By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Sick Rose’ was published in William Blake’s Songs of Experience in 1794. The poem remains a baffling one, with Blake’s precise meaning difficult to ascertain. Many different interpretations have been offered, so below we sketch out some of the possible ways of analysing ‘The Sick Rose’ in terms of its imagery.
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.
The Sick Rose: summary
‘The Sick Rose’ is easy enough to summarise. The speaker addresses a rose flower which is diseased, because some foreign agent (described as an invisible worm) has discovered the rose bed and is destroying the flower’s vitality. But of course, this leaves all our work ahead of us in working out what this rose, and this worm, are meant to represent.
In his study of William Blake, the scholar D. G. Gillham draws a helpful distinction between metaphorical and symbolic imagery, arguing that in ‘The Sick Rose’ Blake does not compare one thing neatly with something else (metaphorical), but rather offers up an image (or collection of images) without telling us what they are to be compared to. This makes ‘The Sick Rose’ symbolic, because the rose, its bed, and the worm which destroys it are all clearly representative of something else, but Blake does not tell us what this something else is.
This is what makes a poem like ‘The Sick Rose’, and a number of other Blake poems, so rewarding but also so mysterious: the imagery contains rich symbolism but it would probably be unwise to reduce such imagery to a simple ‘rose = love’ equation. Some words of analysis may therefore be helpful.
The Sick Rose: analysis
How we interpret the meaning of ‘The Sick Rose’ depends largely on how we choose to analyse the poem’s two central images: the rose and the worm. It is possible to see the worm as a symbol of death, given that worms are associated with decay and are commonly said to feed upon the dead (we are ‘food for worms’ in our graves). By contrast, roses are often associated with love, beauty, and the erotic: the stuff of life. In this interpretation, what the poem presents us with is the constant conflict and tension between life (with all of its pleasures and joys) and death (which is always present in the background). Note that the destruction of the rose has not been completed, but is ongoing: decay and death are continual processes, rather than sudden acts. ‘O Rose thou art sick’; ‘Does thy life destroy’ (not Did).
In Blake’s poem we get several hints that such a reading is tenable:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
The rose is in a ‘bed’, suggesting not just its flowerbed but also the marriage bed (or even, perhaps, the bed of unmarried lovers); not only this, but it is a bed of ‘crimson joy’, which is not quite as strong a suggestion of sex and eroticism as ‘scarlet joy’ would have been, but nevertheless bristles with more than simple colour-description. (The rose may literally be crimson, but this bright, deep red suggests lifeblood, beating hearts, and perhaps carnal appetites as well.)
We should also bear in mind the implied genders of the two central images in this poem: the (phallic) worm, accompanied by the masculine energies of that howling storm, is implicitly male, while the delicate rose, being a flower, is more readily aligned with femininity. (It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that Blake capitalised Rose in his first line, leading us to remember that as well as referring to the flower, Rose is also a girls’ name.) In Blake, destructive forces are often male.
The problem of symbolism
Why is the worm flying in Blake’s poem? This is also puzzling, and disturbs us. Worms wriggle and crawl: they aren’t known for flying. Clearly this is a symbolic worm, denoting some sort of corruption at a more metaphorical level. The fact that the worm is a creature of the night suggests that it is like a demon or other night-visitor which feeds upon people as they sleep (back to that ‘bed’ again), like a succubus or incubus sexually ‘feeding’ upon sleeping victims.
This would tally with the fact that the worm harbours a ‘dark secret love’ for the rose: is the worm guilty of jealous love for the rose, whose beauty and ‘joy’ it envies? Is this a version of Nietzschean ressentiment, or Oscar Wilde’s statement that ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’? Or perhaps the sort of thing we encounter in another William Blake poem, ‘A Poison Tree’? This might explain the ‘howling storm’ in which the worm ‘flies’: the turbulent emotions and turmoil generated by resenting and hating that which one loves, conflicted desire and disgust.
Certainly, a Freudian analysis of ‘The Sick Rose’ is tenable. Freudian psychoanalysis is all about unconscious drives, fears, desires, and neuroses; note how the worm in this poem is invisible, flies in the night, and possess a love which is dark and secret. Secret to the harbourer, even, we might ask? As the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once remarked, a neurosis is a secret you yourself are not even aware you’re keeping. The fact that the worm chooses to fly in the night suggests something seeking to travel and do its work under cover of darkness, perhaps because of shame; night also suggests the world of sleep and dreams, when our unconscious comes to the surface in the form of symbols (symbols not unlike those presence in this poem).
Perhaps, though, the shame is not the result of some evil desire or deed but of Christian indoctrination: especially during Blake’s own time, sexual desire was viewed with suspicion and shame by many, as a result (in large part) of Christian teaching, which taught that it was sinful unless it took place within marriage (and, in many teachings, purely for the purpose of procreation, rather than pleasure).
So an adolescent growing up and developing feelings of sexual attraction and longing may well feel a sense of shame because of the social and religious attitudes attached to all things sexual. The fact that the worm is flying in ‘The Sick Rose’ raises it (literally) above the level of the wrigglingly physical and into the realm of the abstract and psychological. Certainly the ‘howling storm’ can be interpreted as a symbol for the tumultuous and tempestuous years of adolescence and sexual awakening.
The poem might be read, slightly differently, as a take on Christian doctrine: ‘worm’ can also be a poetic word for ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’, and this conjures up the Garden of Eden (that bed of roses again?). The Satanic serpent which persuaded Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge is motivated by a desire for revenge against God, and the pure earthly paradise God has established with Adam and Eve.
One way to bring us closer to an interpretation of ‘The Sick Rose’ is to compare it with another poem, one which Blake chose not to publish in Songs of Experience alongside ‘The Sick Rose’ but which was left in manuscript form. In his excellent study of Blake’s poetry, Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, D. G. Gillham productively compares ‘The Sick Rose’ with this manuscript poem:
I saw a chapel all of gold
That none did dare to enter in
And many weeping stood without
Weeping mourning worshipping
I saw a serpent rise between
The white pillars of the door
And he forcd & forcd & forcd
Down the golden hinges tore
And along the pavement sweet
Set with pearls and rubies bright
All his slimy length he drew
Till upon the altar white
Vomiting his poison out
On the bread & on the wine
So I turnd into a sty
And laid me down among the swine
As Gilham notes, this poem’s message is easier to analyse than the meaning of ‘The Sick Rose’: it’s clearly about ‘the religious and social prohibitions placed on sexual experience’ and how, when sexual desire inevitably leads to the breaking of religious ‘laws’ concerning intercourse, the whole ‘sanctuary is defiled’. The serpent in this manuscript poem is the ‘worm’ of ‘The Sick Rose’, entering and defiling with its ‘poison’.
‘The Sick Rose’, although written in clear, plain language, is an enigmatic poem whose meaning remains difficult to pin down. Therein lies much of its haunting power.
Continue to explore the world of Blake’s poetry with our analysis of ‘The Lamb’, our overview of his poem known as ‘Jerusalem’, and his scathing indictment of poverty and misery in London. If you’re looking for a good edition of Blake’s work, we recommend Selected Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics). We’ve offered some tips for writing a brilliant English Literature essay here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: William Blake’s illustration for ‘The Sick Rose’, 1826; via Wikimedia Commons.