Study Guide

The Sick Rose Calling Card

By William Blake

Calling Card

Deceptive Simplicity

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."