The Sick Rose
by William Blake
O Rose, thou art sick
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
He found out thy bed
Of Crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Think bull in a china shop, or, better, Johnny Cash in a Manhattan cocktail party with a classical ensemble playing Mozart in the background. William Blake, 1757-1827, moved against the tide of his times,
and was an original, a poetic genius, creating a visionary world in his poetry
and art etchings that challenged the glittering Enlightenment society of 18th century
Britain and Europe that dominated all aspects of civilization, with the name "Age of Rationalism" applied to it later that signifies how it elevated man's reason to the highest position--relegating visions and feeling and even
love and affection to lower positions. Balls at the royal court and in the
luxurious country mansions of the nobility reflected the exclusive, self-centered ideals of this
Age of Reason. Powdered, bewigged, ribboned, overdressed aristocrats, both gentlemen and ladies, dancing elaborate minuets
or discoursing on intellectual topics in elegant salons or dining at
splendidly set tables loaded with all the delicacies the riches of this
upper class could afford, or sitting in gilt theatres watching the latest French
play of Moliere or Racine, or listening to classical music being played in the
royal opera houses--all this refinement and glitter and witty talk, Blake had no part in, because the world he
sought after had nothing to do with this superficial, proud, over-intellectualized world-view and philosophy and the oppressive, over-privileged society based on it. Beneath
this thin upper crust seethed the miseries of the unwashed, uneducated, impoverished masses Blake himself knew from
childhood in the home of a working class shopman. But he did not just
reject something bad and rotten at the core, with no alternative. He proposed a whole world order
based on other entirely different foundations. To his view, life as it was then ordered,
society with it, was sick, like a rose that droops and wilts because
a hidden worm is gnawing on its vital green stem and gradually cutting away its life, sapping
its strength, its juices, until its dies. This is a simple event found in nature,
but Blake uses it to describe his world, which is
dominated (and being ruined) by the Rationalists of his day.
We too face a world being ruined by the "secularists" and "Humanists"
of our day. No society can survive based on their programs and
principles, and statistics prove that societies in the West
are dying, not slowly either, but rapidly. The West is doomed
by this later development of Rationalism, the dragon that Blake
fought his entire life, not with a sword, but with the weapons
of his magnificent poetry, poetic vision, and his art.
Our "Rose" is deathly sick, indeed! Secularism and humanism, in their
radical Left organized state, have blighted our society and our nation, even
poisoning the whole world, not just the Western nations. What are the signs
of this blight and toxic decline of civilization and human life. Just look around, friend! We desperately need poets like William Blake today, visionaries with
courage and persistence, who will not quit and give up warning
the people when
the present dying system with great resources
seems to be unbeatable. Again, Blake came with an alternative,
he did not just criticize. He lived obscurely, unknown and unnoticed most
of his life, finding a following of educated, renowned persons only late in life. He could
have lived and died in bitterness because of his poverty and
obscure life, but he was not bitter and he found friends
to enjoy his life work and his company in later life. Most of his life Blake also faced a hostile system,
and might have been hanged at one point if he had lost a
suit against him charging him with sedition--a capital offense
in his time. He favored a violent revolution in his earlier
life, but later swung to a philosophical vision that
did not require it to bring about the change he
ardently yearned to see in human life and society. Blake
was a sort of underdog and a fighter like Johnny Cash, who stood in a class by himself.
He has to be appreciated on his own terms, and
increasingly his reputation has greater,
because more and more people have understood that fact.
How a William Blake arose in Britain in circumstances and in an intellectual
climate so unfriendly to his kind of thinking and feeling has
to be a great mystery. His father was a haberdasher (men's clothing
merchant) and he
was largely self-educated. His only formal education was in art.
He married the illiterate daughter of a market gardener. Despite
such humble beginnings, he rose to the very highest place
in English literature and art, and is a peer to such as Shakespeare,
Milton, and Turner. Even there he remains an original. His brilliance
is undimmed, and probably will always be.
(These comments on Blake, whom I have always admired
as a person and a poet, are based on the prefatory notes to Blake
Norton Anthology of English Literature, Fifth Edition, but
my opinions are my own.--Ed.)
THIS SECOND POEM BY WILLIAM BLAKE MAY ARGUABLY BE THE MOST RENOWNED AND POWERFUL POEM IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, AFTER THE EPIC OF PARADISE LOST BY JOHN MILTON.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
What hand made the merciless terrorists who
work secretly and hiddenly even now to blow up entire cities
of millions of men, women, and children, using
nuclear bombs brought in suitcases from
rogue nuclear nations such as North Korea or
Iran or even former nuclear-armed Soviet states? What produced an Osama bin Ladin
and all the others like him who are preaching
wars of extermination and the violent overthrow
and subjugation of the West after raining down
missiles on the cities and capitals of Europe and
America? Was it God's hand, who created the
Lamb, but may also have framed
the Tyger Blake described? How can you put
the Lamb of Christ together with the Tyger
of the forest and the night? Or was the Tyger
some evil force or evil being, commonly
called Satan? Was Osama bin Ladin, and
those like him, who do his bidding in "sleeper
cells," going to their fiery deaths in the
crashing jet airliners of 9/11 into
New York skyscrapers and the Pentagon--
were they Satan's children?
(TAKE A WALK WITH THE POET AS HE WANDERS THE TWISTING, NARROW ALLEYS AND THEN THE
BROAD, MAGNIFICENT AVENUES, WKILE PEEKING INTO THE GATED AND
FENCED PARKS AND THE THE GATED AND GUARDED PRIVATE STREETS OF
THE WEALTHY WHO CAN AFFORD TO LIVE THERE IN EXCLUSIVE
COMPANY--ALL WHAT COULD BE EXPECTED TO BE SEEN IN PERHAPS THE
WORLD'S BIGGEST METROPOLIS, LONDON IN 1794. YOU WILL SEE A BEWILDERING,
ENDLESS ARRAY OF PALACES, GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS AND FORTRESSES,
MANSIONS, EDIFICES OF RELIGION, PILLARED BANKS AND EMPORIUMS OF TRADE,
STATUES AND IMPORTED OBJECTS ON DISPLAY SUCH AS THE OBELISK OF
KARNAK, EVERYWHERE MILLING AROUND THEM, THE VAST RIVERS OF HUMANITY AND THE
CARTS AND WAGONS THAT BROUGHT IN GOODS FROM THE SHIPS CROWDING
THE RIVER WHARVES. THIS GIGANTIC HIVE OF BUILDINGS AND
PEOPLE, ALL MAKING A CLAMOR THAT NEVER STOPS, DAY OR NIGHT.
the gilded arriages with
ladies in them dressed in silk and tall plumes with ribboned hats and towers of
hair decorated with jewels and silk bows, sniffing perfumed sachets to
keep away the odors from the
the horse-drawn carts and wagons brought in from the country loaded with
vegetables, mutton, live sheep, hogs, chickens, geese, and all sorts of woven or
crafted items for sale. Lords in mountainous
white, curled wigs, attended by their footmen in splendid uniforms, push aside little boy or girl flower venders hawking their flowers to the rich, while they wear
rags to cover their legs and arms, as they make their way into
exclusive men's clubs or the theater or the opera house or posh mansions or gambling
houses. Prostitutes try this man and that with a wink and a nod, no matter
whether he is lord or a common laborer. The jobless, in
stinking rags that resemble rubbish, not clothing, lie about on street, or
wander about looking for a handout if they can find a heart of pity and compassion. Drunks
clog the running open gutters, and naked children, forgotten by their
mothers who may be drunk or dead or runaway, play in the dirt next to them, as wagons nearly ride them over.
SMOKE OF COUNTLESS CHIMNEYS, DEAFENING NOISE AND CONFUSION, BELLOWING CRIES OF SHOPKEEPERS SEEKING CUSTOMERS, WAILS AND CRIES OF
PAIN AND SUFFERING TOO--THE RESTLESS CITY OF THE WORLD NEVER SLEEPS, NEVER SLEEPS, AS ITS ENGINES OF COMMERCE AND BUSINESS GRIND HUMAN LIVES AND BURN THEM AS FUEL.)
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier's sight
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.
As for "London," this is a magnificent poem
of its own special kind, so that I hesitate to put too specific an explanation
on the particular terms or scenes of this poem. I don't think it is
speaking primarily against diseases of the lower classes, or targeting the
oppression of the State Church of England, or decrying the
prostitution and forced service as soldiers as the
chief evils that should shame London's rulers, though they are evils no one can deny.
What is worst to Blake are the "mind-forg'd manacles"
of the mind, shackles devised by the
commanding Rationalists of his day, which
oppress all human life, driving the
meaning of human life into the depths
of despair and hopelessness and futility.
A new-born's prospects are
blasted, are aborted, according to Blake,
for he cannot escape such a toxic and
cruel system spun from the minds of a select
elite. That Rationalist system favors them alone, while
it damns everyone else to filthy and
hopeless servitude in support of the
elegant society ruling them. The
18th century mind has created this
horrible two-world system, it is all
intellect and mind, destroying all true heart and feeling and genuine truth--
the things that make a society not only
nourishing, bright,and life-giving, but beautiful and happy. A privileged
elite is like a sucking vampire on a host animal, enjoying all the benefits temporarily, while
the mass of people suffer the most abject
conditions and are forced to
support the luxury and greed and
arrogance of the lifestyle of the rich
and famous. They are bled to death, but gradually, not
all at once. This is social inequity, to
be sure, but is mental, intellectual, rationalist, based
on a world-view that is death to the beautiful world as God intended it
in Eden, death to
the human cosmos too. Everything ends up enslaved by the system,
and withers and dies eventually, in dirt, disease, and despair. Blake sees charters, constricting
laws and deeds and contracts always favoring the oppressors, binding
every street's businesses in London while the people
mill through them, disenfranchise, impoverished,
propertyless, their faces etched or marked with weakness and woe.
Even the wide and noble-looking Thames River is "chartered." It too
is controlled, ruled, exploited, not for the
benefit of the people but for the elite.
There is no alternative, no refuge even in
the Church, for the poor and oppressed.
When a young man and woman marry,
they are, figuratively,
riding a marriage hearse instead of
a bridal carriage--for their union is
doomed from the start in such a system.
Again, it is not the system, so much as it
is the world-view, the philosophy, the
pretentions and assumptions of the self-confident, smiling
Rationalists in charge of London and
the 18th century world that Blake
so deplored and suffered under.
What difference, friend, is there between
Blake's London and our own
urban society of 21st Century America?
None, in his view! He would see the same
weakness and woe in people's faces if he
walked the streets of our cities, would he not?
Drug addicts, thieves, robbers, murderers,
prostitutes, child abusers and their victims--while
victims turn victimizers in an endless cycle
of violence and greed and traffiking in human lives.
Misery is misery, whether 18th century or 21st century.
Slavery is slavery. We are just as enslaved today
to consumerism and materialism and the endless
treadmill we all must race around in to
keep the system going. Again,
we have our own mind-forged manacles,
which a tiny elite at the top
has put in place and maintains for its
own benefit and uses. But we
too have forged them, have we not? We
have an alternative in Jesus Christ alone,
or we can choose to ignore His grace and
take our chances on our own, joining with the
crowd that wanders through the
chartered streets of America today, desperately
searching for a momentary
escape in porn or prostitution or drugs,
while chains drag at our heels, shackles
for slaves, that are attached
to that looming black wheel turning in the background that
is the driving engine of the whole
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