15 February 2007

William Blake in contemporary context

The Sick Rose
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm.
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This poem has to be considered in its context: as a handwritten text with integrated graphics; as part of a larger work, the Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794); and as a commentary on, and influenced by, London of the early 1790s, specifically the radical, working class circles that Blake moved in during this period of his life.

William Blake (1757-1827) was a prophetic visonary who used Biblical and other imagery in his work. The rose only occurs twice in the Authorised version of the Bible (Isaiah 35:1 and Songs 2:1) but both texts were used by Blake in his work. Traditionally, the rose has been seen as a female archetype, with specific sexual connotations, often linked to the Biblical story of the temptation of Eve by the serpent, as used by Milton in Book IX of Paradise Lost, a work with which Blake was familiar.

In this poem William Blake portrays the Sick Rose as a female figure representing the rose of England, the national identity, which had been blighted and corrupted by the invisible worm of moral decay in the England of the early 1790s. In so doing he draws on both Biblical imagery and on London's radical politics of the time, including the agitation against the intrigues and manipulations of press freedoms by the politician and journalist George Rose (1744-1818).

William Blake, Songs of Experience: fascimile reproduction (New York: Dover Publications, 1984), plate 11

Jon Mee, 'The "insidious poison of secret Influence": a new historical context for Blake's "The Sick Rose"', Eighteenth-Century Life, vol.22(1), 1998, pp111-122

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