The Garden of Love - Language, tone and structure

Language and tone

‘Thou shalt not' are the opening words of seven of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament (Exodus 20:2-17). Blake attended the Swedenborgian chapel over which the opposite sign was displayed: ‘Now everything is allowable'. (This idea was also taken from the Bible, but used out of context – see 1 Corinthians 10:23.)

The language works by contrasting the freshness and freedom of the previous state of the garden with the darkness and deadness of the present:

  • The green contrasts with the black gowns of the priests
  • The flowers contrast with graves and tomb-stones
  • Playing freely is contrasted with the priests walking their rounds (in prescribed routes)
  • Flowers are also contrasted with thorny briars.

These involve contrasts between:

  • What is growing and what is inanimate
  • Natural and man-made
  • Soft/tender and hard
  • Gentle to the touch and painful
  • Light and dark
  • Free and controlled.

Investigating language and tone

  • In what way do these contrasts convey Blake's symbolic meaning?

Structure and versification

The first two stanzas have a rhyme scheme ABCB, DEFE. In the first stanza, the first closed couplet sets the scene and the second arouses expectation. The opening couplet of the second stanza answers our initial question. The second couplet is not closed but arouses further expectation – what will be found in the garden? – which is demonstrated in the third stanza.

Here the initial element of predictability is disrupted. There is no end-rhyme but the last two lines are shaped by internal rhyme: ‘gowns' – ‘rounds'; ‘briars' – ‘desires'. Our expectations of what we might physically find in a garden of love are confounded, echoed by the confounding of our expectations regarding pattern and rhyme. Furthermore, the new double rhymes of the closing couplet create an impression of how comprehensively the speaker's hopes have been crushed.

The easy anapaestic trimeter of the first two stanzas is halted by the heavy treble stresses on ‘Thou shalt not' in l.6, which conveys the severity of the prohibition. Then, in the third stanza, the rhythm is further disrupted by the lack of an expected syllable after ‘graves' so that the word gains extra weight. This heaviness is increased by the change to tetrameter for the last two lines.

Investigating structure and versification

  • What difference would it have made if Blake had made four short rhyming couplets out of the last two long lines?
    • Why do you think he chose not to?
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