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In 1789, the eccentric poet-printer William Blake published a small book of poems called Songs of Innocence. The poems are exactly that: short lyrics about children (innocence) that resemble songs and nursery rhymes. But Blake was no ordinary poet; he was also a painter, printer, and engraver, and each of the poems in the Songs of Innocence was accompanied by an illustration that framed the poem. Head over to "Best of the Web" to see what these poems looked like.
If Blake wasn't content with just writing poems with no illustrations, he also wasn't content with simply writing about innocence; something was missing. In 1794 he published a companion to the Songs of Innocence called the Songs of Experience, which contains "The Sick Rose." The Songs of Experience were never published without their counterpart, and the entire volume was called the Songs of Innocence and Experience: Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. The title couldn't be more descriptive. In general, the Songs of Innocence tend to be, well, more innocent, benign, and childish, whereas the Songs of Experience explore darker, more sinister themes associated with the Industrial Revolution, religion, and education. "The Sick Rose," for example, isn't just about a rose that's losing its color. It's about a worm (sometimes read as a symbol of the devil) that (essentially) rapes the rose and destroys it with its "dark secret love."
Although Blake thought of innocence and experience as contraries, any attempts to classify innocence as good and experience as bad inevitably fail; sometimes the Songs of Innocence appear innocent and then end up being darker and more complicated upon closer examination. In fact, Blake sometimes moved poems back and forth between the two volumes, a fact which suggests that his vision was much more complicated than the simple word "contraries" implies.
You know the old expression, "don't judge a book by its cover," and its variants, like "looks can be deceiving," right? Well, this might be one of the best ways to characterize the Songs of Innocence and Experience in general, and the "The Sick Rose" in particular. You see, the poem isn't just about a sick rose and a flying worm, it's also about violence and sex, issues that we routinely encounter in movies, television shows, and video games. This is not to suggest that "The Sick Rose" is the eighteenth century equivalent of Resident Evil, only that it too is just as interested in the darker side of human nature, society, and culture as anything today, despite the fact that it is literally about a rose and a worm.
We can't help thinking "The Sick Rose" is just a bit like Nip/Tuck, a provocative show on FX about plastic surgeons. The show is known for its gratuitous sex scenes and attempts to expand the boundaries of acceptability. While Blake's poem isn't about a super hot plastic surgeon that takes home a different woman every other night, it is interested in making sex and love more public, albeit in its own way. The worm destroys the rose with his "dark secret love." We don't usually think of love as something that destroys things, but the poem suggests that a repressed love that is "dark" and "secret" – as opposed to "light" (whatever that would be) and public – does. So while this poem doesn't go over the top with risqué nude scenes, it does at least suggest the dangerous consequences of viewing sex and love as things to be kept "dark" and "secret."
Blake's Illuminated Books
A great website with all of Blake's illuminated poems, including the Songs of Innocence and Experience.
A brief biography of Blake at poets.org.
Tate Britain provides and online exhibit of Blake's art, as well as information about his life.
"The Sick Rose" Animated
An animated video based on "The Sick Rose."
Musical Version of "The Sick Rose"
A really creepy musical version of the poem by the Protagonists.
"The Sick Rose" Audio
A reading of "The Sick Rose" and other Blake poems.
Songs of Innocence
Title page for the Songs of Innocence.
Songs of Innocence and Experience
Title page of the Songs of Innocence and Experience.
"The Sick Rose"
A picture of Blake's illuminated version of "The Sick Rose."
A famous painting of Blake.