The Sick Rose
The Sick Rose, a poem by William Blake
The Sick Rose, a reader’s approach:
To be simple is probably the most difficult thing on earth for the species called Homo sapiens. We expect things to appear simple; as they do so the next thing we do is to entangle the so called simplicity with complication questioning, if not find anything better, why it looks so simple. And that is exactly what I am trying to do now with, The Sick Rose, by William Blake.
Bridging between the neoclassical eras with the ever electrifying Romantic Period, William Blake did indeed a gigantic task of breaking away with the poetic rules & dictions that the poems were chained in. He ushered in the Romantic Movement applying imagination imbued with simplicity. But to what extent his works remain simple?
The Sick Rose, often considered, the most beautiful poem written by Blake, is constructed on an 8 line structure initiated with a simple line:
"O Rose, thou art sick."
We get the very first jolt having identified rose, the symbol of love, beauty etc. with ‘sick’ standing antagonistic to it. The word, rose undeniably has got an unparallel appeal to our mind to have us all feel like singing in the tune of Robert Burns:
"My love is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
My love is like the melody,
That’s sweetly played in tune."
But as we approach the last word, sick, another window opens up to look over a sick society where April turns out to be ‘the cruelest month’, ‘where invading army clashes over night’, and where the Scholar Gipsy won’t ever return to. So the first thing we come out with is that Beauty gone Sick. And what comes next is:
"The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm".
The physical set up is just like a horror film or more fearful to keep the reader panic- stricken, for those who feel before read. To get things orchestrated let the words, invisible, flies, night, howl & storm to be concentrated on. The blood sucking, grueling monsters fly at night, under the cover of darkness. And as we know nothing is more dangerous than the darkness both outside and inside, and nothing is more frightening than the thing we don’t see, ‘invisible’ and ‘night’ make us a point. The danger shaped in black gets stronger to eat our soul out leaving our wings of imagination fly to a virgin girl fair enough to be in a duel against protecting her chastity. To give a special effect storm is introduced by the poet in its profound ferocity as if Poseidon himself comes out of resting to lead the evil forces from Pluto’s underworld. Storm, the very word, always works well meeting the purpose of a writer in trouble delivering the mental conflict. Macbeth’s witches always appear in storm, Hamlet can never meet his father’s ghost without the very howling storm, and even King Lear fails to identify the true nature of life without the presence of a howling storm. But whatever imagery the symbolic storm touches down, whenever it finds its way through literature we can have, going down slightly the surface layer, the taste of dual nature of it, one way making an image of its dreadful appearance and the other the other way idealizing the inner self storming inside out.
Getting back to the last line of the first stanza we finally discover our Rose struggling with howling storm in a ‘Waste Land’, idealizing the sickening society which is :
“…like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain:”
(Dover Beach: Mathew Arnold)
As we approaches to the last part, we see the anti climax taking place:
“Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy”
We don’t need to focus on a lot of words now to unearth the plot. Things set to get going as naturally April becomes the cruelest month for breeding lilacs; as naturally the typist girl of ‘The Waste Land’ ( by T.S. Eliot) gets seduced:
“..he assaulted at once ;
Exploring hands encounter no defense;
His vanity requires no response.”
But the phrase, crimson joy, is planted so artistically as not to pack up with a natural conclusion .There was joy as not to be found in the waste land. The tension which was mounting up would have been released, had the word crimson signifying dark red not been there. Red, especially when it is dark propel us to think of death in two different ways leading to death: one signifying the death of virginity and the other reminding us of the ancient mariner (The Ancient Mariner; Samuel Taylor Coleridge) , who experienced Death itself with the dark red lips & kiss of death thrust upon his fellows.
Let’s put aside ‘crimson’. However transient the joy might be, the phrase, ‘thy bed’ paves way to another possibility like the piercing beams of light at the end of a tunnel. The invisible worm stays active in the subconscious layer of psyche of our Rose.
Taking a u turn it’s time to go for the most striking segment, the concluding lines of the poem:
"And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy?"
We come across ‘dark’ again but, going against its nature, it appears this time to illuminate the word ‘secret’, which lays a question bare open: when love should be so.
In this regard Sigmund Freud might help us with his crystallization of the psyche. All our drives including sexual desires are born in our id (the unconscious level of our mind) and try to peep out crossing the safety bulb guarding against them in our subconscious layer. And it is our society that plays the vital role in shaping the safety bulb. Providing that a drive or desire go against the social norms or conventional ideology it has to be plummeted down. It is when secrecy emerges out in the dark layer of our id. But more a passion gets stronger the more the inner conflict gets stormy, the balance among the layers go awry to turn our life a shadow of life like living corps:
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”
Standing in the end it worth’s remembering that killing one's passion is a crime to the romantics and whether you are romantic or not the sugar coated simplicity it all begins with ‘The Sick Rose’ leaves you on a quest: who is sick? The Rose, the society or the drive sprouts in our mind?