In 1794 the poet William Blake published his “Songs of Experience,” a collection of poems (complete with his own hand-colored illustrations and illuminated borders) of which one is “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 (1794)
In the last couple of days I read two poems by poet-bloggers, Shay Simmons and Susie Clevenger, inspired by the former’s recent Word Garden Word List, that caused me to revisit Blake’s poem which turns upon its head the rose as a longstanding symbol of love. Remember the sanguine notes of notable philanderer and Scots poet Robert Burns, “A Red, Red Rose,” also published in the very same year of 1794?
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.Robert Burns (1794)
Such words, uttered with the smooth-talking perfection of a notorious ladies-man, can hide a deceiving heart, or trap an unwitting one into a firestorm of pain, which leads me back to Blake’s poem.
Enigmatic as it is, the poem like the winged worm it speaks of, nestles into our mind the suspicion that beauty or love in this fallen world contains its own destruction. But what or who is this “invisible worm” that “flies in the night”? What is the “howling storm”? How has he come to rest in the bed of “crimson joy”? And what is his “dark secret love”? Perhaps he is his own secret love, certainly not his host, the rose, whose life this narcissist destroys.
How tragic and how powerless is the rose to stop her own wreckage!
In Susie Clevenger’s poem “A Fool’s Catalogue of Violets,” the persona at one point asks:
Were I a sin eater I would be fat on my own misjudgments.
Nonsense argues a kiss can turn a toad into a prince…
What dignity is there in bargaining with fairytales?
Is it faulty judgments, fantasy expectations or something more sinister, internal, that threatens love? Clevenger dissects romance into its spurious component parts of false appraisals, doubtful expectations, and “canonized” tokens of longing, and looking back on the “pressed petals” of “bitter violets,” her own “songs of experience,” her persona concludes, “Fantasy has no power to reincarnate reality from ashes.”
In “The Hosting Tree,” Shay Simmons writes something so akin to Blake that the echoes play countermelodies one to the other. The host this time is a tree and the worm “a lush green climbing vine” that kills the tree, charmed once by the vine’s kindness which hid its “falsity.” What “idle devil” “set such poison in the heart” of the vine? The simple imagery, the quietness of tone, the meter and rhyme of questioning pain unearths the enigma of, if you will, the “sick rose,” its beauty and innocence helpless to defend, much less heal.
The human experience is full of paradoxes, some answerable, some not, and our poets sing the songs that expose our raw vulnerabilities. Yet we carry in us the image of perfect love, even when we have failed to find it. We carry the desire for perfection, even as we ourselves remain imperfect. We carry within us the knowledge of eternity, even as graveyards surround us and we await our own moment of death. We are the rose. We are the enigma.