A conventional poem about flowers and mortality would say much what Waller did in the subject of my last post, Song: “Look, see that flower? Look how beautiful it is. Just like you’re beautiful, right?… There’s no use hiding your beauty away – it’s there to be admired, like the flower. And beauty, doesn’t last forever, now does it? You have to enjoy it – and let it be enjoyed – when it lasts.”
William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’, is not such a conventional poem.
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 Rose is not suffering from the ravages of time exactly, but from the attentions of the ‘invisible worm’, who is besotted with her. There are echoes of Genesis here – the serpent that brought sin into paradise, thus begot corruption and death. There is a distinct sexual overtone to the imagery too, with the worm having sought the rose’s bed; and he hardly sounds like a gentle lover, the ‘crimson joy’ making the relationship sound like one of feeding and bloodletting – the worm a parasite, feeding on and destroying the young rose. Yeah, we all know guys like that, sighs one world weary female reader. Blake’s lament is a fateful one: she who is beautiful must be defiled and her beauty destroyed by he who desires her. Edmund Waller didn’t mention that bit in Song!
We needn’t over-emphasise the sexual element in the poem, however. It can be read philosophically too, as embodying, in a somewhat lurid form, Blake’s dualistic beliefs, in which ‘innocence and ‘experience’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and even ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are two necessary aspects of the same universe.
Like many of Blake’s poems, the plate metal worker Blake made a plate to go with The Sick Rose. I’ll leave it to you to decide which interpretation of the poem his picture supports…