Week 265: The Garden of Love, by William Blake

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.

William Blake

Week 192: The Sick Rose, by William Blake

I find this one of Blake’s most haunting poems but also one of the most troublesome, because despite my own best efforts and the efforts of others I don’t feel that I am any closer to understanding it beyond what seems the fairly safe bet that it is about human sexuality rather than horticulture.

So just stop worrying? The trouble is that once you abandon the quest for meaning, can you be sure of being able to distinguish truly inspired utterance from manufactured gibberish? Well, I don’t think this poem is gibberish, but why not? After all, invisible flying worms seem to fall some way short of sense as we know it.

So, if I can’t figure out what was going in Blake’s head when he wrote it, can I at least figure out what is going in mine when I read it? Not really – I only know that it passes Housman’s test for poetry: that it makes the hairs stand on end.

The Sick Rose

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake