The Sick Rose: Poem by William Blake - Summary and Analysis

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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.

Summary and Analysis


      'The Sick Rose' given in two quatrains is conspicuous in terms of the tremendous symbolic interpretation it invites. Apart from its traditional assertion the word 'worm' involves other meanings too. This 'invisible worm may be symbolic of the clergy with whose encouragement a loveless marriage is conducted. As the invisible worm selects the prettiest and most joyful crimson rose, the priest curses the fairest joys of married life. The priest is a servant of Urizen (Reason as against Energy or Imagination). The priest therefore spoils love. It is he who makes the rose 'sick'. Again, Blake's rose stands for many things. It is explained by C.M. Bowra: "If we ask what the poem means, we can answer that it means what it says, and that it is perfectly clear.... But, as in all symbolic poems, we can read other meanings into it".

As the invisible worm selects the prettiest and most joyful crimson rose, the priest curses the fairest joys of married life.
The Sick Rose


      In this small poem, 'The Sick Rose' we see Blake's ingenuity and artistic supremacy. In a few deft strokes Blake carves out a crimson rose attacked by a canker worm. The invisible worm is one that flies in night and 'howling storm'. The worm is engaged in a gradual seduction of the rose. It is destructive to the life of the rose.

Sexual Implications:

      The idea expressed by Blake has also been interpreted as having sexual implications. Its subject is copulation. Based on Freudian analysis the rose can be considered as the female and the worm as male. These symbols, or the idea behind them, stirs suppressed feelings of indecency and severe censure, guilt and intimidation. These feelings of inhibition are actually associated with sexual experience especially in the adolescent mind. The libidinal instincts in the adolescent mind are frequently repelled and suppressed due to social prohibition and superstition. The worm, to suit this idea, is aptly described as 'invisible' and it 'flies in the night'. The worm is alive and active at night; and this referance to night hints at the secrecy of the thing as well as its destructive impact. This propitious time that is the night, shows that he comes like a vicious creature vilify and spread inflection into the object he chooses. 'The worm prefers to fly not merely at night but also when the storm blows and there is commotion in the air But all the greater is its power and vigour since it can even withstand the stormy atmosphere. If the worm excels in strength the rose is luxurious. Its cushy netals of joy welcome the strength of the worm though it turns sick later. Alongwith the other aspects we have to stress these positive aspects too.

'The Sick Rose' and 'The Blossom':

      Though the two poems 'The Blossom' and 'The Sick Rose' come in the sections of 'Innocence' and 'Experience' respectively they can be taken as two characteristic specimens for comparison and contrast. In both poems the subject matter is sexual intercourse, and what is more they are symbolic too. But in 'The Sick Rose', we sense, quite vividly, a reserved and artificially disciplined approach towards the subject of sex. On the other hand 'The Blossom' has a frank, tender and an unorthodox view towards the very topic, but often we may doubt that The Blossom treats sex too trivially and attributes to it an unnecessary and too great an amount of purity. Instead of the tilting blossom of 'The Blossom' here we have a storm, a terrifying and raging wind: but it is all the more thrilling and thriving. Admittedly, the 'Rose' is Sick', yet not devoid of its natural floral 'bed of crimson joy'. The 'Rose' is relatively 'earthly', rather than heavenly which the 'Blossom' is. The final contrast we come across is that in 'The Sick Rose' the poet explores the dark recesses of the being and comes up with gems of beautiful perception.


      The complex and vague erotic ideas are skilfully transformed into a poem by the poet. The poem helps us visualise a cankered rose plant in a stormy night. But there is more than what meets our eye. The Rose is sick of selfishness. Its innocence suffers slow death and ruin from, the worm or experience. The poet's flight of imagination materialises as the poem stretches into still greater dimensions of meaning and implication. In the words of Mr. Wolf Mankowitz, the kernel of the poem is explicit: "The priests of the Chapel who bind joy and desire with briars are like Night and its attributes in the first two poems. They are black against the light of joy and desire and their darkness is not only their own, but their Chapels and the society in which the institutional 'Thou shalt nots' are given rein". These 'Thou shalt nots' are the social taboos pronouncing 'don'ts' as Bertrand Russell says in his essay 'Happy Man.

Wolf Mankowitz continues:

      "The joy and desire which are thwarted here, are attacked by a worm in the 'Sick Rose' poem. Here it is immediately apparent that the rose which sickens is a mortal rose. The human rose is attacked by a worm which possesses a 'dark secret called Love', and it is an evil power which destroys the life of the rose. The flower is attacked in its 'bed of crimson joy' and this last imageric phrase can only stand for the sexuality of the mortal rose. The argument of the 'Sick Rose' differentiates between love and sexuality. Love here is destructive, it is a night-force, one of the links in the chain which binds delight in the Earth's Answer. But sexuality, the experience in the 'bed of crimson joy' is the very centre of the life of the rose. When it is attacked the flower sickens and dies. What then is the love which destroys it? Blake uses the word deliberately, and if we think of it as a counter in a commonly played game of communication we shall more clearly see his intention. He uses a personal expression to convey the experience of sexuality because it is something which he has discovered, as it were for himself. But if he has discovered it, it is in spite of love as it is commonly called. Blake is concerned in this short poem with an incredible area of experience. In it sexuality is revealed as the basis of life, the social concept of love, as something destructive to life. Love in its social definition is a negative creed of secretive joyless forbidding : love in Blake's experience is a vital malter of joy, open and sensuous. The insistence upon the need to keep sex open and honest and not 'a dirty sore' is incidentally, just one of the points at which Blake reminds one of D.H. Lawrence. The experience of the sick rose is one which both men recognised, deducing from it similar conclusion. 'The Sick Rose' poem is the concrete expression of Blake's experience of the corrupting effects of 'social' love upon 'creative' sexuality. This last sentence emerges as the gist of the meaning of the poem.

Blake's Art of Song:

      'The Sick Rose' illustrates Blake's art of song as C.M. Bowra says. The brief poem illustrates in an astonishing way Blake's gift for distilling a complex imaginative idea into a few marvellously telling words. It conjures up the vision of a rose attacked in a stormy night by a destructive worm, and so Blake depicts it in his accompanying illustration. But as in all symbolical poems, we can read other meanings into it and make its images carry a weight of secondary associations. We may say that it refers to the destruction of love by selfishness, of innocence by experience, of spiritual life by spiritual death. All these meanings it can bear, and it is legitimate to make it do so. But the actual poem presents something which is common and fundamental to all these themes. something which Blake has distilled so finely from many particular cases that it has their common quintessential character. And this Blake sees with so piercing and so concentrated a vision that the poem has its own independent life. and needs nothing to supplement it. If we wish to know more about Blake's views on the issues at which the poem hints, we may find them in his prose works and prophetic books. But here he is a poet, and his thoughts are purified and transfigured in song.

Mysticism, Sexuality and Symbolism, but Simple:

      Northrop Frye stresses a good deal on the directness and simplicity of the poem, 'The Sick Rose'. It is a piece at once mystic, symbolic and sexual. But Blake never dresses his thoughts as he does in his ironical outcries, in a set of questions, primarily because he is exceptionally conscious of the seriousness of the matter he deals with. The complex network of wordy and elaborated jargons of mysticism never acquire their place in the poem, He reaches the universal Truth (which lies no doubt, in exposing the false social noris) with the help of natural and at images of a rose and canker. Yet greater experience with literature soon shows that it is metaphor which is direct and primitive, and conceptual, thought which is sophisticated. Hence, there is a body of verse that can be called popular in the sense of providing the direct, primitive, metaphorical key to poetic experience for educated and uneducated alike. One may always meet a poem with a set of questions designed to avoid its impact; what does it mean; why is it considered a good poem; is it morally beneficial; does it say profound things about life, and so forth. But such a poem as 'The Sick Rose' has a peculiar power of brushing questions aside, of speaking with the unanswerable authority of poetry itself. Blake's lyrics with many of those of Herrick, Burns, and Donne, the sonnets of Shakespeare. Wordsworth's Lucy poems and a few of the great ballads, are popular poetry in the sense that they are a practically foolproof introduction of poetic experience.

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