The speaker visits a garden that he had frequented in his youth, only to find it overrun with briars, symbols of death in the form of tombstones, and close-minded clergy.
"The Garden of Love" is a deceptively simple three-stanza poem made up of quatrains. The first two quatrains follow Blake's typical ABCB rhyme scheme, with the final stanza breaking the rhyme to ABCD. The lack of rhyme in the last stanza, which also contains the longest lines, serves to emphasize the death and decay that have overtaken a place that once used to hold such life and beauty for the speaker.
Following the specific examples of flowers representing types of love, this poem paints a broader picture of flowers in a garden as the joys and desires of youth. When the speaker returns to the Garden of Love, he finds a chapel built there with the words, “Thou shalt not,” written overhead. The implication is that organized religion is intentionally forbidding people from enjoying their natural desires and pleasures.
The speaker also finds the garden given over to the graves of his pleasures while a black-clad priest binds his “joys and desires” in thorns. This not-so-subtle critique shows Blake’s frustration at a religious system that would deny men the pleasures of nature and their own instinctive desires. He sees religion as an arm of modern society in general, with its demand that human beings reject their created selves to conform to a more mechanistic and materialistic world.