Week 192: The Sick Rose, by William Blake

I find this one of Blake’s most haunting poems but also one of the most troublesome, because despite my own best efforts and the efforts of others I don’t feel that I am any closer to understanding it beyond what seems the fairly safe bet that it is about human sexuality rather than horticulture.

So just stop worrying? The trouble is that once you abandon the quest for meaning, can you be sure of being able to distinguish truly inspired utterance from manufactured gibberish? Well, I don’t think this poem is gibberish, but why not? After all, invisible flying worms seem to fall some way short of sense as we know it.

So, if I can’t figure out what was going in Blake’s head when he wrote it, can I at least figure out what is going in mine when I read it? Not really – I only know that it passes Housman’s test for poetry: that it makes the hairs stand on end.

The Sick Rose

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.

William Blake

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