The Sick Rose By William Blake
The Sick Rose appears in Songs of Experience and is the follow-up to “The Blossom” in Songs of Innocence. On the contrary, the blossom celebrates nature’s beautiful innocent image. The Sick Rose paints a dark and depressing picture of nature. We can consider these two poems to be opposite sides of the same coin.
Addressing a rose, the speaker informs it that she is sick. In a “howling storm” and under the cover of night, an “invisible” worm has crept into her bed. This worm’s “dark secret love” is sapping the life of the rose.
While the rose exists as a lovely natural object infected by a worm, it also exists as a literary rose, the conventional symbol of love. The image of the worm has a strong resemblance to the Biblical serpent and also implies the presence of a phallus. Worms are quintessentially terrestrial and are associated with death and decay. The worm’s “bed” is both the natural flowerbed and the lovers’ bed. The rose is infected, and the poem implies that love is also infected. The rose, on the other hand, is blissfully unaware of its illness. Of course, an actual rose cannot be aware of its own state, and thus the emphasis shifts to the allegorical suggestion that it is love that is blind to its own affliction. This is partly due to the “worm’s” insidious secrecy in carrying out its corrupting work—not only is it invisible, but it also enters the bed at night. Indeed, this secrecy is a component of the infection. The rose’s “crimson joy” connotes both sexual pleasure and shame, conflating the two concepts in a way Blake deemed perverted and unhealthy.
The rose’s joyful attitude toward love is tainted by the stigma and secrecy associated with love in our culture.