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.
- Line 1: The speaker addresses the rose and says that it is sick. The form of address—"O rose"—is called an apostrophe.
- Line 2: The speaker introduces the "invisible worm." The worm probably isn't literally invisible, but might be in some kind of stealth mode. It might blend in with the surroundings like a chameleon, or it could just be too small to be seen. "Invisible" might be a metaphor for the worm's quiet act of destruction.
- Line 4: The speaker mentions a "howling storm," which gives the poem a more ominous tone. "Howling" reminds us of dogs or wolves; the sounds of those animals are here a metaphor for the storm.
- Line 5: "Bed" might refer to a plot of ground in which the rose is growing, or even the rose's petals. In the first case, it's not a literal bed with comforters and pillows, so it's a metaphor for the plot of ground. In the second case, it refers to a place where insects rest or sleep.
- Lines 7-8: The speaker describes how the worm "destroys" (8) the rose with his "dark secret love." The worm might literally destroy the rose, but he most certainly doesn't have any "dark secret love"; attributing human characteristics ("love") to inhuman things (the worm) is called personification.
The Color Red
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.
- Line 1: The speaker addresses the rose, which we assume is red. The way in which the speaker addresses the rose—"O rose"—is called an apostrophe.
- Line 6: The rose has a "bed of crimson joy." "Bed" could refer to the garden plot in which the rose resides or even to its petals, which might function as a bed for various insects. If it refers to the ground, it could be literally red or it could just mean an intense kind of joy associated with the bed. Describing a feeling (joy) in terms of a color is an example of synesthesia, a type of figurative language in which different sensory experiences are mixed, as in "hot pink."
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.
- Line 1: The speaker tells the rose that it is sick. The form of address—"O rose"—is called an apostrophe.
- Lines 7-8: The speaker describes how the worm destroys the rose with his "dark secret love." The way in which the worm penetrates the "bed of crimson joy" suggests that he is infecting the rose.
Sex and Love
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.
- Line 1: The speaker addresses the rose with phrase "O rose thou art sick"; this is called an apostrophe. The rose here could be a metaphor for love or passion; our ideas about which are "sick."
- Lines 5-6: The worm manages to worm his way into the rose's bed, which suggests some kind of sexual act.
- Lines 7-8: The worm's "dark secret love" kills the rose; a worm doesn't literally possess any "love," so this is an example of personification, where human characteristics or emotions (love) are attributed to non-human things (worm).