Blake’s ‘The Garden of Love’ – The Aesthetic and the Intellectual Are Inseparable
William Blake, a 19th century romantic poet, wrote poetic arguments in Songs of Innocence and Experience filled with rich imagery and symbolism to convey his, at the time, idiosyncratic views surrounding the church and its negative impact on mankind. Blake was against the suppression of human nature by theological dogma and believed that all restraint in obedience to a moral code was against the spirit of life – the only restriction over man was in his own mind: the ‘mind forg’d manacles’. Using his poetry as a medium to convey his beliefs, Blake was against every conception of God as an omnipotent being and championed the idea of sex being true gratification to man. He shaped his works to invite the reader into seeing the world as he did by using their imagination aided by hand-engraved illuminated paintings. ‘The Garden of Love’ from Songs of Experience, uses aesthetic qualities such as emotive and evocative diction, meter, tone and Judea-Christian discourse to convey Blake’s ideological beliefs – therefore making the ‘aesthetic and the intellectual inseparable’. The poem criticises the church’s repressive rules surrounding sex and argues against the sanctimonious apologies for injustice the church encourages in an attempt to buy bliss in another world by causing self-deprivation in this one.
Blake’s argument of the church denying pleasure to man is shaped in the poem through aesthetic qualities such as tone, diction and meter. The poem consists of three quatrains and in the first stanza, the speaker describes an idyllic garden scene and is surprised to see that a ‘chapel’ has been ‘built in the midst’ on the green. Here, the colour green represents innocence and unselfconscious sexuality, unbound to any theological dogma. The tone abruptly changes in the second stanza when the speaker observes an inscription above the ‘gates’ of the ‘chapel’ reading ‘Though shalt not.’ – which interrupts the anapaestic trimeter the poem is written in. This line greatly slows down the rhythm of the poem and makes use of Judea-Christian discourse to blatantly allude to the 10 Commandments. The mouth has to reform for each syllable which represents the change the chapel has brought about and the strict repressive rules regarding sex, which Blake saw as enjoyment framed by wonder, enforced by the church. The ’T’ is also capitalised and a full stop is included which conveys the hostility and rigid nature of the inscription. The speaker turns to the rest of the garden to be consoled in the third stanza, but is instead faced with a macabre vision of a bleak and unimaginative void with darker words such as ‘tomb-stones’ and ‘black’ being used. The shift in tone throughout the poem is dramatic – from being surprised, ‘saw what I never had seen’, to disappointed, to angry about the introduction of the chapel on the green which highlights the burden institutionalised religion has placed on man’s ability to freely love. The juxtaposition of aesthetic qualities such as tone, diction and meter allows Blake to invite the reader into seeing his arguments using their imagination.
The strict rules of the church and its suppression of human nature is criticised in the poem via aesthetic qualities such as emotive and evocative diction. In the third stanza, the ‘Priests’ are described as ‘walking their rounds’ – an innocent activity such as priests praying within the chapel grounds is given rather sinister overtones. They are physically enacting the 10 Commandments and act as a shadow of the church wearing their black gowns – walking around the garden like sentinels. The ‘P’ in ‘Priests’ is also capitalised which may represent how they loom large in the garden, which is an microcosm of society. Literary critic Alfred Kazin further describes Blake’s view on priests: ‘the priest is a blind old man with shears in his hand to cut the fleece off human sheep’. Furthermore, the use of Judea-Christian discourse in the last two lines, ’briars’, may be an allusion to the crown of thorns in the New Testament. The priests encourage a joyless life and expect people to suffer as Jesus did in promise of a blissful afterlife. The last stanza use aesthetic qualities to describe the priests and how they are the ones who enact the repressive rules brought about by theological dogmas. They give off an aura of total unease and misery, foreboding an ill omen which allows Blake to further develop the intellectual meaning of the poem, which Kazin appropriately sums up in reference to the poem’s title – ‘the tree in Eden is the gallows on which the freedom seeking man is hanged by dead souled priests’.
Blake’s argument of the church poisoning man’s harmonious relationship with nature is conveyed through the juxtaposition of rhyme scheme, aural imagery and evocative language. The first stanza has a rhyme scheme of ABCB and makes use of a long ‘e’ sound in words such as ‘seen’ and ‘green’ which the reader has to smile to make – conveying feelings of bliss and innocence. The second stanza, which uses language to show the disappointment of the speaker, ‘and the gates of this chapel were shut’, has a rhyme scheme of DEFE and makes use of an ‘oor’ sound in words such as ‘door’ and ‘bore’, which conveys feelings of distress caused by the introduction of the chapel. The third stanza has a more open structure and dramatically changes rhythm which emphasises the destruction the chapel has caused on the persona’s relationship with the garden. Words such as ‘gowns’ and ‘rounds’ have ‘o’ sounds which convey feelings of doom. The last two lines, however, switch to tetrameter with an enigmatic final image – ‘and binding with briars my joys and desires’. In a sense, this is ironic as such delicious rhyme and alliteration regards such a horrific topic. The line links pain to passion and emphasis an ongoing cyclic nature of suffering that the church is inducing. Evocative words ‘briars’ and ‘desires’ further emphasis this through the use of an ‘ire’ sound which conveys anger and the ‘fire’ which has destroyed the speaker’s relationship with the garden. Throughout the three quatrains the juxtaposition of rhyme scheme highlights Blake’s intellectual argument that the church has impeded on man’s relationship with nature and destroyed, what once was, an idyllic garden scene.
Throughout the ‘Garden of Love’, aesthetic qualities such as juxtaposition of rhyme scheme, emotive language, tone, imagery and meter allow Blake to shape the intellectual meaning of the text. In doing this, he invites the reader to use their imagination to see his arguments and highlights the destructive nature religion has on man’s ability to freely love and express his natural feelings of lust. The contrast of the three stanzas emphasises the intrusive nature of the church and could not be done without the various aesthetic qualities employed, making the statement ‘the aesthetic and the intellectual are inseparable’ very true.
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