William Blake and the God of Good Marriages

wedding-ringsWilliam Blake (1757-1827) was a world-class poet and artist in England whose deceptively simple verses, though they did not resonate loudly in his own time, have served in recent years as shining examples of Romantic poetry in Britain during the time of the French Revolution right across the channel. Two particular publications of his, Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), represent what he termed the “contrary states of the human soul”, that is, the divide between the light and the dark that permeates each human heart. Blake was fascinated with the transition from innocence to experience, that elusive process of shedding childhood and donning adulthood, of seeing the sunlight of day set into the mystery of night.

For Blake, something seemed inevitably lost in the move from purity to worldly knowledge. In his poetry, he often ponders the divine, pure, and perhaps even godly innocence of a child and its painful peeling away as he or she becomes more sophisticated, cultured, educated, and experienced. He considers the grinding corrosiveness of city life (as it was flooded by scores of people drawn to the burgeoning, industrialized London) in stark contrast to the Edenic majesty of the countryside; it was a reminder to him of the unfortunate degeneration of aging against the lily-white innocence of a wild childhood in the fields. In short, Blake fixed his focus on the corrupting influence that growing up seems to have on the human experience.

So it is without wonder that one of his short pieces titled “My Pretty Rose Tree” exposes Blake’s nervousness and fear towards marriage as the poem examines the speaker’s attempt to preserve its sanctity and unity. Here’s the text:

A flower was offer’d to me,

Such a flower as May never bore;

But I said “I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree,”

And I passed the sweet flower o’er.

 

Then I went to my Pretty Rose-tree,

To tend her by day and by night;

But my Rose turn’d away with jealousy,

And her thorns were my only delight.

The poem is rather simple: the speaker resists the temptation to abandon his wife for another woman only to discover his wife turning away from him out of jealousy, leaving him in a state of despondency and loneliness.

Blake accomplishes many things in the course of this brief verse. It’s notable his central setting is the pastoral landscape (a favorite for Blake) in which discussions of innocence averting temptation take on symbolic meaning through flowers and rose-trees. One can even see the primal example of sinful enticement from the serpent in Genesis 3 evoked in the sweetness of the offered flower.

But the full power of the poem is its ironic turn in line 7. The reader seems to expect the speaker will be rewarded for his fidelity, that the Rose-tree will embrace her champion for resisting the lure. Yet, that is not Blake’s aim, and that is not his conclusion. So what are we to make of this sorrowful ending? What is Blake getting at?

The lonely, dejected condition of the speaker in the final line is a result of his attempt to create a good marriage on his own merits. He desires acceptance, praise, and devotion from his “Rose-tree” for having courageously and adamantly refused a sinful offer. Look how good I am at resisting temptation, he seems to say as he returns to his tree to “tend her by day and by night.” I have been so careful, so loyal, so good.

Such conceit and self-assurance, however, is not what produces strong, faithful marriages. No husband can hope to serve his wife and tend her well if he is looking to his own strength and grit-teeth commitment for validation. The problem of Blake’s poem – why does the rose-tree reject the speaker when he decidedly “passed the flower o’er”? – cannot be answered by human effort. Only God can bind a man and a woman together. It is not within human reason, imagination, will, or power to create or sustain a marriage. Only God can forge the two to become one flesh, and “what God has joined together, let no man tear asunder.”

So Blake’s poem concludes on a painfully tinny, ringing chord, unresolved. The speaker who had hoped his good work had earned a happy marriage is left confused, alone, and nestled knee-deep in thorns, and I cannot help but wonder how many of our marriages end on the same sour note. But I did everything I was supposed to do, the wife mutters. But I never cheated on her, not even once, the husband rants. I followed all the rules, did everything right, cooked and cleaned, provided for and protected…Why is my marriage in such ruins?

The quiet answer to these questions lies only in the God of good marriages. He is the author of all things good. God is Love, and our expressions of love to each other can only be completed in and through His indefinable grace. We cannot earn a good marriage. We can only look to Christ as the center of all things and pray He sustains our union through both the sorrows and the splendor. Remember, we may have excitedly slid rings on each other’s fingers, but only God can keep them there.

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