reading reinterpreted the original eroticism of the poem, to make it a symbol of a ‘purer’ spiritual love, implicitly demoting the worth of sexual expression.