"The Sick Rose," three bibliographies
1, or direct to 2 or to 3
Several critics have noted "The Sick Rose" 's intertextuality with Matthew Prior's lyric "A True Maid" (1721): No, no; for my Virginity, When I lose that, says Rose, I'll dye: Behind the Elmes, last night, cry'd Dick, Rose, were You extreamly sick? In a letter published in The Times Literary Supplement (June 22, 1946), E. H. W. Meyerstein argues that, in light of Prior's epigram, the burden sickening Blake's Rose may be the concealment of her sexuality, rather than the protection of her virginity as is often assumed. He points out that the song's "invisible worm" was female rather than male in an early Rossetti Manuscript draft, suggesting that the "dark secret love" destroying the Rose may be her own. H. L. Anschutz and D. W. Cummings see "The Sick Rose" as a revision of Prior's poem in Dick's voice rather than Rose's. They read the first line with special emphasis ("Oh Rose, thou art sick!"), as Dick's recognition of Rose's hypocrisy and his diagnosis of her unhealthy repression.
Robert Gleckner (The Piper and The Bard, 1959) reads "The Sick Rose" as an admonition against "the self-enjoyings of self-denial," the supposedly corrupt practice of masturbation which religious and societal prohibitions against sexuality foster. He finds a precedent for this presumed anti-onanism in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (plate 7, lines 5-7). For him the lyric proclaims that Rose is sick because her "dark secret" love is self-centered when it should be healthily directed toward another person. The song's message for Gleckner is not merely that artificial love is diseased. "More accurately," he concludes, it is that "love is sick without the vision to see what love really is," the ability to distinguish between narcissistic fantasy and unselfish affection.
E. D. Hirsch (Innocence and Experience, 1964, 1975) sees "The Sick Rose" satirizing sexual repression. He agrees with Gleckner that the Rose's sickness is a repressive perversion of her sexuality, though he argues that her love is diseased not so much because it is masturbatory, but because, "like syphilis" it is "illicit." The rose is sick with shame, he suggests, though not about her sexuality, but her hypocrisy; she is publicly "modest," but privately passionate. The invisible worm which destroys the Rose is a shame which "an invention of the human brain," a shame that "pervert[s] joy." Gleckner relates the Rose, through her "fall" into perverse shame, with Adam and Eve who were expelled from Eden for similar reasons.
D. G. Gillham (Blake's Contrary States, 1966) claims that "The Sick Rose" tries to satirize the "unhealthy attitude to sexual love" that Gleckner and Hirsch note, but that it fails because its voice betrays enthusiasm for sex as well as revulsion. He appears to evaluate the lyric's satire only in terms of meta-irony, disregarding the possibility that the voice may itself be sarcastic. He argues that "The Sick Rose" "suggests the deep and intricate emotions that the sexual act involves," including, contradictory to its presumed satiric purpose, pleasure and tenderness, though he doesn't make clear how.
John Holloway (Blake: The Lyric Poetry, 1968) parts with earlier readings. He finds "The Sick Rose" characterized by its "radical simplicity," its "transparen[ce]", rather than irony. Holloway accepts the piece's protagonists, Rose and worm, at face value. For him, the song relates "the most conspicuous, opulent thing we know (the Rose), and what is most secret, pallid, and repulsive (the 'invisible worm')." He sees "The Sick Rose" "reversing" John Bunyan's "Upon A Snail": She goes but softly, but she goeth sure ..... She makes no noise, but stilly seizeth on The flower or herb appointed for her food, The which she quietly doth feed upon ..... And though she doth but very softly go, However, 'tis not fast nor slow, but sure; Holloway takes Bunyan's ever-modest Snail as a "distasteful" exemplar of "Christian piety." Blake, he suggests, appropriates this pious Snail for "The Sick Rose", but radically transforms its connotations. His "invisible worm" doesn't signify sexuality, as previous readings suggest, but rather "religion," the "plain enemy to life" which stigmatizes. The worm, Holloway concludes, explicitly offers "a representation of how the divine spirit is conventionally and disasterously understood or rather travestied," as he feels Bunyan's Snail unintentionally does.
Alicia Osrtiker (in Paley ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1969) concentrates exclusively on "The Sick Rose" 's metrics. In this regard, she notes, the piece "gives the impression of strictest unity where Blake is in fact being most free," observing further that only the fourth and eighth lines of the poem "scan identically." Ostriker feels that while "The Sick Rose" 's metrical structure is non-uniform, it is by no means arbitrary. Instead, she suggests, it was carefully crafted by Blake to evoke sexual rhythms. "When read without pauses, [the poem] approaches the pulse of continuous anapest," she declares. "The downward, spiraling motion fits the poem's evocation of eroticism."
Joseph Natoli (Psychological Perspectives on Literature, 1984) cites "The Sick Rose" to demonstrate a critical approach which applies "phenomenological psychology" to literary texts. Natoli's chosen method considers the three psyches which, he suggests, interact in the reading of a literary text: the fictional character or poetic voice, the reader, and the author. Psychically, he argues, "The Sick Rose" 's speaker's psychic vocabulary is restricted solely and strictly to "Judaic-Christian moral categories. The reader in a sense psychoanalyzes this voice, and, Natoli assumes, diagnoses it as "sick," not because it is oriented toward Judeo-Christianity, but because it is exclusively bound by it, fixated on it at the expense of psychic flexibility. Natoli doesn't feel that the Blake's psyche, even as it works in "The Sick Rose" alone, can be conclusively characterized on the basis of the isolated piece. He argues that any such generalizations should preferably made in light of Songs of Innocence and of Experience as a whole. Nonetheless he manages to speculate on the evidence of "The Sick Rose," along with "The Garden of Love" and "The Human Abstract" that Blake believes "the god lurking behind the songs of experience is a construct of a sick mind, that the speaker's worm is indeed invisible since it is a terrible product of his own mind"
Heather Glen (Vision and Disenchantment, 1983) favorably contrasts "The Sick Rose" with a Song of Innocence, "Night." She recognizes its brusque energy and offers the most pessimistic reading of the poem yet. Glen takes both pieces as acknowledgements of "the death and destruction implicit in the world of generation," but where "Night" evokes "answering angels" who offer "pity", "The Sick Rose" dwells with "gloating emphasis" on the worm, exemplar of mortal attenuation, "a unilateral process which ends on 'destroy.' " She prefers the vigor of the latter song, however morbid. "...There is a terse energy and complexity of feeling [in 'The Sick Rose']," she concludes, "that is in the end more compelling than the visionary balance of 'Night.' "
Stanley Gardner (Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced, 1986) is the first to analyze "The Sick Rose" 's etching and its play, or lack of it, with the text. He considers the piece's text and illustration wholly and intrinsically distinct. "The illustration is neither a restatement of the textual message, nor a simplification," he argues, "nor does it originate from a common source, as if the rose garden yielded both poem and design." The etching invokes images of death (the impaled woman, her grieving companion, the drooping rose) which form a "framework of harsh limitation" around the text, which, Gardner argues, further hones the text's already pessimistic message. He eschews any connection between the insects in the illustration, which he considers caterpillars, and the text's "invisible worm." He relates the worm instead to the eighteenth century conception of pestilence, which was supposed to "[fly] in the night, in the howling storm" as it does. For Gardner, the disease the worm spreads is "Urizenic control," "the intellectual and social effects of false religion." Its character is spiritual, internal rather than physical, as in the illustration, because it is "invisible"; "the inward-turning nature of the corruption speaks for its spiritual genesis."
Harold Pagliaro (Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's Songs, 1987) reads "The Sick Rose" as the speaker's psychoanalysis of that Rose. The Rose is only seen as sick, he argues, from the speaker's vantage; she doesn't realize her own illness, a lack of self-awareness which necessitates the speaker's voicing of the song. Pagliaro assumes the speaker diagnoses the Rose's sickness as a much more extreme form of the repression Gleckner and Hirsch note, as "the remoteness from her consciousness of the Rose's sexual life." The lyric he speaks envisions the kind of perverse sexual nightmare he imagines haunts the Rose. Pagliaro argues that the Rose has suppressed her own sexuality too thoroughly to engage it through masturbation. Her only outlet for sexual feelings, he suggests, is wholly sub-conscious erotic dreaming. Even in dreams, Rose's sexuality is bridled; her sexual fantasies as often as not lapse into self-abasing nightmares in which her partner's penis metamorphoses into a loathsome worm. As a defense against sexuality, Pagliaro declares, the Rose "redefines [her desire's] object grotesquely downward in the terms of her guilty and frightened feelings, in painful compensation for pleasure."
Nathan Cervo ("Blake's 'The Sick Rose' ", 1990) considers "The Sick Rose" "one of the most enigmatic and baffling poems in the English language..." He reads it as a Christian allegory in which the Rose signifies the human soul, blessed by the gift of salvation, yet vexed nonetheless by sin (the "invisible worm"), a connotation he believes Blake derived from Dante's Divine Comedy. "The worm is the Other," Cervo argues, "and serves to existentialize the Rose," to lend substance to her salvation and refute the notion of predestination. Cervo also sees the word "crimson," used with vaguely sexual connotation to describe the Rose's "bed" as a pun playing on its derivation from the Sanskrit words krmi (worm) and jan (generate.)
Michael Srigley ("The Sickness of Blake's Rose", 1992) validates the "invisible worm"'s presumed role as a transmitter of disease by discussing it intertextually. He notes "a long tradition of various nocturnal worm-like spirits that can travel to a human being and induce some form of abnormal state," running through literary works including St. Augustine's Civitas Dei, Boccacio's De deis gentium and Orlando Furioso, and Spenser's Fairie Queen. He links the worm to Benedictus Pererius' notion that nocturnal emissions are caused by succubi, female demons who posses men while they sleep. He relates the worm as an explicitly sexual figure to Thomas Vaughn's alchemical allegory Lumen de lumine (1652), a work Blake "almost certainly knew." Vaughn describes a hazardous "Region of Fantasy," of erotic dreaming, inhabited by flying worms, among other monsters. Srigley concludes though that the most likely source of "The Sick Rose" 's worm is the sixteenth century alchemist Paracelsus' strange concept of the telepathic imagination. Paracelsus believed that the uncontrolled imagination could produce telepathic emanations of various kinds, including a "false sperm" or "corrupted salt" similar to Blake's worm, which could act out the dreamer's will. The Rose, Srigley feels, may be besieged by sinister and unwanted sexual emanations from her admirers.
James Mellard ("Faulkner's Miss Emily and Blake's 'Sick Rose,' " 1986) cites "The Sick Rose" as an intertextual source for William Faulkner's story "A Rose For Emily" (1930). In Faulkner's story, Miss Emily Grierson, an eccentrically reclusive spinster, poisons Homer Baron, a boorish Northerner who has apparently rebuffed her affections, and then keeps his corpse in her bed for forty years, a fetish of her obsessive desire. Mellard links the seldom-seen Miss Emily with the "invisible worm" and Homer Baron with the Rose ("For Emily") whose is "destroyed" by her "dark secret love." On the evidence of Miss Emily's increasing corpulence after Homer Baron's disappearance, her growing physical likeness to the worm, he comes to the morbid conclusion that she engages in "saphrofagia" with his corpse, not "merely" necrophilia, that she consumes his flesh as a worm does rose petals.
"The Sick Rose" inspired Japanese novelist Sato Haruro's 1918 novel Den'en No Yuutsu (Gloom In The Country), published in English as The Sick Rose: A Pastoral Elegy, whose protagonist is haunted by a voice declaiming its opening line, "O Rose thou art sick."
--John Murphy (December 1995)
Meyerstein, E. H. W. " 'A True Maid' and 'The Sick Rose.' " The Times Literary Supplement. June 22, 1946.
Anshutz, H. L. and D. W. Cummings. "Blake's 'The Sick Rose.'" The Explicator. Vol. 29, No. 4. Dec. !970.
Gleckner, Robert F.The Piper and The Bard: A Study of William Blake. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1959.
Hirsch, Eric D., Jr.Innocence and Experience: An Introduction To Blake. 1964. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.
Gillham, D. G.Blake's Contrary States: The Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience As Dramatic Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.
Holloway, John. Blake: The Lyric Poetry. London: Edward Arnold, 1968.
Ostriker, Alicia. "Metrics: Pattern and Variatio." Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Natoli, Joseph. "Phenomenological Psychology and Literary Interpretation." Psychological Perspectives on Literature: Freudian Dissidents and Non-Freudians: A Casebook. Ed. Joseph Natoli. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1984.
Glen, Heather. Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's Songs and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.
Gardner, Stanley. Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced. New York: St. Martin's, 1986.
Pagliaro, Harold. Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's Songs. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1987.
Cervo, Nathan. "Blake's 'The Sick Rose.' " The Explicator. Vol. 48, No. 4. Summer 1990. 253-254.
Srigley, Michael. "The Sickness of Blake's Rose." Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. Vol. 26, No. 1. Summer 1992. 4-8.
Mellard, James M.. "Faulkner's Miss Emily and Blake's Sick Rose: 'Invisible Worm,' Nachtraglichkeit, and Retrospective Gothic." The Faulkner Journal. Vol. 2. No. 1. Fall 1986. 37-45.
Sato Haruro. The Sick Rose: A Pastoral Elegy. Trans. Francis B. Tenny. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1993.
2Joseph H. Wicksteed identifies "The Sick Rose" as representative of "earthly love in its sickness" (157). Wicksteed then does a reading of the poem based on this premise and assigns the corresponding symbols illustrating this with each of the images in the poem. He also suggests that Blake had a specific woman in mind for the rose to represent.
C. M. Bowra, in The Romantic Imagination, posits that "perhaps the worst thing in experience as Blake sees it, is that it destroys love and affection (40). He does not specifically name "The Sick Rose" as he elaborates on this idea, but the poem does seem suggestive of this kind of destruction. However, Bowra does consider "The Sick Rose" as exemplary of Blake's skill of composing poems that are in "the highest degree lyrical" (43). Bowra lauds Blake's ability "for distilling a complex imaginative idea into a few marvelously telling words" (44). Bowra offers a few concise readings of the poem (such as the depiction of experience destroying innocence), but he also advocates other possible readings. The most important aspect of the poetry for Bowra, though, is the way in which it reveals Blake's mastery of the lyric: "[He] sees with so piercing and concentrated a vision that the poem has its own independent life and needs nothing to supplement" (44). Thus, the poem is part of a whole unit of superior lyric songs, yet powerfully independent of each one.
Robert F. Gleckner also offers a reading in which experience can be considered the corrupter of experience. Gleckner suggests that enslavement is one aspect of experience: "Enslave or be enslaved" (261) Bowra claims. Bowra's reading of "The Sick Rose" identifies the night of the "howling storm" as the "night of experience" (261) in which "enslaved man (and woman) secretly practice the joys of day" (262). Ultimately, Bowra asserts that love is sick because it does not contain "the vision necessary to see what love really is" (262).
Hazard Adams takes a different approach to reading "The Sick Rose" than most critics by cautioning the reader that often one "overlook[s] the fact that a literary image primarily imitates its previous usages and secondarily what it denotes in the outer world or in the realm of ideas" (13). Adams begins his analysis with examining the rose, and by reminding the reader that in a "literary world where the rose is seen archetypally, all things have human form" (14). Thus he allows for the rose to be anthropomorphized and able to become part of the speaker. He carries his idea one step further by suggesting that the speaker always "address[es] some aspect of himself" when speaking to an object. Adams also claims this same identification with the worm as with the rose. He further warns against reading the poem as a simple allegory of sexual seduction; Blake considered that "allegory can contain 'some vision'"(15). Thus, it seems that there is more to the poem than just a surface level reading. Adams concludes by stating that when reading Blake's poems, the reader should consider "minute particulars," "perspective, to related images in Blake's other works, and to symbolic conventions in literature" (15-16).
In 1964, E. D. Hirsch posited a similar idea that was initially voiced by Bowra by arguing that "The Sick Rose," although a poem about "Beauty destroyed by Evil" (233), it is also about a sickness manifested by the rose's ignorance of her disease" (234). Hirsch identifies several contrary elements in the poem that bespeak the perverted disease ("destructive of secret love [and] its unnaturalness") that plagues the rose (for example, "dark secrecy with crimson joy") (235). Hirsch concludes by reading the accompanying plate as illustrating that when "secret love enters, life and joy depart" (235).
D. G. Gillham identifies "The Sick Rose" as one of Blake's poems that specifically details the "sexual act and the sexual parts" (163), but that the reader must fill in the details based on personal experience (163). Gillham also argues that "The Sick Rose" offers a satire on "an unhealthy attitude to sexual love" (165). He further suggests that sex is approached positively in the poem because the worm, while "relentless and without pity, is . . . not furtive or mean" (165). Gillham claims that the line "O Rose, thou art sick!" reveals the speaker's concern, and that the "dark secret love" is a part of this concern. It seems that Gillham's perspective is a bit difficult to accept completely because the worm is still the destructive agent in the poem. He also identifies "The Sick Rose" as a less controlled poem than, for example, "The Rose Tree," and that it illustrates the trend of Experience for poems "to expose motives and impulses normally concealed" (172).
John Holloway also approaches an analysis of "The Sick Rose" as did Bowra and Adams in Blake: Lyric Poetry by warning the reader against unnecessarily complicating the poems by not beginning with the simple language of the text and its images. He claims that "the language of the poem does its work by being somehow transparent; and the subject gains pregnancy of meaning . . . because of how it stands in a revelatory position . . . seen across the whole spectrum of our existence" (24). He explains that "The Sick Rose" is a popular poem because of the simple tension between the beautiful rose and the "secret, pallid . . . repulsive" worm (25). Holloway also argues that "The Sick Rose" is a retort to poems by Bunyan and Watts. Blake seems to identify religion as an "enemy to life" (if the worm is read to symbolize religion and the rose as life), unlike the poems of Bunyan and Watts that advocate "virtue not pleasure" (44).
In 1969, Alicia Ostriker investigated some of Blake's Songs through metrical analysis. She asserts that in "The Sick Rose" the combination of measures, the "iamb-anapest meters"(26) "gives the impression of the strictest unity where Blake is in fact being the most free" (26). Blake's device of "substituting anapests for iambs" (25) revealed his ability to make a new pattern the standard. She also suggests that "The Sick Rose" uses substitution, and in doing so, "gives the impression of strictest unity where Blake is in fact being most free" (26).
In the same compilation of critical essays as Ostriker's essay, Martin Price took a more standard approach to "The Sick Rose" by analyzing the poem's place in Experience. He comments that in Experience, the attitude toward suffering is key in determining the final outcome of the speakers: "those who are frustrated and corrupted by [suffering], surrender; those who seek their freedom and keep their vision alive, rebel" (44). Price seems to categorize "The Sick Rose" as an example of surrender. He comments that "the secrecy becomes disease. The 'crimson joy' suggests the rose's complicity both in passion and in secrecy; disguise destroys from within" (45).
In a short note in The Explicator, H. L. Anshutz and D. W. Cummings question whether Blake's "The Sick Rose" could be a reacting to Matthew Prior's "A True Maid." For Blake, repressed sexuality leads to perversion, and, instead of as in Prior's poem where the virgin claims that she will die if she loses her virginity, Blake's virgin "would cry, with Oothoon, 'When I copulate, says Rose, I'll live!'."
Michael Riffaterre also centers his analysis of "The Sick Rose" in "The Self-sufficient Text" by "using internal evidence only [to analyze the poem] and to determine to what extent the literary text is self-sufficient. It seems to [Riffaterre] that a proper reading entails no more than a knowledge of the language" (39). Riffaterre identifies psychological, philosophical, and genetic interpretations (connected to "mythological tradition") as "aiming outwards." These approaches find the meaning of the text in the relationship of its images to other texts" (40). Riffaterre argues for a more internal reading of the poems. Riffaterre emphasizes the importance of the relationships between words as opposed to their "corresponding realities" (40). For example, he states that the "flower or the fruit is a variant of the worm's dwelling constructed through destruction. Thus, as a word, worm is meaningful only in the context of flower, and flower only in the context of worm" (41). After Riffaterre's reading and interpretation of the poem, he concludes that "The Sick Rose" is composed of "polarized polarities" (44) which convey the central object of the poem, the actual phrase, "the sick rose" (44). He asserts that "because the text provides all the elements necessary to our identifying these verbal artifacts, we do not have to resort to traditions or symbols found outside the text" (44). Thus, "The Sick Rose" is a self-sufficient text.
Paul Robinson's "What Psychology Won't Explain" posits as only a "minor interpretive strategy" (36), and that readers should use a more "universalist vein" (46) in analyzing a text. Robinson reads "The Sick Rose" using a universalist mode of interpretation. He rejects the historical, psychological, culturalist, and biographical approaches to understanding a poem that he sees as primarily dealing with the "human condition" (46). In dealing with issues of innocence and experience, "The Sick Rose" confronts two of the most universal states of human existence, Robinson claims. Thus, it makes the most sense to approach the poem in this way.
Zachary Leader identifies "isolation and self-absorption" as characteristic of life in Experience. In a brief comment on "The Sick Rose," Leader points out that this isolation is illustrated in the accompanying plate to the poem because "neither of the 'rosy buds forlorn' in the top half of the plate is aware of the other's existence" (153-54). This seems also to suggest not only the surface level isolation, but also of the absence of interpersonal relations.
Stanley Gardner begins his analysis of "The Sick Rose" through a study of the plate which accompanies the poem. He claims that the "illustration is neither a restatement of the textual message, nor a simplification. . . . The illustration arises from the nucleus of the poem, but proceeds to a separate statement, with a purpose distinct from the text" (146). Gardner explains that the sense of enclosure in the etching reflects the "containment of the imagination" (146). He reads the poem as a commentary on physical and religious decay.
James M. Mellard suggests that "The Sick Rose" could be a possible source or allusion for William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." He reads the story as a kind of "innovated version of the Gothic" (37). Mellard proposes that "the allusion to Blake is a direct reflection of the retrospective Gothic form of the story" (37) in which the realization that the story is Gothic occurs after the piece is finished. He connects the two texts by identifying similar symbols or associations in both. For example, Miss Emily can be seen as the worm or as "murderous love" (38). Mellard asserts that in "the core of the Gothic is the fusion of the two elements of sex and death" (43). The parallels between Blake's poem and Faulkner's story are obvious given that criterion.
In 1987, Elizabeth Langland "[wed] feminist and formal-thematic methodologies to analyze Blake's 'The Sick Rose'" (225) in "Blake's Feminist Revision of Literary Tradition in 'The Sick Rose'." In her consideration of the "critical tradition" (228) as a tool of study, Langland reviews the interpretations of other critics such as Hirsch and Bloom. Based on the feminine critique method, Langland suggests ht a reading in the critical tradition may reveal "the suspicion and possible hostility . . . toward a certain kind of woman" (231). Her investigation then focuses on the speakers in the poem, and from a feminist perspective, she claims that the poem is read "in the context of a patriarchal speaker" (231). This reveals the way in which expectations affect a reading and assumptions about the text. Thirdly, Langland examines "the ways language, syntax, . . . and illuminations work to establish new readings" (228). Langland also includes discussions on the revisions of the poems and how they affect the poem as well as the reader's response/interpretation generally.
Harold Pagliaro centers his discussion of "The Sick Rose" on the observation that the rose, like other characters in Experience, is prevented from any form of self-discovery, and this "reinforces the idea and the value of Self-examination" (13). Pagliaro then reads "The Sick Rose" as exemplary of a trapped character controlled by his/her past (14). He suggests that the main concern of the poem is the "corruption of sexuality by guilt" (65). Pagliaro discusses the illustration to the poem, and he comments on obvious thematic connections between text and etching.
In a brief comment on emphasizing perspective when explicating Songs, Brian Wilkie posits that the Songs can be read as both "descriptions of the world or as revelations . . . of the states of the speakers' souls" (116). He uses "The Sick Rose" as an example by stating that the rose "attacks the evil of secret, shame-ridden love, but it also projects the voice of an alarmist who is himself sick with desire" (116).
David Lindsay, in Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience, identifies "The Sick Rose" as "anticipat[ing] the first two colour prints in linking the Fall of Adam and Eve with an 'invisible worm' who is both Elohim and Satan" (79). Lindsay places this analysis in the context of a more general investigation into biblical influences in Blake's works.
Nathan Cervo proposes that Blake's "The Sick Rose" was taken from Dante's Divine Comedy. He identifies the Rose as "the social crown of life" (253). Cervo reads the poem as a comment against predestination and justification by faith. He also discusses early sources of the word crimson and compares Blake's red rose to Dante's white rose in Paradiso.
Michael Srigley advocates for a close reading of the "The Sick Rose" that focuses on its "minute particulars." He traces various meanings attached to the worm and its suggestions of sexual disease. Srigley finds in writings by Paracelsus "either the main source of or a striking analog to the ideas used by Blake in 'The Sick Rose'." He further discusses Blake's belief that sexual repression (advocated by the Church) led to "sexual sickness" and how this seems to be addressed in "The Sick Rose." Srigley concludes by suggesting that Blake, in the poem, also offers action as the remedy for curing this kind of disease.
--Beth Ann Neighbors (December 1995)
Adams, Hazard. William Blake. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1963.
Anshutz, H. L. and D. W. Cummings. "Blake's 'The Sick Rose'." Explicator 29 (1970) Item 32.
Bowra, C. M. The Romantic Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1949.
Cervo, Nathan. "Blake's 'The Sick Rose'." Explicator 48 (1990): 253-54.
Gardner, Stanley. Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced. London: Althone, 1986.
Gillham, D. G. Blake's Contrary States. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.
Gleckner, Robert F. The Piper and the Bard. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1959.
Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1964.
Holloway, John. Blake: The Lyric Poetry. London: Arnold, 1968.
Langland, Elizabeth. "Blake's Feminist Revision of Literary Tradition in 'The Sick Rose'." In Critical Paths. Ed. Dan Miller, Mark Bracher, and Donald Ault. Durham: Duke UP, 1987. 225-43.
Leader, Zachary. Reading Blake's Songs. Boston: Routledge, 1981.
Lindsay, David W. Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities P International, 1989.
Mellard, James M. "Faulkner's Miss Emily and Blake's 'Sick Rose': 'Invisible Worm,' Nachtraglichkeit, and Retrospective Gothic." Faulkner Journal 12.1 (1986): 37-45.
Riffaterre, Michael. "The Self-sufficient text." Diacritics 3.3 (1973): 39-45.
Robinson, Paul. "What Psychology Won't Explain." Michigan Quarterly Review 19 (1980): 36-50.
Ostriker, Alicia. "Metrics: Pattern and Variation." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1969. 10-29.
Pagliaro, Harold. Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's Songs. University Park: Penn State UP, 1987.
Price, Martin. "The Vision of Innocence." In Twentieth Century Approaches to Teaching Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1969. 39-51.
Srigley, Michael. "The Sickness of Blake's Rose." Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. 26 (1992): 4-8.
Wicksteed, Joseph, H. Blake's Innocence and Experience. London: Dent, 1928.
Wilkie, Brian. "The Point-of-View Approach to Songs." In Approaches to Teaching Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Robert F. Gleckner and Mark L. Greenberg. New York: MLA, 1989. 115-19.
3 Blake's "The Sick Rose" has been the subject of many different types of critical discussions, and the poem's tantalizing obscurity of meaning has fostered a variety of critical opinions as well. S. Foster Damon's 1924 text, Willi am Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols, opens the critical discussion of the poem by giving what seems now a standard reading of the rose as the flower of Love and the worm as Flesh. Damon focuses his critical energies upon the idea of spiritual love being corrupted by fleshly (sexual) love. According to the critic, Blake believes in an innocent, pure-minded love, and the worm represents the lust/love of experience that comes in the night to destroy the "innocent love."
C. M. Bowra's 1949 work, The Romantic Imagination, considers the poem primarily as a sign of Blake's imaginative genius. Bowra asserts that the poem reveals Blake's "gift for distilling a complex imaginative idea into a few words" (44). Bowra contends that the poem can have a multiplicity of readings - "the destruction of love by selfishness, of innocence by experience, of spiritual life by spiritual death" (44); yet, perhaps because of his focus, Bowra never commits to any of those readings.
Robert Gleckner briefly considers the poem in his 1959 text, The Piper and the Bard. Gleckner agrees with Damon about the night and the howling storm of the poem being "the terrible night of experience " (262), but he argues that the poem "does not merely reveal love (the spiritual) corrupted by the flesh (the mundane)" (262). Gleckner contends that the rose is love-sick because "she" does not possess the vision to see what love truly is (262); however , Gleckner does not expand upon this observation within his commentary.
"The Sick Rose" serves as the testing ground for Reuben Arthur Brower's theories about poetry in his 1962 work, The Fields of Light. Brower's introduction explains his key terms, "imaginative organization" and "item of expe rience," through an analysis of the poem. His analysis actually adds little to the critical discussion about "The Sick Rose;" ultimately, that analysis merely emphasizes the variety of readings open to the poem's reader.
Harold Bloom's 1963 text, Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument, actually continues Gleckner's examination of the rose and its responsibility for its own fate. According to Bloom, the "dark secret love" of the rose is a "jealous lust for possession of the Devourer, the reasonable Selfhood that quests only to appropriate" (135). Thus Bloom can argue that the rose is less innocent than might first appear to the reader. Finally, by relating t he rose to both Leutha and Enitharmon, Bloom also examines it in the context of Blake's mythology.
1963 also marks the release date of Hazard Adams'sWilliam Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems. In his treatment of the poem, Adams argues for a reading of "The Sick Rose" as metaphor rather than simile. According to Adams, the rose is a "literary rose living in a literary universe, the product of literary conventions" (13-14). Thus Adams can ultimately assert that both rose and worm are aspects of the speaker in conflict with one another. Finally, Adams demonstrates t hat the plate for "The Sick Rose" contains an "interpretable allegory" in which the worm represents masculine sexuality and the rose represents female sexuality.
According to E. D. Hirsch in his 1964 work, Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake, the idea of sickness itself serves as the imaginative center of the poem. Hirsch argues that the rose's sickness is a result of love enjoyed secretly and illicitly instead of purely and openly. Hirsch also discusses the idea of perversion with respect to the love that is life-destroying rather than live-giving. Finally, Hirsch concludes that the evil that destroys the rose ari ses at least partly from within the rose itself.
A discussion of "The Sick Rose" appears in an interesting context in T. R. Henn's 1966 text, The Apple and the Spectroscope. The work is actually a series of lectures on poetry designed for science, and a reading of the poem is included in the lecture on symbolism. Obviously Henn's lecture makes use of rather straight symbolic equations (rose=woman; worm=sex, lust) in its treatment of the poem. Henn does discuss the presence of layers of meaning within the poem, and he theo rizes that those differing layers might be paradoxical while still equally valid. Finally, Henn concludes that the poem's "radiation of meaning" (41) marks it as great literature.
D. G. Gillham's 1966 work, Blake's Contrary States: The "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" as Dramatic Poems, focuses on "The Sick Rose" as one of Blake's "sexual poems." According to Gillham, the poem is a satirical depiction of an unhealthy attitude towards sexual love. Gillham continues by defending his designation of the poem as "satirical," and he concludes by stating that the poem suggests "the deep and intricate emotions that the sexual act involves despite th e secrecy and the possessive taboos with which Experience surrounds the passion" (166).
John Holloway's 1968 text, Blake: The Lyric Poetry, contains only a very brief commentary upon "The Sick Rose." Holloway asserts that the poem is memorable because it "presents us with the feud between the most conspicuous, opulent and beautiful thing we know, and what is most secret, pallid . . . and repulsive" (25).
Herbert L. Anshutz and Donald Cummings co-author a note about "The Sick Rose" in a 1970 issue of The Explicator. The two critics argue that Blake's poem may be a reaction to Matthew Prior's "A True Maid." According to the Anshutz and Cummings, the virginity celebrated in Prior's first couplet would be "whoredom" to Blake: "To repress the natural sexual impulse because of false notions of chastity leads, Blake believes, to perversion" (Item 32).
John Neubauer approaches the poem from a different perspective in his 1972 article, "The Sick Rose as an Aesthetic Idea: Kant, Blake, and the Symbol in Literature." Neubauer discusses Kant's belief that the aesthetic idea is "a representation of the imagination which occasions much thought, without, however, any definite thought" (175). Neubauer then turns to Blake's poem and asserts that it is a poem of "pure poetic idiom" (171); in other words, the poem is entirely self-contai ned. Neubauer then relates Kant's aesthetic idea and Blake's poetry when he argues that the ideas within "The Sick Rose" are "wholly embodied in the image of the poem itself and cannot be put into conceptual language" (174).
Michael Riffaterre presents another critical angle from which to explore the poem in his 1973 article, "The Self-Sufficient Text." Riffaterre contends that modern criticism contains to many references to external evidence (i.e., themes, motifs), and he proposes to analyze "The Sick Rose" using only internal evidence. Riffaterre then summarizes other approaches to the poem that he labels too "externally focused" (40). Finally, Riffaterre turns to the poem by discussing the polar ity inherent in the relationship between rose (health) and worm (sickness). According to Riffaterre, the two poles are related through the interiority and inversion of their features, and the meaning of the poem is entirely contained within those poles.
Ralph Dillon adds another possible source for "The Sick Rose" in his note from a 1974 issue of American Notes and Queries. Dillon asserts that the poem echoes Jeremiah 4.30 in both "its diction and i n its theme of self-destructive hypocrisy" (157). Dillon discusses the worm as a destructive force in both Scripture and the poem, and he concludes by asserting that both works emphasize deceit, "a discrepancy between appearance and reality" (157).
"The Sick Rose" becomes the test case for yet another critical method in Joseph Natoli's 1984 article, "Phenomenological Psychology and Literary Interpretation." In the article, Natoli first explicates the phenomenological approach to literature by asserting that such an approach assumes that literature is reflective of real life. Natoli then explores the character of the speaker of the poem in order to discern the mind of the poet who composes the work. According to Natoli, the s peaker's sickness results from guilt about a dark, shameful, sexual love (a theory that also informs the work of Damon, Bloom, and Hirsch). Natoli then concludes his discussion of the poem b y observing that the speaker appears mired in Judao-Christian notions of morality and sexuality.
In his 1986 work, Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced, Stanley Gardner considers the poem with the theme of disease foremost in his mind. According to Gardner, both illustration and poem deal with the theme of disease, although each "proceeds to a separate statement" (146). Thus Gardner can assert that the poem begins for Blake in his sense of dismay at the spiritual sickness around him. Gardner continues by theorizing that each emphasis in the poem is "slanted towards physical invasion and decay" (148). Finally, Gardner concludes with a humanistic turn by stating that the poem reveals Blake's "timeless com passion for our state of being" (148).
A 1986 article that actually treats Blake's poem quite sparingly is James M. Mellard's intriguingly titled "Faulkner's Miss Emily and Blake's 'Sick Rose': 'Invisible Worm,' Nachtraglischkeit, and Retrospective Gothic." Mellard's c hief consideration is Faulkner's short story, "A Rose for Emily," and he actually spares little ink on Blake's poem. He does discuss the relationship between Miss Emily and Homer Barron in the context of the relationship between rose and worm. Finally, Mellard does rather vaguely examine "The Sick Rose" as an example of the Gothic form.
Still another critical methodology is tested on "The Sick Rose" in Elizabeth Langland's 1987 article, "Blake's Feminist Revision of Literary Tradition in 'The Sick Rose.'" Langland first discusses the "feminist critique" that she w ill use to examine the poem, defining her methodology as "the historically grounded inquiry which probes the ideological assumptions of literary phenomena" (225). She briefly examines the history of criticism concerning the poem, noting the overwhelming emphasis on the rose's guilt and the rose's association with nature. She then convincingly demonstrates the sympathy shown by male critics for the fallen state of the rose, citing Bloom and Hirsch as examples. Langland also reveals the stereotype of the pure virgin that rests solidly in many interpretations of the poem. Finally, Langland theorizes that the "secrecy and corruption" in the poem are a "product not of the rose, but of the speaker" (237). By attri buting the "secrecy and corruption" to a dramatic construct, Langland can conclude that the poem "shows us Blake experimenting with literary tradition and its patriarchal assumptions" (237).
Harold Pagliaro's 1987 text, Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's Songs, explores the character of the speaker from a psychological perspective. According to Pagliaro, the speaker's statements are "rhetorically disciplined" (66) and spoken with great urgency. Pagliaro theorizes that the speaker feels compelled to tell the rose about his discovery of her sickness, implying that the rose is unaware of the sickness. Pagliaro states, "There is a solid likelihood that the sexua l drama outlined in the poem is internal, part of Rose's dream or fantasy life, and that she knows little or nothing about it" (65). Thus the speaker becomes the psychologist, encouraging the rose to fight through her own self-imposed barriers. Pagliaro concludes by asserting that the powerful tension between dark elements in the poem results from the rose's revelation and subsequent self-examination.
Another possible source for the poem is revealed in a 1990 issue of The Explicator by Nathan Cervo. According to Cervo, the rose could be borrowed from Dante, specifically from the image of the white rose in Paradiso. Cervo asserts that the rose in Blake's poem would then signify "not Beauty, or Love, or life's vulnerability, but the social crown of life, gallantly achieved by the blessed" (253). Cervo finally theorizes that the contrast between Blake's red rose ( 254) and Dante's white rose could be the contrast between "a worldly, formal, ecclesiastical institution" (254) and "the supposed purity of early, or primitive, Christianity" (254).
Finally, one might note Sato Haruo's 1993 work, The Sick Rose: A Pastoral Elegy. Sato Haruo is a novelist, poet, and critic who lived from 1892-1964, and while the three works in his collection only take Blake's poem as thei r inspiration, they do share in common with "The Sick Rose" the image of a soul in disarray.
--Penn Perry (December 1995)
Damon, S. Foster. William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols. Reprinted from 1924 ed. New York: Peter Smith, 1947. 280-81.
Bloom, Harold. Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963. 135. Hirsch, E. D.Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1964. 233-35.
Pagliaro, Harold. Selfhood and Redemption in Blake's Songs. University Park: The Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1987. 64-67.
Gillham, D. G.Blake's Contrary States: The "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" as Dramatic Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966. 163-67.
Gardner, Stanley. Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced. London: The Athlone Press, 1986. 145-58.
Holloway, John. Blake: The Lyric Poetry. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 1968. 24-25.
Gleckner, Robert. The Piper & the Bard. Detroit: Wayne State U. Press, 1959. 262-63.
Anshutz, Herbert L., and Donald Cummings. "Blake's 'The Sick Rose.'" The Explicator 29 (1970), Item 32.
Cervo, Nathan. "Blake's 'The Sick Rose.'" The Explicator 48 (1990): 253-54.
Neubauer, John. "The Sick Rose as an Aesthetic Idea: Kant, Blake, and the Symbol in Literature." Irrationalism in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Harold E. Pagliaro. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve UP, 1972. 167-79.
Dillon, Ralph G. "Source for Blake's 'The Sick Rose'?" American Notes and Queries 12 (1974), 157-58.
Langland, Elizabeth. "Blake's Feminist Revision of Literary Tradition in 'The Sick Rose.'" Critical Paths: Blake and the Argument of Method. Ed. Dan Miller, Mark Bracher, and Donald Ault. Durham: Duke UP, 1987. 225-43.< p> Mellard, James M. "Faulkner's Miss Emily and Blake's 'Sick Rose': 'Invisible Worm,' Nachtraglischkeit, and Retrospective Gothic." The Faulkner Journal 2 (1986): 37-45.
Riffaterre, Michael. "The Self-Sufficient Text." Diacritics 3 (1973): 39-45.
Henn, T. R.The Apple and the Spectroscope. New York: Norton, 1966. 38-48.
Brower, Reuben Arthur. The Fields of Light: An Experiment in Critical Reading. New York: Oxford UP, 1962. 6-13.
Haruo, Sato. The Sick Rose: A Pastoral Elegy. Trans. Francis B. Tenny. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1993.
Natoli, Joseph. "Phenomenological Psychology and Literary Interpretation." Psychological Perspectives on Literature: Freudian Dissidents and Non-Freudians. Ed. Joseph Natoli. Hamden: Archon, 1984. 198-224.
Bowra, C. M.The Romantic Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1949. 44.
Adams, Hazard. William Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1963. 13-15.
Prior, Matthew. The couplet from "A True Maid" cited as a source for Blake's "A Sick Rose" is printed below:No, No; for my Virginity, When I lose that, says Rose, I'll dye: Behind the Elmes, last Night, cry'd Dick, Rose, were You not extreamly Sick?
Jeremiah 4.30. The passage from Jeremiah 4.30 is here reprinted in its entirety (from the King James Version of the Bible):And when thou art spoiled, what wilt thou do? Though thou clothest thyself with crimson, though thou deckest thee with ornaments of gold, though thou rentest thy face with painting, in vain shalt thou make thyself fair; thy lovers will despise thee, they will seek thy life.