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My original interpretation of "The Garden of Love" encompassed the speaker as a person who was scared to move on in their life and in love. I thought (he) was afraid of failure, afraid of losing childhood innocence in the wake of adulthood decisions and expectations. I funneled my theory into a neat little package that contained the Chapel as a symbol for marriage (or adult themes), and the Garden to stand for his life, or thoughts. I further belabored my opinion and interpretation.
After long deliberation with the writings of Blake 'experts,' I have conceded to concur with their interpretations of "The Garden of Love," and therefore: According to Ostriker, Blake "celebrates sexuality and attacks repression" (156). I agree that his attack on repression is apparent in this poem, in that Blake seems to want the speaker, and the readers, to take a chance on life, love, or sex. Whatever the convention of each individual, Blake wants us to not be afraid to go against the conventional. Yet the speaker in "The Garden of Love" is constrained to move forward with his own decisions, probably restricted by the strict conventions of the Church. The priests follow suit as a reminder of 'conventional holiness.'
Blake has often ridiculed the Church, and it seems as though he uses "The Garden of Love" to display the affects of the Church's manipulation on youth. Regarding the two youngsters kneeled behind the priest, Kauvar explains, "The bowed figures reveal the presence of Urizenic (def. Reason - mine) repression and morality, for instead of embracing, the youths kneel submissively behind the priest" (60). As I grasped in my first response to this poem, Blake's 'Garden' represents new growth and childhood innocence. Kauvar continues that thought with the opposite side, "but in Experience he sees nature dying and the graveyard supplanting the garden" (60).
It seems to me that Blake was highly disturbed with the manipulating effects placed on the public by the Church. I think he believed the public was mislead by the Church and its expectations, and further, believed their lives were governed as such. Pagliaro continues with the mention of, ".
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Gillham points out another view of which I find (long), yet too important and precise to paraphrase. "What is probable is that the 'Garden' which the speaker laments is not a garden of love at all, but a garden of self -indulgence. There is something to be ashamed of in selfish gratification, and the half-obscured feelings of guilt involved are likely to attract second-rate religious notions. Perhaps this is just as well. The joys known to the speaker are bound with briars because it is necessary that, being distorted joys, they should be controlled. The priests who keep control base their morality on unhealthy repugnancies, but these are necessary checks to unhealthy impulses. Innocence needs no restrictions, but Experience can only control itself by writing 'Thou shalt not' over the door" (178-9). I really enjoy this interpretation, not because it blames the Church, but because it explains why the Church is wrong in controlling others.
Overall, I think Blake wants us to be aware of choices in life, and that we may sometimes do well to question authority, and not just regarding religion. I could see Blake fitting in well with crowds of Americans in the 1960's. Briars would have bound neither them nor him to such things as beliefs, norms, or guilt!
Blake, William. "The Garden of Love." The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. Ed. Reidhead, Julia. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2000.56.
Fletcher, Dr. Luann. Personal Interview. 6 April 2000.
Gillham, D.G. Blake's Contrary States. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1966.178-9.
Kauvar, Elaine M. Landscape of the Mind: Blake's Garden Symbolism. Illinois: K.P. Easson and R.R. Easson, 1980.59-60.
Ostriker, Alicia. "Desire Gratified and Ungratified: William Blake and Sexuality." Blake an Illustrated Quarterly.1982-83: 156.
Pagliaro, Harold. Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's Songs. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University, 1987.105.
Plowman, Max. An Introduction to the Study of Blake. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1967.
Untermeyer, Louis. Lives of the Poets. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.