August 22, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

Songs of innocence and of experience, page 39, The Sick Rose (Fitzwilliam copy).png
The Sick Rose[1]
By: William Blake (1794)

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm[2]
That flies in the night[3]
In the howling storm[4]

Has found out[5] thy bed 5
Of crimson joy,[6]
And his dark secret love[7]
Does thy life destroy.

Notes & Commentary

  1. From the Songs of Experience, 1794. Paulin (2007) calls “The Sick Rose” “a version of Paradise Lost in eight very short lines.” In the fallen world of experience (see “Introduction” and “Earth’s Answer”), nature is in disharmony, or divided against itself, undermining the rose’s health (Tomlinson 1987, p. 33). The dominant theme here suggests that secret love because of morality is unhealthy and unnatural, causing shame in sexual desire and ultimately rot. The rose symbolizes “experienced love”: the “love in the garden of Urizen, fostered and tended with a sense of guilt and shame, protected from other men, open to intrusion” (Gardner 1969, p. 51). The rose in Blake is a protected flower, only appearing in SE, and victim to man’s jealousy, morality, and thus his sickness. The garden in SE is walled off from others, where man tends to his own private desires, and is not a paradise, but recalls only temptation, mystery, forbidden knowledge, and “religious and sexual tyranny” (Gardner 1969, pp. 51, 55).
         Compare this poem to its contrary, the “The Blossom” from Songs of Innocence. See also the introductory note on “The Lamb” for more background into Blake’s poetic composition and philosophy.
  2. The worm symbolizes mortality, decay, or impermanence. Also, of course, the penis. This is the “germ of moral disease” that corrupts desire and makes love—especially women’s love—a sin (Gardner 1969, p. 127). It could also reference Satan in Genesis that brought corruption to the garden. This could be the tyranny of the monarchy, or the forces of the Industrial Revolution that brought its pollution to nature and the psyches of those it forces into soul-crushing labor—especially children.
  3. Night gives the corruption cover, but also might be a reference to an imposed morality that makes the sexual act shameful. Cf. “Introduction” and “Earth’s Answer.”
  4. The howling storm is the chaos of the times, caught between revolution and tyranny. It might also stand for passion in this implicitly sexual poem.
  5. The rose is complicit in trying to hide the immoral love, causing psychological, and perhaps, physical sickness. Found out suggests an attempt to hide or deceive. Blake’s critique extends to what he saw as an immoral marriage law that had less to do with love than it did in prolonging loveless relationships and glorifying possessiveness (Gardner 1969, p. 127).
  6. Yes, the red rose symbolizes passion, but also the female sex and genitals. Crimson joy might also stand for “Blake’s ideal of happiness” that has been corrupted by political and social inequalities and mores in England (Paulin 2007), or Urizen’s laws that impose a forced morality and shame.
  7. Paulin (2007) points out the extra syllable in dark secret love emphasizing, maybe stumbling, on dark.

Bibliography

  • Ackroyd, Peter (1995). Blake: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Battenhouse, Henry M. (1958). English Romantic Writers. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
  • Bloom, Harold (2003). William Blake. Bloom’s Major Poets. New York: Chelsea House.
  • Frye, Northrup (1947). Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Gardner, Stanley (1969). Blake. Literary Critiques. New York: Arco.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors. 2 (Tenth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Makdisi, Saree (2003). "The Political Aesthetic of Blake's Images". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 110–132.
  • — (2015). Reading William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Paulin, Tom (March 3, 2007). "The Invisible Worm". Guardian. Retrieved 2021-09-04.
  • Thompson, E. P. (1993). Witness Against the Beast. New York: The New Press.
  • Tomlinson, Alan (1987). Song of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake. MacMillan Master Guides. London: MacMillan Education.
  • Wolfson, Susan J. (2003). "Blake's Language in Poetic Form". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 63–83.

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