Study Guide

The Sick Rose Themes

By William Blake

  • Mortality

    Although the poem is called "The Sick Rose" a better title might be "the terminally ill rose" because it is really about the rose's death. But the poem isn't just about any old death; it's about a very strange kind of death associated with "love." This odd pairing—love with death—suggests that death is a more complicated matter than we might think, or that something we often assume is unquestionably "good" can have deadly consequences.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Do you think the poem's focus on death is appropriate for children?
    2. How does the worm "destroy" the rose's life? By eating it? By giving it a disease?
    3. Could death just be a metaphor for something else?
    4. Do worms really kill roses, or is the poem's natural setting just a metaphor for some other societal process?

    Chew on This

    The poem describes a complicated relationship between love and death; love in itself doesn't lead to death, only love that is "dark and secret," love that is treated like something to be repressed or not talked about.

    Love and death are associated in this poem because the poem wants to suggest the proximity of life and death, the cycle of nature.

  • Violence

    The poem concludes by telling us that the worm "destroys" the rose's "life." The worm's weapon of choice is his "dark secret love," a phrase that implies some kind of violent sexual act, especially when we recall that the worm first has to penetrate the rose's "bed of crimson joy." There is no natural reciprocity or symbiosis in the poem's vision of nature; the only way the worm can interact with the rose is through violence.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Is this poem really violent or are we just reading things into it?
    2. Can even a worm be violent?
    3. How do you interpret "dark secret love"? Is this referring to a rape or to something else?

    Chew on This

    The worm isn't really violent; he "destroys" the rose, sure, but to call it an act of violence is to read something into nature that isn't there.

    The violence in this poem isn't as bad as we might think; it's part of the natural cycle of life and death, of the food chain.

  • Love

    In "The Sick Rose," love isn't what we expect it to be; it's not that timeless, cohesive force that other poets, movies, and books always talk about. It's "dark" and "secret" and doesn't really do anything good for the rose; it's almost like a disease that infects the rose and destroys it. Love definitely isn't all you need in this poem.

    Questions About Love

    1. Are sex and love the same thing in this poem?
    2. What is "dark secret love" anyway? Do you think it's a euphemism for something else, like rape?
    3. If "dark secret love" refers to sex, shouldn't it be private, i.e. "secret"?
    4. If this is a poem that has to do with love, why isn't there anything happy or joyful in it? What is Blake saying about love?

    Chew on This

    The kind of love described in the poem is bad because it is "dark" and "secret." The poem suggests that love should be public, or at least not secret.

    Love isn't what we normally think of as love; it means something more like sex, which suggests that the speaker of the poem is viewing the situation from a flawed perspective.

  • Sex

    While "The Sick Rose" doesn't come right out and say it, it's pretty obvious that it's a poem about sex, at least on some level. A worm penetrating a "bed of crimson joy" sure sounds a lot like sex, as does that strange little phrase "dark secret love." Overall, the vision of sex presented in this poem is dark and even violent.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Do we have to read the poem as a meditation on sex? Are there other ways to read the poem?
    2. What does "dark secret love" really mean, in layman's terms?
    3. Sex in this poem seem dark, dangerous, and even violent. Why do you think Blake presented it that way?

    Chew on This

    "The Sick Rose" suggests that when sex and love are paired—when they become the same thing—destructive consequences ensue.

    "The Sick Rose" suggests that sexuality should be public, rather than "secret."