W William Blake

The Sick Rose by William Blake

The Sick Rose’ by William Blake is a two stanza poem that is separated into two sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains follow a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABCB DEFE. This very even pattern contributes to the overall tone of the text. It helps foster a feeling of dread, as if something is going terribly wrong. 

The Sick Rose by William Blake

 

Summary

The Sick Rose’ by William Blake describes the loss of a woman’s virginity through the metaphor of a rose and an invisible worm.

The poem begins with the speaker telling the rose that she is sick. This sickness is caused by  the “invisible worm.” The phallic-shaped worm comes to the rose at night in the middle of “the howling storm.” There is a real sense of danger and dread in these lines that only builds as the poem progresses and Blake makes use of enjambment.  In the second stanza of ‘The Sick Rose,’ the worm finds the rose’s bed. The rose is afflicted with the worm’s “dark secret love” and has its life destroyed. The worm, which clearly represents a phallus, kills the rose—the woman’s, virginity.

Explore more William Blake poems.

 

Meter 

Blake chose to make use of a complicated metrical pattern that is most closely associated with anapaestic dimeter. This means that, if the meter is perfect, each line should have five beats. The first two syllables are unstressed and the third is stressed. Although the poem can be categorized with this meter in mind, there is only one line, the seventh, which is perfectly structured as anapaestic dimeter. 

The other lines vary somewhat from this base form. The stresses, more often than not, shift places in the lines. For example, the first two syllables of the poem are stressed, creating a spondee. While in the second line, the first two syllables form an iamb. The first is unstressed and the second is stressed. Another interesting example is the fourth line. The line begins with two unstressed syllables and is then followed by one stressed, one unstressed, and one final stressed syllable. 

 

Images and Symbols 

The symbols within ‘The Sick Rose’ are very important, as are the ways Blake describes these symbols. The most prominent is the rose itself. Without much consideration, a reader should realize that the rose is there to represent nature and fragility, but also has a deeper, more important meaning. The rose is also used as a symbol for female purity, and in this case, chastity. 

Alongside the rose, there is the worm, without which there would be no poem. As soon as the poem begins the speaker informs the rose that it is sick. The reason for its sickness is the worm which is in the process of destroying the rose’s life. This makes sense if one only reads from a simple nature perspective. But a reader should really take into consideration the phallic nature of the worm and the way it enters into the roses “bed” and uses “his dark secret love.” The worm takes the roses virginity, therefore ruining her life. 

 

Analysis of The Sick Rose 

Stanza One 

O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by addressing the rose. Blake chose to capitalize the word “Rose” in order to give it more agency and relate it more to an animate being. This makes sense when one considers the larger metaphor the lines are alluding to. He tells the rose that it is “sick.” This is a very broad term, and it is unclear at first how or why a rose would be sick. The next lines provide the answer. 

There is one main reason for the “sickness,” the “invisible worm.” It is not something that is easily imagined, considering that it “flies in the night.” But, the general shape and the fact that it is, by Blake’s estimation, hurting the rose, is what’s important. The phallic-shaped worm comes to the rose at night in the middle of “the howling storm.” There is a sense of danger and dread in these lines that adds to one’s knowledge that the worm is not going to do anything good to the rose. 

The howling storm is an interesting image at this point in the piece. By adding this tidbit about the setting, it is clear Blake wants the reader to know that the worm is able to make it through dangerous conditions. It can find the rose whenever it wants to. Perhaps this has something to do with its invisibility. A feature that is also be linked to its ability to get close to the worm. It might not seem like such danger at first. 

 

Stanza Two 

Has found out thy bed 

Of crimson joy: 

And his dark secret love 

Does thy life destroy.

In the second stanza of ‘The Sick Rose,’ the speaker goes detail by detail, increasing the tension. First, he states that the worm found the rose’s bed. This refers to the natural dirt flower bed, but more importantly to an actual bed in which a woman, represented by the rose, is sleeping. 

The bed is described as being “of crimson joy.” The redness of the rose and the bed both speak to the passion and at the same time, anger and even blood. All three of these connect to the larger metaphor, the loss of a woman’s virginity. 

The rose is afflicted with the worm’s “dark secret love” and has its life destroyed. Again, these lines could refer to the actual death of a real rose which is eaten by a worm. But, the extended metaphor is more important. The worm, which clearly represents a phallus, destroys the rose—the woman’s virginity. As was the case in Blake’s day, and in many places is still of importance today, the loss of virginity doomed a woman’s prospects for the rest of her life. This is the death and sickness the speaker is referring to. 

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Emma Baldwin
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analysing poetry on Poem Analysis.
  • Thank you, Emma, for the wonderful explication. I do think, however, that the poem is about a lot more than sex. It is about innocence facing despoliation through life (the howling storm). That is why it is in the Songs of Innocence; but it foreshadows the Songs of Experience.

    Years ago I bought an album of recordings of some of the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience by Allen Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky, accompanied by harmonium. After one hearing, I thought the album as a whole was unsettling, and forgot about it. Months later, while hiking at high altitude, a rhythm popped into my head that I could not shake. Eventually I realized that it was Ginsburg’s recording of The Sick Rose. He sang it as a mantra, repeating it again and again with different tonalities. It had suffused my subconscious after one forgotten hearing. It is still among the most memorable songs I have ever heard. Blake, along with Whitman, was one of the principal influences on Ginsburg. The album, if one can find it, is very highly recommended.

    Outside of the Bible, I cannot recall a more profound short poem.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for your words of encouragement for our team and for sharing your experiences with us. We really appreciate it.

  • Is there any other contextual factors that can bind in with this poem ¿

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I think the main context to consider is the fact that blake was a romantic poet and this poem is about nature. Most romantic poetry included nature as a theme.

  • Wow this poem is so dark!

    • Great explanation. Thank you!

      • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

        No problemo. Thank you for reading!

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      A lot of Blake’s work is, surprisingly.

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