'The Sick Rose"

An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism

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.