First of all, let me introduce myself. In real life I'm an English
teacher. I've taught Blake to students several times, and every time I
get a different perspective on this poem. It's the most frustrating,
and yet the most exciting poem I know. When I was a student myself I
remember puzzling over it for hours, trying to 'solve' the poem as
though it were a crossword puzzle.
The trouble is, there's no right answer to the question "what is this
poem talking about?". To put it another way: there are many right
answers. What I'd like to do is go through my own thoughts on the
poem, then point you towards some different interpretations online.
However, what I'd like to do - after all, I'm a teacher - is to try
and give you pointers towards finding *your own* interpretation of the
First of all: the language of the poem. Blake has used thirty-four
words in 'The Sick Rose'. Twenty-nine of these are single syllables.
The effect of this is to make the poem seem very simple - it has a
nursery rhyme quality, almost.
The vocabulary of the poem is also very simple. Blake has chosen to
use basic words like 'storm' and 'night' - words which have simple
meanings but also many associations. Think of all the things you
associate with the word 'night', for instance: darkness, sleep,
dreams, sex, and so on. The key to working out an interpretation of
the poem is to look at the associations of the words. As you read it,
think about and jot down what the words mean to you.
What is the rose? There are positive words associated with it: 'life'
and 'joy'. Roses are symbols of love, of femininity, of beauty, of
sexuality. The rose is also 'crimson', a very deep red which could
suggest passion, or blood, or sin (as in 'scarlet woman'). It also has
a 'bed' - again, this could have sexual associations, or it could
suggest being 'rooted' and passive.
The worm, by contrast, is active and seems entirely negative. It is
'invisible', 'dark', 'secret'; it 'finds out' and 'destroys'. The worm
is sneaky - already invisible, it travels under the cover of darkness.
It 'loves' the rose, yet its love is completely destructive.
Blake is inviting us to see the rose and the worm as symbols - they
must 'stand for' something - but it is hard to know for certain what
that something is. A common interpretation is that the rose represents
beauty and innocence and the worm represents corruption and decay -
all beauty must inevitably grow rotten. The collection of poems in
which 'The Sick Rose' appeared, 'Songs of Experience', is full of
images of innocence becoming corrupted and ruined. Alternatively, a
feminist might see the rose as symbolising a woman and the worm a man,
which destroys the rose's life with his oppressive 'love'. A religious
reading might see the worm as being a close relative of the serpent in
the Garden of Eden, corrupting the innocent beauty of humanity with
Any interpretation, though, will look at the use of opposites in the
poem. The worm and the rose are opposites - the worm is invisible,
fast-moving, destructive; the rose is crimson, static, and joyful.
They are in conflict; as a result, the rose ends up being slowly
I hope I've given you a key to understanding how this poem works, but
if I haven't been clear enough, please ask for further clarification.
Here are some sites you should find useful for further study:
This is an excellent site, with hypertext annotations for the poem:
The Sick Rose
A useful exercise for working out your own interpretation is suggested
Blake, The Sick Rose
SparkNotes: The Sick Rose (you will need to register to read this, but
it's free to do so)
One True Thing About Blake
Clarification of Answer by
28 Sep 2002 08:05 PDT
Okay: here are the answers to your three questions.
(1) It's quite unusual to describe poetry as having a 'thesis' - the
word is usually used about non-fiction and essays. Most poetry isn't
out to prove a point; rather, most good poetry attempts to interpret
or describe the world in an unusual and original way. If your teacher
is demanding that you find a thesis in 'The Sick Rose', you could say
that Blake is expressing a belief that beauty and innocence are
inevitably corrupted by the world. The rose is destroyed by the worm;
youth is destroyed by old age; innocence is destroyed by experience.
(2) On the face of it, the poem is 'talking about' a rose which is
attacked by a flying, invisible worm. However, the rose and the worm
are both symbols. The rose could symbolise beauty and innocence; the
worm the sinister evils which destroy beauty and innocence.
(3) There is virtually no figurative language in this poem. As I said
above, the language is kept deliberately simple. However, the first
phrase 'O Rose...' is called an apostrophe - the poet is addressing
the rose directly. You can find out more about apostrophe here:
Literary Terms - Apostrophe
Apart from the apostrophe, then, the language of the poem is kept
Please read my answer above again and visit the links, particularly
the SparkNotes site, which has lots of interesting commentary. If you
are going to write a good essay about this poem and get a good grade,
it's really important that you try to understand the poem yourself and
come to your own interpretation of it. As I said above, it's not a
poem for which there are easy answers.
Hope this helps,
Clarification of Answer by
28 Sep 2002 11:24 PDT
As I have mentioned above, the rose seems to represent innocence,
beauty, femininity while the worm represents its opposite - ugliness,
violence and corruption. In your paragraph on the worm, you should
pick out all the words assocated with it - 'invisible', 'dark' and so
on - and, again, explain what kind of picture these words give of the
Please make sure you have read my answers and clarifications carefully
and followed the links. Once you have read and digested everything,
and thought a little more about the poem, you should have begun to
come to your own interpretation. I'm afraid I can't help you with
actually writing the essay; in any case, I'm sure your teacher will
want you to bring some of your own ideas and interpretations to your
Unless you have any uncertainties about what I have already written, I
hope you will consider this question answered.
Best of luck with writing the essay and with the rest of your studies,