The Garden of Love - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

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 (Song of Songs 4:16, Song of Songs 5:1, Song of Songs 6:2). 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.

More on the Song of Songs: This poetic account of lovers was interpreted by the Church variously as an image of the spiritual relationship:

In medieval literature, the Song was used as an image for sexual encounter/ sexual relationship. Chaucer uses it in a parodic form in his Merchant's Tale in The Canterbury Tales.

Since it thus became a poem interpreted in ways far removed from its original purpose, the Song serves as a metaphor for Blake's vision of the way in which the religious system has replaced a celebration of the goodness of sexuality with reasons for shame and repression.

The green - This has three, inter-linked aspects

  • The colour green is associated with growth, fertility and spring
  • Village greens were places of play and freedom. They represented the importance of play, and therefore of imagination, in human life.
  • Village greens were not owned by anyone, so represented freedom from the rule or demands of an authority figure.

In the Songs of Innocence, the green is a place of play and freedom for children. It evokes a time of innocence in which ‘play' could include innocent, unselfconscious sexuality. Here it has been taken over by repressiveness.

Chapel, photo by GraceKelly, available through Creative CommonsPrison – Blake's opposition to the repression of desires as advocated by conventional Christianity meant that the Chapel seems an image of prison:

  • It is bounded by ‘gates' which are ‘shut'
  • It is a place where people are not free to act (‘Thou shalt not')
  • It is associated with the loss of life (‘graves')
  • Its priests wear uniforms (they are all ‘in black') and patrol the grounds like warders
  • They confine any initiative toward freedom (‘binding .. desires'), in a potentially painful way (using ‘briars').

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Compare the values represented by the green in many of the Songs of Innocence with the values that now seem to dominate the Garden.


The distortion of Christian belief about the future life

Blake attacks the approach of some forms of contemporary Christianity which encouraged the denial of sexuality and other powers in the present, in the hope of future reward and bliss. He felt that this led to permanent failure to attain human fulfilment.

The effects of ‘fallenness' on repression of sexuality and other emotions

Blake believed that inhibitions lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy.

Investigating themes

  • What new aspects of this theme are dealt with here?
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