You know how sometimes in cartoons a little devil and a little angel will appear on a character's shoulder and give him contrary opinions about what to do? Well, if William Blake were trying to write some poems and if Mother Goose appeared dressed both as an angel and as a devil, the angel Mother Goose would tell him to write a pretty, neat little poem that has a nice, happy story in it with plenty of good rhymes. The evil Mother Goose, on the other hand, would dictate "The Sick Rose." Her poem would be about a worm destroying a rose and wouldn't rhyme as well as the angelic Mother Goose's poem would.
Take the first stanza as an example:
O rose thou art sick,
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm.
The only two words that look like they should rhyme are "worm" and "storm," but they don't really rhyme, they only look like they do. That devil Mother Goose sure is sneaky. The second stanza is similar:
Has found out thy
Bed of crimson joy.
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Now at least in this stanza our evil Mother Goose has learned how to rhyme ("joy" and "destroy") but true to form she makes it a naughty rhyme; "joy" and "destroy" rhyme because that's precisely what the bad Mother Goose wants to do: destroy the joy of nursery rhymes, or at the least the joys that her counterpart, the good Mother Goose, always writes about. And she does a pretty good job of it; her poem manages to find a way to talk about sex, violence, and death.
The title of the poem refers to the sick rose in the poem that falls victim to the worm's "dark secret love" (7). The poem is called "The Sick Rose," but we don't learn a whole lot about the rose's sickness; we're tempted to think that sickness is a metaphor for something else, perhaps for a certain view of love that the poem argues is destructive. If the rose is a symbol of love or passion, and the rose is sick, then perhaps our ideas about love and passion are sick as well. We think of love, which is pretty much synonymous with sex in this poem, as something to be kept "dark" and "secret." Well, it turns out that that idea of love can have destructive consequences: it destroys the rose.
Imagine you're working on your hands and knees in your garden one day. You've already tidied up your vegetable patch and you've just moved on to the flower bed when you notice that one of your roses is brown. You know you didn't plant any brown roses—is there such a thing?—so something must be wrong. "O rose thou art sick," you exclaim. "Thou art sick?" Must be all that poetry you've been reading that's making you talk like that!
After half an hour you can't seem to find out what's wrong. And then you notice it: a tiny worm, almost invisible, right there in the middle of the rose. You exclaim to yourself, "wow, that little thing did all this damage?" You keep thinking it over and before you know it you're making up a little poem: "The invisible worm / That flies in the night…Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy: / And with his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy." You can't believe those words came out of your mouth, as you never fancied yourself a poet. Who would've thought?
"The Sick Rose" is a very weird poem, which makes us think that the speaker is a little weird too. There are lots of ways you could picture the speaker, but here's our take: he's kind of like a bizarre next door-neighbor. Sometimes he sings little songs about the plants in his garden; you've caught him doing this a bunch of times, and it always reminds you of a Disney movie.
One day you are watching him over your wall as he's picking some roses to put on his kitchen table. You notice that one of the roses is a little brown and you hear your neighbor exclaim, "O rose, thou art sick." That sounds normal enough, but then he starts going on about a magical worm that "flies in the night." OK, that's a little strange, but nothing you haven't heard from him before. But then your neighbor's song gets strangely sexual, and he starts talking about how the worm destroys the rose with his "dark secret love." As you stare in astonishment, your friendly neighbor turns around and says hello; he doesn't even look embarrassed that you've overheard one of the strangest things in recent memory. He says to you, "I can't get rid of these worms in my garden because they're too small to see."
OK that explains the "invisible part," but you're still wondering about that violent sexual encounter he describes. Then, as if he can read your mind, he says, "I really, really, really like my roses; when a worm eats them, I can't help thinking that the worm is destroying them. I really like poetry too, so naturally I like to write poems about it. It helps me deal with a situation that makes me sad."
When he finishes, he tells you to hold on as he quickly runs into the house. When he comes back, he has a huge stack of papers in his hands. He tells you that the book is a collection of illustrated poems he's been working on for children and asks if you would like to take a look. You decline, telling him you'll wait until you can get a copy on Amazon, but you think to yourself, "There's no way my kids are reading these poems."
"The Sick Rose" is a relatively simple poem; it contains only a couple of sentences, and there aren't any strange words that need glossing. Sure the content is a little strange, but it's not difficult reading material.
Let's face it, when you first read "The Sick Rose," your immediate reaction was probably something like, "this poem is really simple: it's about a rose that gets sick and a weird worm." There's nothing wrong with feeling a little frustration at the fact that such a simple poem has achieved practically canonical status. But like many of Blake's short lyrics from the Songs of Innocence and Experience, appearances can be deceiving. First of all, many of the words in the poem are ambiguous. For example, what does "bed of crimson joy" refer to? The flower-bed, the rose's petals? What exactly makes love "dark" and secret"? And why is the rose sick anyway?
These ambiguities and questions are an important part of the poem's fabric, and they get to the heart of the issues that it wants to explore. For example, "The Sick Rose" is very much concerned with the potentially destructive consequences of "dark secret love." Sure it's also about a worm and a rose, but those figures serve largely as the occasion for Blake's more sophisticated musings about our ideas of love and sexuality. Indeed, if the rose is a symbol of love or passion, and it is sick, then perhaps the poem is quietly telling us that our ideas about love and passion are "sick," diseased, infected. Such a complex suggestion is born out in the poem: although it seems warm and rosy (did we just say that?), upon closer examination we realize that the worm discovers the rose's "bed," a place we naturally associate with sex, and then destroys it with its "dark secret love."
"The Sick Rose" uses a strange meter called anapestic dimeter, meaning that, theoretically, each line should have two ("di") anapests. An anapest is a three syllable foot that has two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, as in line 7:
And his dark sec-ret love.
As it turns out, though, this is the only pure anapestic dimeter line in the whole poem. Many of the lines have what is called a substitution, where instead of one of the anapests we have something else, like an iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) or a spondee (two stressed syllables). Take the first line for example:
O rose thou art sick.
You'll notice that the first foot has two stressed syllables (spondee), followed by our expected anapest. Line 2 does the same thing, only the first foot is occupied by an iamb rather than a spondee ("The in-" counts as one syllable and is pronounced together like "Thin-"): "The in-vis-i-ble worm." Line 3 follows the same pattern as line 2 ("That flies in the night"). Line 4 also makes use of a substitution, but this time it's in the second half of the line: "In the howl-ing storm." The line starts with an anapest (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable) and ends with an iamb. Lines 5 and 8 do the same thing; they begin with an anapest and end with an iamb. Line 6 is the odd-ball here; it's just iambic dimeter ("Of crim-son joy).
Now, you might be saying to yourself, why should we even call this poem something fancy like anapestic dimeter when Blake makes all kinds of substitutions (remember only line 7 is purely anapestic dimeter)? It's a good question to ask, and the answer is that substitutions are perfectly acceptable in metrics; it makes sense to call it anapestic dimeter not only because that's a really cool name but also because it's the only way we can explain the fact that most of the lines have five syllables. Otherwise we would just describe the poem as "five syllable lines with no metrical pattern." That's boring, and doesn't do justice to the sophisticated metrical work going on here.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The poem is called "The Sick Rose" so it's no surprise that nature figures prominently into it. But this poem isn't just about a dying flower. It's about a weird, almost magical worm—it can fly after all—that destroys the flower. Sure we all know about the circle of life and how bugs eat plants etc., but there's something more sinister about that story in this poem.
The poem is called "The Sick Rose," and we often associate the color red with roses, as in the well-known rhyme "roses are red, violets are blue." In addition to the rose described in the first line, the speaker also refers to a "bed of crimson joy" in line 6. The color is associated with sickness because the rose is sick, but it is also associated with happiness or "joy." The poem suggests, if only obliquely, that "red" can symbolize different, even opposing, things.
We know from the get-go that this poem is about a "sick rose." But why is the rose sick? The poem is concerned with this question, and refuses to give an answer. It starts by telling us the rose is sick, and the second stanza suggests that the worm might be the cause of this sickness. The speaker never really tells us what exactly is happening so we are left wondering whether or not the worm maliciously infects the rose.
We've all heard the expression "sex and love aren't the same thing." In this poem, though, they sort of are the same thing. The love in this poem is "dark and secret" (7) and is associated with a destructive or violent act of sexual intercourse, bordering on but not quite synonymous with rape. The poem refuses to give us an image or symbol of love that isn't complicated by something more sinister. The rose, an almost universal symbol of love, is sick, and the worm's "love" is as far from a Valentine's Day card as one could get.
The only reason this poem isn't rated R is that the sex in it isn't explicit; sure it's suggested pretty clearly, but one could make the case that "dark secret love" doesn't have anything to do with sex, even though there's a "bed of crimson joy" nearby. The same is true of that worm who "worms" his way into the rose's bed; "bed" is slightly ambiguous and we can never be entirely sure what is happening.