I recently spent some time re-reading William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. In the course of my reading, I became obsessed with his poem “The Sick Rose.” Initially I wasn’t sure what accounted for my fascination with this short, ostensibly simple, poem. But the more I lingered with it, the more I was drawn in — and the more profoundly and productively disturbing I found it.
Once upon a time, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, I took a class with Joel Kraemer, a professor of Jewish studies. He spoke of midrashic commentary as being motivated by “textual irritants” — moments of ambiguity, uncertainty, apparent nonsense, multivalent imagery, etc. that compel interpretive cogitations. I think my fascination with Blake’s “Sick Rose” stems (if you will) from my perception of it as a concatenation of textual irritants (which seems to me to define poetry more generally). In the interest of interrogating my obsession, I attempted to think with as little reservation as possible about this enigmatic, irritating poem. What follows are a few observations — scattershot and inchoate — I made in the course of my analysis. Blake’s entire metaphysics, I believe, emerges through the two little quatrains of this 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 two stanzas of the poem: line length: syllables: 5, 6, 5, 5 and 5, 4, 6, 5: this is the irritant. But: symmetry in the number of words in each line: 5, 3, 5, 4 for each quatrain. What to make of this?
• Scansion: a very difficult poem to scan. The irritant is the lack of pattern: it can be read in numerous ways — and this is the sickness of “The Sick Rose” — or one sickness, anyway — the metric oddity amidst other formal symmetries, such as rhyme, number of words, etc. (Ginsberg’s singing of the poem comments on this….)
• Punctuation is confounding at points: no comma after the initial address: O Rose [,] though art sick. And then why a comma after “worm”? How does this “sicken” the reading of the poem? What does it suggest about this poem as a “song” — a song of experience, corruption, etc.?
• The letter O: this is key. It’s the first letter of the body of the poem, and there are 14 Os in the poem, making it, I believe, the most frequently occurring letter. It appears at least once in each line, with the exception of the third line of the first stanza: “that flies in the night.”
Significance of the letter O? It’s a hole, and it’s at the center of “Rose” and “worm.” It’s the hole that the worm has bored into the rose. It’s a sickness at the heart of the rose. It’s the emptiness, corruption embodied by the worm? by reason?
But: it’s also a circle, a unity, and this is where the letter signifies or activates metaphysical thought. The O is the dying and rising of the rose — the unity of these — and the cycle — (temporally cyclical, metaphysically unified) — further figured in the image-design, with the rose encircling the text of the poem. The picture sketches a circle, with the woman, paradoxically, rising from the “sick” rose.
• But does the rose look sick? It’s bowing, but the blossom is full and red, a picture of “crimson joy” undiminished. “Marriage” of sickness and health.
• Tenses: present tense throughout, with present perfect in first line of second stanza: “Has found out thy bed.”
• More important: the ambiguity of the title. Before we read the body of the text, we encounter the title: The Sick Rose. And this need not be read as article-adjective-noun. It can be read as article-noun-verb (past tense). The sick rose — that is, those who are/were sick rose, they are arisen. Or: the sick one, the one who was sick, rose again: thus the Blakean metaphysics — Christ, etc. Christ, sick in incarnation and taking on sins, rose from the dead.
• The poem is the rose, the rose the poem. The worm is the rose, is the poem. Commutative properties. Contagion (?) and corruption, sickness. Innocence and experience. “Higher innocence” — hence the rose is both bowing and blooming, both sick and life-giving. Christ.
• ***Also key: the marvelous ambiguity of last two lines of second stanza; as “the sick rose” is ambiguous, so are these final lines: “And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.” The irritant here is this ambiguity: there is simply no reason to think that we must (only) read this as saying that the worm’s dark secret love destroys the life of the rose, nor even that the worm makes the rose sick. We’re equally as justified in reading this as saying that the life of the rose destroys the dark love of the worm: thy life destroys his dark secret love; And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.
Rose, thou art sick. But the sickness is not from/due to the worm. The rose’s life is the sickness that destroys the worm; this is sickness from the worm’s (reason’s) perspective. The rose’s sickness is life, sex, “crimson joy,” and it is life that kills the “love” of that invisible worm, reason.
• What irritates is that the rose and the worm can be read in complete opposition to their normal associations. Unconventional use of conventional images, tropes. Undercutting of expectations. Inversions.
• For example: the women in the print are apparently mourning atop the thorns, joyful at the bottom: inversion of rose, with the flower at the base, thorns in the sky….
• The caterpillar in the print — this is not, or not necessarily/only, the worm. The worm is invisible, after all. The caterpillar….butterfly…. (But: “as the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys” — Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Worm of reason.)
• *Worm is indeed “in the howling storm”: hoWling stORM: the (word) “worm” is enveloped, flying through the (words) “howling storm.”
Underscored by rhyming of “worm” and “storm.”
(Cf. Roman Jakobson on “I like Ike”: “…a paronomastic image of the loving subject enveloped by the beloved object.”)
• Also: identity of love and death, life and sickness, is conveyed in the rhyming of “joy” and “destroy.”
The rose and the worm are one — a metaphysical unity that is graphically conveyed by the presence of the “o” in the middle of both words (both of which also have 4 letters).
All this is borne out by “Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “joys impregnate, sorrows bring forth,” etc.
• The moaning, the groaning big “O,” the sound of love and of death — the little death of the orgasm.
• The “poem” that remains when only the words containing “o” are exposed:
O Rose thou
Of crimson joy