Last week I bought a climbing rose from Aldi for £1.99.

This was a mistake because the rose bush was almost certainly dead already. I was rooting in the bucket for the best looking specimen and my loved-one was humphing and saying, ‘Come on, come on!’ So I grabbed what I thought was the best-looking specimen.

Later I took the poor thing out of its plastic bag and let the roots unfurl in a pot of rain-barrel water. It looked even deader. I left it there for several days, unable to decide whether (and where) to plant it.

To let you understand, this bush had stalks only, held together with a rubber band. Not one leaf.

Finally I found a fertile, well-drained place and planted the rose. It felt like a funeral.

I mentioned this fact to Geoff Lander. ‘O Rose thou art sick!’ he quipped, and sent me to Benjamin Britten’s setting which is also pretty funereal.

William Blake’s poem is always an earworm for me (no pun intended). Once I think of it again, it goes round and round and round in my head like it always has. It seems to apply to so many things. And so last night in my sleep I found myself dreaming the poem and making a reluctant class write an essay about it. Three hundred words, like the current HappenStance competition. But there was a bit I could not remember: the verb in line five:

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm,

Has [???] thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

In my dream, or half-sleep, I went over and over and over it. ‘Has hidden in thy bed’? ‘Has discovered thy bed’? ‘Has opened thy bed’?

I woke up this morning and it was there on the tip of my tongue. ‘Has found out thy bed’. Of course.

Of course.

‘Found out’ is precisely it. ‘Found out’ because the bed was secret and private. And that’s why the love is ‘dark secret’, and some horrible secret thing is festering here that nobody but the invisible worm knows. A thing that is killing the rose.

It’s one of the most potent poems I know. It fulfills that Don Paterson definition (which doesn’t work for everything) that a poem is a little machine for remembering itself. Look at the adjectives, the way they build to a sort of crescendo: invisible, howling, crimson, dark, secret – and then at the end just ‘life’, no qualifiers. Life.

The poem, one of the Songs of Experience, is both beautiful and horrible. It takes us to that literal moment in the garden when we look closely at a rose, only to find it’s being eaten away in the middle. Or pick up a perfect apple, only to turn it and see one side half-eaten away by wasps and a wasp in the cavity still suckling.

This is nature and fact. In metaphor it’s the same. The most beautiful girl may be being eaten away inside by disease, or by knowledge of what has happened to her, which is in itself a kind of disease. And the invisible worm kills because although he has found her out, everything is secret and contained inside the rose. Until she dies, and the secret with her.

But not all roses die, nor do all secrets die with them. See Clare Best this week in Touching the Core. She quotes St Thomas’s Gospel at the start: ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’ Please also read the rest.

Now back to my rose bush. I’m pretty certain it is completely dead, though conditions at Aldi are to blame, not any form of infection. However, for £3.99 I also bought an apple tree, which will be cross-pollinated by the crab apple I bought for a similar price four years ago.

The crab apple is about to burst into blossom and the new apple sapling is looking fine and dandy. I plan to look after it, in rain and sun. I know the risks. No secrets in this garden.


9 thoughts on “O ROSE, THOU ART SICK!”

  1. That St Thomas’s Gospel quote is potent. As is Clare Best’s post. Thanks for that.

    One of the things I love about poets is how creative things unexpectedly happen and links get made. I know the above isn’t a poem but in effect poet-goes-to-Aldi-and-buys-rose-and-before-you-know-it-we’re-discussing-Blake. Clare Best’s post suggests the same.

  2. I hesitate to comment on Blake’s poem, because I’m open to being accused of perverted thinking. But in the end I’m going ahead, because I want to know if anyone else agrees with my interpretation. Either an innocent girl has been impregnated from a secret relationship; the promised ‘love’ from the man has not materialised; and she is now cast out by society. (“invisible worm” – sperm; “bed of crimson joy” – womb.) Or, similar to the above, but she has been infected by him. (the “dark secret love”, which was not really love, is slowly killing her.)

    It seems obvious to me, but I humbly apologise if any readers of this find my interpretation distasteful.

  3. Dear Nell

    A week ago we bought a nice-looking melon from Intermarche which started to rot the following day. The moral, I suppose, is that you don’t always get what you have paid for.

    Best wishes from Simon

  4. Yes, Rosie, and Nell. One might think that Nell deliberately bought and planted a dead rose so that she could write about Blake. But of course that’s not how it happened, and it’s not how poetry happens. I love this blog. Funnily, I’ve always thought ‘found out’ wasn’t quite right, without knowing why. Maybe a bit forgettable, unlike the rest of the poem. Hmmm. Maybe I’ve read ‘found out’ as ‘discovered the guilty secret’ but that can’t be so if the worm is also the lover, dark, secret, destroying. So ‘found out’ just means ‘found’. God I’m so prosaic! It’s the word ‘love’ in the penultimate line which I think packs a punch.

  5. It’s one of several interpretations, Helen. That’s why the poem is so rich. It gives and keeps on giving.

  6. Frances, I think you’re exactly right — but that ‘found out’ is exactly right precisely because of what you say. The guilty secret is not ‘found out’, a double sort of irony in the phrase, pointing in both directions. And prosaic in reading is No Bad Thing. 😉

  7. Your rose may yet live: I’ve bought ‘rose sticks’ before, fearing for their life, and they have survived; an especially lovely one called Virgo did remarkably well after languishing for weeks, refusing to put out a leaf bud. It’s now flourishing in a large pot. Sorry this is not about Blake; just want to hearten your hopes for the rose!

  8. That IS heartening, Gill. I’ve just inspected the poor thing again and it doesn’t look any [i]more[/i] dead, at least. I’ll keep a weather eye on it. The name of yours (‘Virgo’) seems especially apposite in this posting. I do like the way tragedy and comedy join hands and dance! It might yet save us all.

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