What drew me to this poem was not only the pervasiveness of melancholy, “Where I used to play on the green,” but also how it is fraught with frustrated desire, “And Thou shalt not writ over the door.” I found it impossible not to wonder what Blake must have been thinking when he wrote this. Had he suffered a great loss, “And I saw it was filled with graves,” was he doubting the empathy of the clergy, “Priests … binding with briars,” or perhaps he longed for his youth when he “used to play”? Perhaps he mourns the death of a friend, the scorn of a lover, the inevitable creeping of his own mortality, or perhaps even sexual frustration?
Religious imagery is a dominant motif in the poem, such as the allusion to the Garden of Eden in “the Garden of Love,” or to Jesus’ crown of thorns seen with the “briars,” and to mortality and mourning through the imagery of the “tombs” and “black gowns.” As we have learned, Blake was highly spiritual while also remaining critical of the institution of religion, and perhaps this is his attempt to address the church’s oppressiveness? In the first stanza, “A Chapel” he “never had seen” before has been built where he “used to play” perhaps suggesting that his carefree days of youth and freedom (perhaps alluding to Adam and Eve) have been replaced with a rigid, imposing, and uninvited structure. And instead of this “play” he is now locked out, “the gates of this Chapel were shut,” from those activities. In fact it seems he’s being explicitly commanded not to play, “Thou shalt not” being written much like one of Moses’ commandment tablets. Is he angry with the church, or with growing older, or is he frustrated that for whatever reason he first decided to go to “the Garden of Love” has now turned into a sad, oppressive occasion?
I also find it interesting how he uses the line break between the second and third stanza to transform the image of “so many sweet flowers” into “graves / And tomb-stones.” Is he suggesting a passage of time over which beautiful things (the flowers) wither and die? Or is the blank space between the stanzas representative of the freedom he once enjoyed “on the green” but that now sees a “Chapel” commanding that open space? Is he suggesting that where there is freedom an oppressive institution inevitably commandeers this space for its own purposes?
In the third stanza I identified with his image of the “briars” combining (“binding”) with his “joys & desires.” I wonder if he is feeling the pull of earthly (even base) desire struggling against the opposing force of what society proclaims is acceptable? The garden not only has a chapel “in the midst” but there are also present “Priests in black gowns” suggesting that he must share this once free space with a community who judge him. After all, Jesus was judged by the Romans and forced to wear a crown of thorns (“briars”), so perhaps Blake, too feels a similar oppressive judgment demanding he conform to what is socially acceptable by locking up his “desires” and want of “play”?
And so, is the whole poem alluding to his desire for a sexual freedom being at odds with the sacrament of marriage in the eyes of the church? After all, he does not say a church or cathedral has been built in the “Garden of Love,” rather it’s a “Chapel”, a term often associated with the location a couple would be married in. The flower, too is often symbolic of the woman’s sexuality, so perhaps Blake’s “play” was akin to the modern expression of “playing the field” before marriage, and that this poem is his expression of sadness that the freedom of sexual expression must be “shut” behind the rules of society and the church? Perhaps he’s saying there is nothing inherently wrong with sexuality and the enjoyment of sexuality, that there is life in sexual freedom – life is dependent on sex, after all – and to deny sexuality, to build institutions and rules around such beautiful freedom actually invites death?