Probably the most accessible poet of the Romantic period, William Blake the writer (he did a mean line in painting too) is best remembered today for his collections Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794).
His poetry was preoccupied with many things: politics, social justice, the occult – and occasionally, love.
In the run up the Valentine’s Day then, here’s a love poem by one of the most full-blooded and passionate poets England has ever produced – though not the type you’d expect to see watered down into a greeting card…
The Garden Of Love
I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires
Part of the Songs of Experience collection, The Garden Of Love doesn’t at first seem like much of a love poem – or not a celebratory one anyway.
But closer reading suggests what Blake was really getting at in that bleak final verse when his garden is suddenly transformed into the kind of gothic scene he so loved writing: the church.
Blake believed that love and sexuality was natural and shouldn’t be dictated or limited by a ruling authority – a radical attitude for the time.
The Garden of Love is a symbol of this belief – that desire and sex should be wild and natural aspects of human life encompassing many different ‘sweet flowers’.
Unfortunately, the garden is patrolled by the ‘Priests in black gowns’ – symbols of the orthodox Anglican church of his day.
To modern ears, Blake’s use of symbolism – particularly in the poems in the Innocence/Experience collections – can seem a little straight forward, but it is precisely their simplicity that made them such powerful critiques of society at the time.
Whether sticking up for the poor, railing against children being forced to work or having a go at the church, he left no room for ambiguity and made sure his poems weren’t just accessible for the educated few.