It has to be admitted that when it comes to matters of sexual liberation, anyone going to the poets for moral guidance is likely to end up more than a little confused. Who do you listen to? Dante taking a stern view of the goings on between Paolo and Francesca: ‘quanti dolci pensier, quanto disier/menò costoro al doloroso passo?’ Shakespeare being fed up with the whole business of sex: ‘All this the world well knows; yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell’? Philip Larkin warning against ‘fulfilment’s desolate attic’? Or alternatively, the splendidly rambunctious Rabbie Burns telling the Establishment of his day to get stuffed: ‘The Kirk an’ State may join, and tell/To do sic things I mauna:/The Kirk an’ State may gae to hell/And I’ll gae to my Anna’? Or, as in this poem from ‘Songs of Innocence’, the equally free-spirited William Blake expressing much the same sentiment in a rather more figurative but no less incisive way? I think one has to be careful about taking Blake as a guide to life, since his dicta do lend themselves to misinterpretation, and many have found, for example, that the road of excess leads not to the palace of wisdom but simply to more excess. But I do like this poem, as, I suspect, does the author of that chaotic but wonderfully vivid modern trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’, Philip Pullman, who surely must count Blake as one of his inspirations.
The Garden of Love
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I had never 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 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 and desires.