O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
This poem is a part of William Blake’s Songs of Experience published in 1794. The above image is the hand illustration of the poem as it appeared in the 1794 edition. Though a little one, this poem like Blake’s other works this poem is loaded with meaning. Just give them as the key words and you will find a lot of entries explaining the meaning of the poem. Wikipedia article also gives multiple meanings to the metaphors used in the poem. Some other commentaries are here and here. As is with other things people see things in their own perspective, with the Experience that they have. No wonder that Blake put this poem of his in the Songs of Experience.
[I first read about Blake in the Rama Series by Arthur C Clarke. Blake’s Tyger is recited there, after seeing the vastness of the alien space ship which is named Rama.]
We as humans try to understand the things that we see and experience as a part of the mental structures that already exist in our minds. Cognitively this is the only way in which can survive in this world. Try to imagine a world in which no new things that you see or experience are not a part of what you have in your mind.
With the comments from others apart, Blake produces two strong metaphorical views about the poem in me. These two views share lines of thoughts and they don’t share some. The interpretation that we can do of these lines depends on the view of the world that we have. Everyone tries to look with the experience that they have at back of their mind. No wonder many people don’t agree to what they perceive in literature.
So what are the interpretations that one can make from these lines?
[One thing is for sure, now it does not matter what Blake had in mind when he wrote this poem. The readers now can make their own interpretations, about what Blake had to say, whether he meant the same thing or not is an entirely different matter.]
O Rose, thou art sick!
In this line the word Rose is a metaphor for woman. If we take a closer look at the Rose in the illustration by Blake, we see a feminine figure metamorphosing from the Rose. So the rest of the line would imply that the woman is sick. But what kind of sickness is this?
The invisible worm That flies in the night,
In the howling storm, Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy.
What can be an invisible worm? The invisible worm is the cause of the sickness of the rose. The description that Blake adds is that it flies in the night. One of the interpretations is that the worm is an metaphor for the phallus and the sickness of the Rose that is being referred to is a STD. Another of the interpretation is that the it is the act of losing of the virginity and becoming impregnated. The worm seen in this sense is the phallus. As this happens in the night the worm is seen to be flying in the night. One more interpretation for the invisible worm would be the semen, which “flies” in the night.
The howling storm in the night can very well represent the screams of pleasure or pain. In which the woman is ruined [the life destroyed], as she is now impregnated.
The word crimson is also used metaphorically. It can represent both love and blood. For the color of love is red, and that too a dark one. So is the color of blood. The bed of crimson joy can mean the actual bed where the blood of the virgin has been spilled. The other is the red womb of the woman, which has been impregnated [found] by the invisible worm [sperm].
Another interpretation is that the rose symbolizes love, and the worm but a troubled soul. The worm flying around in the night is a lover long lost but never out of one’s mind. The lines
And his dark secret love,
Does thy life destroy.
May represent lovers who may not have been of actually been together, but a unified by a secret bond. These lines can also be taken to represent a secret lover who has married another. But the love still persists and is taking its toll on the woman, who is now in confusion [howling storm], as the secret lover has now [found] a place deep in her heart [the crimson bed]. Hence the life of the woman due to it [secret lover ] stands to ruin.
These are some of the few interpretations of Blake’s Sick Rose, whether you agree or not it depends on you. Many of the interpretations may seem far fetched, but then Blake is such an author that you need to stretch mentally a bit in order to grasp the depth of his thoughts.
Whatever the interpretations, this is one of the most imagination provoking and concise writing I have come across. Blake makes your imagination run wild and the various scenarios unfold which makes these 8 lines come to life.