09 September 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/37

The Garden of Love

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 the Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not, writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

William Blake

This is one of the first Blake poems I ever read, and it made an immediate impact on me, though really it was more visual than spiritual or intellectual: I could very clearly see, in the style not of Blake himself (since the copy I read did not include his artwork) but of a medieval illuminated manuscript, the priests in black gowns (actually I pictured them as monks, with long gray beards) wandering around the garden, among the tombstones and occasional remaining flowers, busily tying things up, and that visual image has always stuck with me. Blake was one of the pure-hearted, who thought that the rest of the world was pure-hearted too.

The Garden of Love is also the title track of a CD put out last year by Martha Redbone and the Martha Redbone Roots Project. She had the genius idea of setting some poems by Blake in the style of what is now usually called roots music, a blending of Celtic and African sounds that emerged in the Appalachians, inflected with hymn tunes and country and gospel styles. It's outsider music, and Blake was also an outsider, and a mystic; his simple yet striking words fit right into this musical style. You can easily imagine some of Redbone's settings being sung as hymn tunes in small backwoods country churches. I had never heard of her before last Christmas, when V gave me a copy of the CD. Since then I have listened to it often, pushing aside the ever-growing piles of other, still-unheard, CDs so that I could give it another listen, which is always the ultimate tribute. I recommend it highly. The CD is listed on Amazon, but it looks as if the best way to get it is directly from Martha Redbone's website.

The poem is from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience; I'm linking to the beautiful Princeton edition that reproduces Blake's colored plates, part of a series of Blake's illuminated books that the Princeton Press did a number of years ago, but of course there are many other editions.


Michael Strickland said...

The case against organized religion has never been so perfectly and simply stated. I have a question: what does "binding with briars, my joys & desires" mean in this context?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

His natural desires (which come from God and nature, and are therefore essentially pure and right) are being regulated by the priestly caste -- briars are prickly, thorny plants, so it's as if the priests are putting hair shirts (and therefore a consciousness of "sin") onto what should be free and seen as good.

The Garden of Love is a form of Eden: a natural place, established by God, of pure and spiritual impulses, which include sexual impulses: God said "increase & multiply" and though there is a strange school of thought that Adam and Eve did not have sex until they were kicked out of Eden (or that having sex was the reason they were kicked out), Blake did not think that (neither did Milton -- he is very clear, in fact adamant, on this point -- Milton believes in Original Sin, and Blake does not, but they agree on this).

So impulses and feelings that should be joyous are seen as shameful under the strictures, the Thou Shalt Nots!, of established religion.

Not as simply and perfectly stated, but I hope it's clear. . . .

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I've had some further thoughts, and I think Blake is subtler than I had first thought. . . .

It's interesting that the priests are binding the joys etc with briars, rather than with say ropes or chains -- they're using a natural, and naturally prickly/thorny element, which presumably has been growing in the Garden of Love along with the "sweet flowers" -- so rather than pretending people are naturally good, Blake is I think implying that there are dangerous/difficult/problematic elements that are also natural to the garden, and the priestly caste is using those things -- flaws inherent in people -- as a way not of controlling the dangerous elements themselves, but of controlling impulses that should be uncontrolled, or at least less controlled, impulses whose wildness and sweetness bring us close to the divine, but whose very wildness and sweetness can seem threatening.

OK, thanks Mike -- you've brought me deeper into a poem that I thought I knew.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Patrick: Your second comment was the exact answer I was looking for. "Briars" struck me as strange in that context, though it made emotional sense.

Sibyl said...

And do not forget that briars flower, beautifully. Often in English folk ballads (Barbara Allen, for example), true lovers will be represented by the intertwining of briar and rose, seen as equally representative of love. I think, perhaps, that the briar is used by Blake's priests to bind his desires because briar is something natural and *beautiful*, therefore appealing. You might willingly accept the bondage of something so appealing, not realizing that you were also accepting the sting and the stricture of the thorns. Which is, perhaps, a tidy metaphor for those who, while hoping for the ecstatic, are taken in and bound by the dogmatic, limiting nature of the established church.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and illuminating comment, and thanks Mike for raising the issue. You've brought me deeper into a poem that I'm now realizing I did not know as well as I had assumed.