Symbolism in poetry: The Sick Rose

The Sick Rose
Blake’s The Sick Rose
Now at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

William Blake, who was writing and painting in the late 1700s / early 1800s, has always been one of my biggest influences, not just because of the way he wrote but also because of the way he thought. It hadn’t occurred to me till now, but Coloring The Wind owes a lot to him: he published illustrated poetry as wall-art 200 years ago.

Everyone – certainly everyone in the UK – knows something by Blake. At school, you probably learnt “Tyger tyger burning bright”. English sports fans have made his ‘Jerusalem’ their anthem. Hand on heart, proud of their heritage, they sing:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen?

I’m sure Blake would smile if he could see how his words have been completely misinterpreted. Far from praise of England, this was an attack on those industrialists who were destroying his country with their ‘dark satanic mills’. The questions in the first lines are deeply ironic. If England was ever a promised land, it wasn’t any more. The only way to repair the damage that had been done was to resist – and Blake was ready to lead the way:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

Mental fight, note. The struggle would be intellectual, led by artists and thinkers who had the weapons to change the world.

When the artist uses symbols – in this case Jerusalem as England – there’s always the possibility that your audience will misinterpret. You present an image believing it to have powerful associations. Perhaps you highlight them. But in the end, your message is implicit: you’re leaving it up to the audience to interpret, and their associations may not be the same as yours.

(Delightfully, this happened here on the site yesterday, after I posted a symbolic photograph End of the tunnel and asked readers to come up with the words. The first response I had, from Fredi Stewart (you’ll see it in the Comments section) really surprised me – it was a completely different take on the picture from the one I’d expected … and it opened up new levels of meaning.)

Blake’s most famous work, perhaps his greatest, was a set of poems called Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake’s lifelong interest was the contraries in life: good and evil, heaven and hell, innocence and experience, and in the collection he sets pairs of symbols together. So The Tyger is paired with The Lamb:

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;


And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

and at the end, a question:

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

In poetic tradition, the rose is a symbol of love and beauty … and, it shouldn’t be forgotten, England, where the rose has long been the national flower. In 1794, Scotland’s great Robbie Burns published his famous song ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, which drew on all the associations of romantic love. It’s tempting to think that Blake’s poem about a rose might have been in response to Burns’s, since it was published in the same year, although I have no evidence for that. But Blake turned the tradition on its head, from the very first line:

O Rose, thou art sick.

What a shock – after the first two words! In this poem, Blake brings together innocence and experience, beauty and bestiality in a single poem. Let’s see how it develops:

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.

That’s it. Just 36 words – but, for me, one of the most powerful poems, one of the most resonant images in the language.

What makes it so special? First, it’s because Blake, with his artist’s inner eye, thinks beyond the easy, lazy cliché. Lion = brave, moon = pale wanderer, rose = beauty … those are the normal associations, but not for Blake. What he describes here can be seen by anyone who’s ever set foot in a garden, but he defies poetic convention, forces us to look at the rose in a different way – corrupted, diseased, dying.

Woven into the poem, there’s a second powerful image, implicitly sexual. The worm finds its way into the rose’s ‘bed of crimson joy’ and again corrupts from within.

Every time I come back to the poem, there seems to be a new layer of meaning, rippling out from the center. It’s about the impermanence of beauty, it’s about questioning long-held beliefs, it’s about sexuality, it’s about Blake’s views on England, echoing Jerusalem again. But none of these ideas are presented as arguments. Poetry works by suggestion. It doesn’t ask me to agree or disagree. It just demands that I reconsider my own experience and preconceived ideas.

What about the structure? First, what does Blake do with words? Not too much. He doesn’t try to be poetic, loading lines with fancy adjectives. Had he done so, he might have detracted from the symbolism. Nevertheless, there’s a master craftsman at work, and words are carefully chosen. The rose isn’t ‘unwell’ or ‘fading’ or ‘poorly’. It’s ‘sick’: monosyllabic, shocking, isolated at the end of that first line. It’s a ‘howling’ storm – you hear the storm in the word. Then ‘Crimson’ – not ‘red’, or ‘pink’: there’s an association with blood, and the consonant clusters in the word somehow give it sensuality.

You’ll perhaps hear the impact of the words as I read the poem aloud – the best poetry always comes to life in a live reading. Listen too for the natural rhythm of the lines. Each has a double beat, but when you analyze closely you’ll see that none of the lines are regular. If you want to impress you can tell people that the rhythm is an Anapestic Dimeter with Substitutions. That’s what someone on the web says anyway. I could care less. What I know is that it’s a joy to read, and it would be easy to set to music. That works for me.

So as a writer, what can I take from The Sick Rose? There’s power in symbols – and in a short poem – one central image is probably enough. I’d like to offer layers of meaning, just as Blake does. I want to offer fresh perspectives, to develop my inner eye. I don’t want to overload my poems with ‘poetic’ language. And the final edit will always be a check for clichéd ideas and words: I don’t want them to appear … unless it’s deliberate.

Here’s the live reading:

View all the entries in our Poetry Masterclass series.

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  1. Love, love, love this, Alan! Blake is one of my favourites (John Donne is another – dare I hope he may feature later in your series?), though ‘The Sick Rose’ is new to me. Thanks so much for such a beautiful post. Can’t wait to see what you have for us next!
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  2. Alan Miles

    Donne will indeed feature, Susan – The Sonne Rising – how does that work for you?

  3. Nonne better! Looking forward to it.
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