“The Sick Rose” by William Blake


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.

These eight short lines are some of the most disturbing that I have found in literature. Essentially, we have the rape of a virgin child while she is sleeping. The image of the howling storm implies that it was a violent rape and that the blood usually accompanied with the loss of virginity is not something joyful, but part of an attack that will destroy any chance that the child has at happiness.

There is also the impression that the perpetrator has infected the young girl with a venereal disease. Since the rose is a vaginal symbol, and the fact that the rose is now sick implies an infection. I do not feel that Blake is claiming she is impregnated, since I don’t think he would use a metaphor that strongly suggests a vaginal disease.

I would add one more interpretation here, which I feel adds to the tragedy and the horror of this poem. I believe that the rapist is the girl’s own father. The last two lines of the poem suggest that the “love” is a dark and secret love which will ultimately destroy the girl’s life. How often do we hear stories of sexually abusive fathers telling their abused children that they really love them and that this is their little secret? This dark secret will ultimately poison and sicken the child’s mind, just as it has physically sickened her body.

I remember being disturbed reading this poem for the first time in college, but as a parent, the horror of it is much more visceral. Blake manages to create a very powerful poem using just a few words. Without a doubt, this is a literary masterpiece.


Filed under Literature

5 responses to ““The Sick Rose” by William Blake

  1. Beautiful poem, morose as it may sound. I also thought it may signify the sickness of the soul being damaged by sadness, depression or trauma perhaps.

  2. I don’t believe I ever appreciated this poem with such dark intent. I do love Blake and should probably take time to return for a closer look. I felt a deep affinity for his work and life after my first serious manic episode and diagnosis with bipolar (though I know many do not like to acknowledge that he may have experienced some form of madness).
    That aside this oddly puts in me in line of another of my favourite and equally disturbing poems, “Deceptions” by Philip Larkin.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m not familiar with Larkin’s poem. I’ll look it up sometime. Have a great weekend.

      • It is entirely different in style and was inspired by an account from London Labour and the London Poor of a young girl raped by her master. Less sympathetic it does capture the child’s bitterness and shame.