Luther Burbank, an American botanist and horticulturist who “produced more than 800 new plant strains and varieties,” (Sahlman) said that “flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful” (Quotable Quotes). Flowers have been internationally used to represent beauty, love and attraction for thousands of year and are a very common subject of romantic poetry. Many of the poems by one of the best known romantic poets, William Blake, are about flowers. In his poems “The Garden of Love,” “Ah Sun-flower,” “The Sick Rose” and “My Pretty Rose Tree,” he uses flowers to symbolize the complexity and complications of human love and desires. These poems deal with issues such as the repression of sexual desires, shame and secrecy of relationships and jealousy as a destroyer of relationships.
“The Garden of Love” expresses Blake’s criticism of the rules of the orthodox Christian church which he believes is responsible for the repression of natural, sexual desires. The church looks down upon sexual freedom and believes that sex should be limited to within the bonds of marriage. The poem begins “I went to the Garden of Love, and saw what I never had seen.” The speaker lets us know that this is not his first time visiting this garden and during his previous visits, things had been different. On the green where he was able to play freely before was a Chapel with the sign “Thou Shalt not” over the door. There are graves and tomb stones in the garden that had once been filled with beautiful flowers. There are also Priests walking about “binding with briars [his] joys & desires.”
Flowers are used in “The Garden of love” as a symbol of beauty and life. The word used to describe the flowers in the poem is “sweet”. Sweet suggests pleasure and admiration. When the speaker visits the garden, he finds that those sweet flowers are gone and in their place are briars, a mass of thorny twigs, binding his desires. The loss of the flowers signifies the loss of the beauty associated with sexual freedom. The flowers also represent life. When the flowers existed, the speaker was able to play freely. Now, there are graves, tombstones and priests in black gowns which are all related to death.
Similarly to “The Garden of Love,” “Ah Sun-flower” also deals with the repression of sexual desires. Though the main desire of the sunflower is to get to Heaven, the speaker makes note that among the individuals that will go to Heaven are “the Youth pined away with desire” and “the pale Virgin shrouded in snow.” These two mentioned people have not acted on their sexual desires and as a result, guarantee themselves a spot in the place where the Sun-flower seeks to go. Whether or not the Sun-flower meets the requirements to make it into Heaven is not known; he only speaks of the desire to go there.
Love and sex, though not the same, have always been associated with each other. “Ah Sun-flower” makes reference to the idea of not acting on the desire to express love in order to get to Heaven; the place where love originated from. One of the greatest complications of love is not being able to recognize when and how one is supposed to demonstrate that love without destroying their relationship with God and their chances of getting into Heaven. Again, Blake attacks the beliefs of the church that acting upon sexual desires will keep one from going to Heaven.
The sun-flower in this poem represents true life. Sun flowers are bright and resemble the sun which is the source of all life. The representation of the sun flower in the poem is ironic because the sun flower is exhausted and desires to die. Sun flowers follow the sun before they bloom but once they reach their blooming stage, they lose this ability. This sun flower has not reached its blooming stage because it still “countest the steps of the Sun.” While the sun flower should desire life from the sun, it instead attempts to reach the heavens where the sun lives. In order for the sun flower to reach Heaven, it would have to give up its life, just like humans would have to give up their joyous lives in order to reach that holy place.
“The Sick Rose” is different from the other two poems, in that it deals with the shame and secrecy of sexual relationships. Women, like roses, are supposed to be pure. However, the rose has been infected by a “worm” and has become sick as a result. The worm is invisible and has found out the flower’s bed. Worms are dangerous to flowers and use them as food which makes interaction between a worm and a flower undesirable. This poem could be interpreted as either forced sexual experiences or sexual experiences that are unconventional or inappropriate. Either would be cause for shame and secrecy. The reaction of the woman is unknown, leaving the question of whether or not she is a willing participant in the experiences. It is clear that the rose is a victim of the worm’s love because the poem mentions that her life has been destroyed as a result. Still, it is a possibility that the rose could have chosen to be a victim.
A similarity between “The Sick Rose” and the other two poems is the concept of suppressed desires. In this poem, it may have been a wise idea for the desires to be repressed. Though Blake believes that humans should be free to act on their sexual desires, there should be a mutual trust and consent for the desires to be acted upon. If the worm had desires that the rose was not receptive of, it would clearly explain how his “dark secret love” destroyed her life.
In “My Pretty Rose Tree,” the speaker is offered a beautiful flower, which symbolizes a beautiful woman. He refuses to accept the flower because he already has a pretty rose tree, or woman, that he loves. When his pretty rose tree finds out about the incident, she becomes jealous and turns away from the speaker. This love story is extremely tragic. Though the speaker made the right decision in turning down the flower, he still ends up losing his pretty rose tree. He was completely in love with his lover yet she failed to realize it. The jealousy of his lover is the sole destroyer of their relationship. After his lover turn away from him, he was left to face the painful thorns and is left with neither the flower nor the rose tree
The decision of the speaker to choose the pretty rose tree over the flower was extremely wise. The flower, though beautiful, is not connected to a source of life and would eventually die. The rose tree, however, will continue to bear beautiful roses. The rose tree is mature, which the speaker appreciates, but she fails to see her own worth when compared to the simple beauty of a flower. This shows how people can be jealous of others and not realize that what they have is better.
Love is complicated and the desires that come along with it are not always easy to comprehend. Though love is a beautiful thing, it is usually accompanied with some form of pain, hurt or confusion. Blake’s poems deal with some of the issues that are associated with love and desires such as the repression of sexual desires, shame, secrecy, and jealousy. As a symbol, he uses flowers which are associated with the beauty and pureness of love. However, as beautiful as the flowers are, they are not exempt from pain. Blake makes his opinions of love and relationships evident in his poetry. He brilliantly used flowers to express his views in a tangible way. Flowers are a great gift from nature and are loved even with all their negative attributes. The full quote by Luther Burbank says, “Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food, and medicine to the soul.”
Blake, William. “Ah Sun-flower.” “My Pretty Rose Tree.” “The Garden of Love.” and “The Sick
“Quotable Quotes.” Good Reads. Web. 05 Feb. 2010.
Sahlman, Rachel. “Luther Burbank.” Biographies Written for Students. Spectrum, 2009. Web. 5