As I continue to work my way through the Songs of Experience, the next one is more of a set, three poems that share the same illuminated page and also share a theme of flowers.
MY PRETTY ROSE-TREE
A flower was offered to me,
Such a flower as May never bore;
But I said I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree,
And I passed the sweet flower o’er.
Then I went to my Pretty Rose-tree,
To tend her by day and by night;
But my Rose turned away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble Sheep a threatening horn:
While the Lilly white shall in Love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.
There is a lot here to consider. The first question is: Why three poems? After reading through them a couple times, I concluded that the three flowers/poems represent the three stages of a woman’s life: birth, adulthood, and death. This would also be symbolic of the triple goddess: maid, mother, and crone.
In the first poem, the Rose-tree is the mother who gives birth to the baby girl. The red color of the rose symbolizes the blood associated with childbirth. The mother becomes jealous of her daughter, possibly because she mourns the loss of her beauty which she sees reflected in the daughter’s visage, or it could be the attention which the father pays to the young girl. Regardless, the mother is not joyous over the birth of her daughter.
The Sun-flower symbolizes the girl becoming a woman. She has reached her full height and now aspires to reach the sun (or son). She is ready to become a mother herself and renew the cycle.
Lastly, the Lilly is the symbol of death and mourning, hence they are frequently used in funeral wreaths. The whiteness represents the pallor of the skin, yet also hints at a purification of the soul as it transitions to the next realm.
While all this makes sense, there was something about this poem that still bothered me and as I thought about it some more, I figured out what it was. In the first poem, I realized that roses do not grow on trees. The image was all wrong. So why would Blake, skilled poet that he was, use such a poor image, unless he was hinting at something else. That is when an alternate interpretation came to me.
I pictured the Rose-tree as symbolic of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This completely changed my view of the poems. The flower that was originally offered was the promise of life in the Garden of Eden, but humanity instead turned to the Tree of Knowledge and as a result, became subjected to the thorns of life (the curse of experience). Humanity then attempted to reach back to God and did so through Christ, the Sun-flower (or Son-flower). This makes the lines “Arise from their graves and aspire, /Where my Sun-flower wishes to go” make more sense. Finally, the whiteness and purity of the Lilly represents the return to the Edenic state. No more will “a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright” as humanity is returned to the place of divine being.
Even now, I feel that there is more to this triad of poems than I am seeing. But alas, the day is moving on and as much as I would love to sit all day and contemplate this, I must attend to other things. If you see anything else hidden in these poems, please share them in a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Have a beautiful day and keep reading!