Individual Perception in Blake's "The Garden of Love"
by Heather Schofield
In many of his poems William Blake seeks to justify the desires of the individual’s soul. Blake sees organized religion as an entity that oppresses the desires of the individual and that also uses the masses and their “forced faith” as a mechanism to further the powers of the church. In Blake’s poem “The Garden of Love”, the speaker seems to be a once innocent and perhaps gullible child who is now witnessing the take-over of his childhood and personal connection with God. Blake’s illustration, more specifically plate number forty-four in the Blake archives, depicts a scene where a priest and two children are kneeling before a grave and praying in a garden overgrown with tangled vines. In this illustration it is likely that Blake is trying to convey the binding powers of the church with the gloomy vines that grow through the words of the poem, the barriers placed upon individual freedoms with different uses of color and lack thereof in some cases, and, perhaps most predominantly, the barrier between the masses and God put in place by the church, with the presence of the priest between the worshippers and God.
The rough, thorny vines which grow through the words within the illustration seem to “bind” the poem in the same way the speaker says that the priest is “binding with briars [his] joys & desires” (Blake 56). The vines grow around the words and separate some of the lines and the main illustration of the priest and children from Blake’s words. This “binding” represents how the church and the moral society of London in Blake’s time were forcing the impressionable people who sought redemption into practicing Christianity in a uniformed and impersonal way. The vines often get in the way of the words of the poem in the same way that the words of the church, and not necessarily those of God, obstruct the true meaning of spirituality and redemption. The vines follow no specific pattern and are growing at their own will similar to how the church has its own motives and is not concerned with the feelings and thoughts of the individual.
The illustration also has an absence of colorful flowers and instead has only grass and overgrown vines. This seems to be a direct reference to the poem where the speaker describes the once lively green as a place that now has “tomb-stones where flowers should be” (Blake 56). Instead of the green being a place where a person can think and connect with God and nature in a personal and spiritual sense, it is now overgrown and filled with gloomy tombstones and reminders of a vengeful God who dictates the actions of his followers. Flowers in Blake’s poem suggest how life and vibrancy in one’s soul, and the absence of those flowers in the illustration symbolize the freedoms and desires of the individual have been stripped away to make room for the wants and moral desires of the church. The uses of color also represent the demeanor of the characters of the illustration. The young children are clad in gowns of what look to be light blue or white, perhaps symbolizing their innocence and impressionability. The priest, however, wears a dark, serious looking robe which seemingly contrasts the light color of the children’s robes and hence adds to the lack of innocence and perhaps corruptive demeanor of the priest and the church that he represents.
The most distinctive aspect of Blake’s illustration in connection to his poem appears to be the way that the priest is placed between the praying children and the grave they are knelt before. Although not explicitly said in the poem, Blake seems to be making the argument that religion wishes to stand between people and God through the way the priest is blocking the children from God in the illustration. The speaker claims that “the gates of the Chapel were shut,” implying that the way to the church and the way to God is cut off from ordinary people and only accessible through the aid of the clergy. The institution of religion in Blake’s time was a way of controlling people and persuading them to not question their lot in life. The church encouraged people to toil away in vain and pray for future redemption in the afterlife. If religion could control society, then society’s members would be working toward the advancement of the church and hence those who controlled the church would retain power. If the masses were allowed to pray and speak directly to God in a personal way without the intervention of priests, people would no longer need the institution and could instead rely upon their own feelings and beliefs. The desires of the individual could then be sought out and control would be lost by the ruling party. In its place a renewed sense of personal connection with nature and the divine would arise.
Although most of the illustration seems to directly represent the words of the poem, some details can be seen as a bit ambiguous and even contradictory. One striking detail is the look on the priest’s face. In this version of the illustration, the priest’s face has a look of puzzlement and a lack of sinister quality one might expect from reading the poem. This look of confusion poses the question: Could the priest have once been an innocent person who was misled by the church and used by the institution in order to bind others to religion? In the poem, the priest is said to be the one binding the joys and desires of the individual spirit, but the look on his face in the illustration depicts a priest who may not be as guilty as the poem would have readers think. Blake may have intended for this to be up to individual interpretation in the same way he conveys the idea that religion and spirituality should be left up to the individual. Perhaps this priest is as lost and misled as the children he is binding and misleading. The priest could also be a prisoner of the institution. All of this, however, is left to individual perception.
“The Garden of Love” and the visual representation of the poem both incite individuality and personal connections with not only the divine but also with nature and one’s own desires. They both also directly represent Romantic ideals of how individual interpretation is the key to the revelation of “the infinite”, and how reason, organized religion and the wants and desires of others are not. The individual soul should not be strangled and bound by the vines of society but should instead be allowed to grow and flourish like a flower in the light of God. Perception of one’s own desires and joys should be found through experience, love and personal connections.
Copy of Blake’s plate used in writing essay
Blake,William. “The Garden of Love.” The Norton Anthology: English Literature.
M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. 56.