The Lily

William Blake

‘The Lily’ by William Blake uses personification and figurative meaning to describe several concepts of “love”—one being romantic and passionate, another being loyal and submissive, and the final being pure and strong.


William Blake

Nationality: English

William Blake was one of the greatest artistic and literary geniuses of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Notable works include 'The Tyger,' 'The Schoolboy,' 'The Lamb,' 'A Poison Tree,' and 'London.'

These concepts are represented through things, and by examining these items in simple terms, Blake reveals his underlying meaning. Just as the Lily is superior to the “Rose” and “Sheep,” the “love” that is pure and strong can endure beyond the other options.

The Lily
William Blake

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,The humble sheep a threat'ning horn:While the Lily white shall in love delight,Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.
The Lily by William Blake

The Lily Analysis

Line 1

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,

By addressing the “Rose” as a capitalized word, Blake has treated the concept as a proper noun. By elevating the “Rose[‘s]” importance, Blake allows the reader to understand the vastness of the concept. Essentially, the “Rose” is not just a flower in a garden or a decoration in a vase, but rather everything the “Rose” symbolizes. Those elements, generally speaking, tend to be “love,” passion, softness, “beauty,” elegance—things that stem from 1       `extreme affection and high class. This is, without question, the most surreal of flowers regarding nearly untouchable “beauty” and refinement.

On an almost contradictory note, though, Blake refers to the “Rose” as “modest.” For a flower so praised as romantic and lovely, this adjective feels a bit unfitting. With this in mind, Blake could have had a meaning behind using “modest.” This meaning could be discovered when noting how much egotism all of the striking elements of a “Rose” could create. A person so fair and remarkable, as an example, could become quite arrogant because of the compliments and reactions of others, and that arrogance can be a negative quality. Should the “Rose” be influenced in this way, the overall quality of it is diminished because it has become self-absorbed. By labeling the “Rose” as “modest,” Blake removes this possibility.

Of course, a “Rose” is not capable of being “modest” or arrogant, so the reader can know that Blake is using personification to broaden the meaning of the poem. This is connected to the earlier mentioned idea of the “Rose” embodying everything for which a “Rose” is noted. The ideas are stretched, which is highlighted in the personification that simply cannot be literal.

In spite of its “beaut[iful]” and “modest” characteristics, however, Blake notes the “Rose puts forth a thorn.” This represents its fault, and Blake’s decision to use “puts” as the verb is telling. This is not a fault the “Rose” naturally has or must suffer through in this context. Rather, it is a flaw the “Rose” itself causes by “put[ting it] forth.”

As a representation of what is “beaut[iful]” and elegant in the world then, the “Rose” reveals that there is harshness found within those otherwise wonderful concepts. There is no perfection to be found in them, as a “thorn” is noted as present.

Line 2

The humble Sheep a threat’ning horn;

Once more, the “Sheep” is capitalized to indicate the word represents everything a “Sheep” is known for, like bashfulness, skittishness, and a tendency to follow others. These notions are noted as “humble,” which pairs well with the understood qualities of a “Sheep.” Essentially, it will do as it is guided to do with little contention.

Still, even that “Sheep” has “a threat’ning horn,” which indicates that even in this submissive and gentle creature, something exists that could do physical harm to another. It is worth noting, however, that “threat’ning” is missing one “e” in the word, which could indicate that the “threat” is still minimal, as if it is so small that the full word does not need to be present to represent it. Regardless, a “horn” can be dangerous, so those dealing with “Sheep” should be aware of the “threat,” in spite of the smallness.

Line 3

While the Lily white shall in love delight,

A second flower is named within this third line: “the Lily.” Once more, it is treated as a capitalized idea to show its reach to include the basics of “the Lily[‘s]” characteristics—purity, innocence, hope, and strength. These traits are noted as the ones in which “love [will] delight,” which is an interesting choice of words given that the “Rose” is often noted as the most romantic of flowers. The reason for this declaration revolves around the symbolic meanings of each flower. Whereas the “Rose” is about passion and romanticism, “the Lily” is pure and strong. When looking at long-lasting “love,” “the Lily[‘s]” qualities seem to be the most likely details that will last through the ages. Because of this, “the Lily” better represents a “love” that will endure.

Furthermore, “the Lily” is noted as “white,” which boosts the level of its purity. Essentially, the “white” quality can indicate cleanness, like freshly fallen snow. This escalates the greatness of “the Lily” by boosting its already noted purity, giving additional reasoning to believe that it “shall in love delight.”

Line 4

Nor a thorn, nor a threat, stain her beauty bright.

The two qualities that were noted as negative with the “Rose” and “Sheep” are addressed as things “the Lily” does not have—“a thorn” and “a threat.” These details are referenced as not “stain[ing] her beauty bright.” Using the word, “stain,” is an interesting choice because it does not just say that these qualities are not a part of “the Lily.” Rather, the verb references a positive aspect of “the Lily” in regard to the previously mentioned cleanliness. The things that are most tragic to be “stain[ed]” are the ones that are clean and of good quality beforehand, so by saying these elements do not “stain” the flower distances it from the negative qualities while boosting its positive traits. Overall, this verb is a genius choice on Blake’s part for this double tactic.

Another aspect of this line to note resides in another “Rose”-like comparison. Earlier, the connection of the “Rose” to “beauty” was noted, but here, “the Lily” is noted for having “beauty bright.” Since this statement happens in a line built to reveal “the Lily[s’]” superiority, it can be inferred that Blake is saying that its “beauty” is more significant than that of the “Rose.” This makes sense in regard to “beauty” beyond just the surface since “the Lily” does not come with the flaw of “a thorn” like the “Rose.” There is no harsh twist to it, and that honest appeal boosts its loveliness to Blake. Just like “love,” then, “the Lily” prevails over the “Rose” in its key concepts, which elevates the level of importance and wonder that is bestowed upon “the Lily.”

What this leads to is the notion that honest elements of purity, strength, and “love” are more valuable than more praised details that come with a harsh twist and hidden dangers. Deeper insight must be gained to decide on the overall quality of a person or thing, and without that kind of insight, pain can be endured. To prevent this, a person should strive to find the pure “love” that comes without “threat”—like “the Lily.”

About William Blake

Born in 1757, William Blake has been noted for his writing and engraving talents, though perhaps nothing is as connected to his name as his poetry. With figurative language, his works cover a number of topics, and his engraving is linked to specific works like Don Quixote. He passed away in 1827 after over 40 years of marriage to his wife, Catherine. Read more William Blake poems.

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Connie Smith Poetry Expert
Connie L. Smith spends a decent amount of time with her mind wandering in fictional places. She reads too much, likes to bake, and might forever be sad that she doesn’t have fairy wings. She has her BA from Northern Kentucky University in Speech Communication and History (she doesn’t totally get the connection either), and her MA in English and Creative Writing. In addition, she freelances as a blogger for topics like sewing and running, with a little baking, gift-giving, and gardening having occasionally been thrown in the topic list.

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