‘The Sick Rose’ is a poem by William Blake which explores the themes of love, innocence and sex across just two stanzas. Blake is one of the great poets of the Romantic era, well known today for a variety of works including ‘The Tyger’ and his ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’ collections, with ‘The Sick Rose’ being part of ‘Songs of Experience’. During his lifetime, Blake was held in low regard and often criticised, however today his work is seen as being a key starting point for the overall Romantic movement, and influences many poets and artists today.
This poem could be included in the poetry paper of the Edexcel English Literature exams. You may be required to study this poem depending on which group of texts you are studying. Click here to see notes and analysis for all poems in the ‘English Romantic Verse’ Anthology.
Interpreture gives ‘The Sick Rose’ a difficulty rating of 1, meaning that it is deemed to be easy to understand and analyse. While there may be some students who find aspects of the poem challenging, the length of the poem helps to provide focus, and the themes and symbolism explored by Blake are common within literature so are likely to be more accessible to students. In addition, the key contextual factors of this poem are based around religion, which again is likely to use existing knowledge rather than requiring new research.
‘The Sick Rose’
The title of this poem is informative regarding the themes that are considered, with the connotations of both ‘sick’ and ‘rose’ relatively easy to identify, even for those readers who may not have an interest in literature. The use of ‘sick’ is self explanatory, used to describe something that is ill and decaying, with some readers perhaps seeing the arguable use of personification as a reflection of the overall symbolism in the poem of the rose. The choice of this flower is important due to its frequent association with chastity and virginity, particularly at the time of writing, and the idea of a ‘literary rose’ and its link to love and romance. This indicates to a reader that the key themes of this poem are likely to be along these lines.
Structure and Language
A potentially surprising aspect of ‘The Sick Rose’ is how short the poem is, particularly compared to others in the ‘English Romantic Verse’ collection which can extend across tens of stanzas. With only two stanzas, each made up of four short lines, the entirety of the poem can be read very quickly. Some readers may see this as Blake reinforcing the idea of transience, which is also explored through the sickening and eventual destruction of the rose. Also short in length is the opening sentence, as it is only the first line. This acts as a distinctive and clear opening to the poem, helping a reader to understand that the rose is the key subject matter being considered.
The use of symbolism is vital to the poem, with the two most significant being the rose and the worm. As mentioned previously, the rose links to the idea of innocence and love, but more particularly in this poem could be interpreted as representing the emotion of love itself, or an individual who is in love. Meanwhile, the worm acts as a contrast to this purity, with the links both to phallic imagery and biblical serpents. It is important to remember that religion and its associated teachings held a much more important place in society through the Romantic period, and as such any perceived links to serpents and the Garden of Eden would have been picked up on by a reader. Adam and Eve being tempted by a serpent lead to the destruction of their existing surroundings, so the use of this similar imagery helps to highlight the destructive force of the worm, particularly as a result of it being “invisible”.
The use of colour imagery is also important in ‘The Sick Rose’. The first reference could be seen as the rose itself, and while the colour is less definite due to the different varieties of roses, all of which are likely to have links to colours traditionally seen as more feminine. This contrasts against the “night” referenced in the middle of the first stanza, with the darkness providing a clear difference against the rose and the other ideas it represents. Blake describes “crimson” in the second stanza, with this direct link to a colour typically associated with blood or passion helping a reader to feel a sense of danger or even shame. Finally, “dark” is referenced again, ending the poem on a negative and more worrisome tone.
‘The Sick Rose’ Context
The context of poems in the ‘English Romantic Verse’ collection is important to consider as it is an examined assessment objective, and helps to inform higher level criticisms and evaluations of the effectiveness of a poem. In order to do this successfully you need to have both an understanding of the various contextual links to ‘The Sick Rose’, which are discussed as part of the analysis notes, and of the author William Blake. Check back later for Interpreture context notes on William Blake – in the meantime, here are our suggested links to research context:
In particular, you should have an understanding of the following contextual points related to Blake:
- Blake’s artistry and the engraved drawings he produced for ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’ and their overall themes and ideas
- The enlightenment and industrial revolution, in particular how this impacted Blake
- Blake’s links to early feminist movements
- Revolution in urban areas
“In the howling storm:”
This line emphasises typical negative connotations of weather, and storms were particularly dangerous at the time of writing because society lacked today’s modern technology and materials which are better able to weather storms. In addition, some readers may consider the use of “howling” and how it could be used to signify pain, in this case the pain of destruction and sickness brought on by love.
“Of crimson joy”
As noted, the use of colour imagery is important in ‘The Sick Rose’ as it helps to communicate a range of meaning beyond the relatively short descriptions. The juxtaposition of “crimson” (typically associated with blood, death, love and sin) with “joy” is interesting and helps to highlight the contemporary societal view that sex is something that can be destructive, and like roses, sexual desire can be transient.
“And his dark secret love”
By referring to the worm as “his”, a contemporary reader may link the idea of the worm to the ever present concept of the devil. This also provides an interesting point for a modern reader, who could interpret this line from a feminist viewpoint to criticise negative and sometimes destructive elements of male sexuality. By ending the poem on this dark and destructive note, Blake emphasises the transient nature of both physical roses, and what they represent in the poem.
‘The Sick Rose’ Key Themes
- Love and Sex: Despite being a short poem, there are still a range of ideas to consider in relation to this theme, particularly the way in which Blake uses symbolism to represent love and sex, and how feelings can become destructive for the person experiencing them.
- Transience: Just as roses grow, age and die, so do people, and the idea of transience is another key them of this poem which helps to emphasise many aspects considered as part of the love and sex theme. The use of natural representations could be seen as helping to create understanding for a reader.
- Societal Attitudes: The destructive worm is able to operate in darkness and storms, away from detection. Many see Blake as using this poem to argue that societal attitudes towards sex and sexuality, that they should not be discussed, is causing more harm and good, allowing this destruction to take place.
Quick Focus Questions
- Discuss the significance of the line “Has found out thy bed” and consider the various interpretations of “bed”.
- Does Blake give an indication of who is responsible for the suffering experienced by the rose? How could this link to contextual factors and societal viewpoints?
- Would the poem be as effective if another plant or flower were used instead of a rose?
‘The Sick Rose’ is an interesting poem which, despite its short length, provides a wealth of opportunities for various forms of analysis and consideration of contextual factors. It is also an accessible introduction to the Romantic movement, helpful for students who may find the challenge of analysing poetry from two hundred years ago daunting. As with all poems that form part of Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’ collections, the associated engraving is interesting to look at, and provides an insight to Blake’s own interpretation of his work.