Culture Magazine

Attridge And Staten 3: Formal Features of The Sick Rose

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
When I began this series of posts I noted that I have long favored an austere approach to texts, but rather than think of “reading” of any kind – “close”, “surface”, or (now) “minimal” – I prefer to think in terms of the analysis and description of formal features. It is to that that I want to turn in this post.
I want to return to a feature I mentioned in my previous post, but did not adequately appreciate there. The rose at the heart of this poem is not some random blossom the poet has spotted in his wanders across the world. It is a Being with which the poet has a relationship, and accordingly he addresses his words to that Being. Thus, as readers we are overhearing this interaction or we are playing the part of the rose in it.
To bring this out I have rewritten the poem so as to replace the second person pronouns with third person pronouns. Since the roses in Blake’s illustration are clearly female, I have used the feminine gender.
The Rose, she is sick. The invisible worm, That flies in the night In the howling storm:
Has found out her bed Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does her life destroy.
This poem is flat. There is no drama in that first line, and no strong sense of return in lines four and eight, where the rose is again mentioned.
The drama of the opening address and the sense of return in the second stanza, they depend on the social space opened up by the use of the second person pronoun. In the entirely third person poem, the rose and the worm are equally things out there in the world. In the second-third person poem, they are not. They exist differently in this discourse.
A Four Part Trajectory
The poem evolves through a trajectory having four segments. Each segment should probably have a functional name, but as I have only one example I don’t quite what they should be. No matter, I’ll just make some up for the sake of discussion: 1) the address (line 1), 2) the excursion (lines 2-4), 3) the return (lines 5-6), and 4) the exit (lines 7-8).
The address is, obviously the first line. I call the next section of the trajectory the excursion because it takes us somewhere else? Where’d this worm come from? What does it have to do with the rose? Are we still in the same poem? The return brings us back to the rose, back, in effect, to home base in social space. And the exit takes us out of the poem all together. That’s obviously not all that it does, but that is something that it must. It must close the poetic space.
Now, consider those oppositions that Staten mentioned. The excursion belongs entirely to “howling-storm-worm”; that’s all that’s there in that section of the poem. The poem continues with the worm in the return (“has found out”) but the return quickly becomes dominated by the other pole of the opposition: “crimson-joy-rose”.
What are we going to call this opposition? Is it between good and evil, beauty and beastliness, perfection and destruction? None of the above. Or all of them, plus a whole bunch more. As my system suggested to me it is a cosmic opposition, meant to suggest the cosmos in its tension. Incidentally, the juxtaposition of this oppositional complex in the excursion and in the return dispenses of the problem about the worm’s invisibility: is it intrinsically invisible or only impossible to see amid all the nasty weather? Rather, its invisibility contrasts it with the crimson of the rose(‘s bed).
This brings us to the final segment of our trajectory, the exit. What happens with our oppositions there? The most obvious answer is that “crimson-joy-rose” becomes “life” and “howling-storm-worm” becomes “dark secret love”. The latter destroys the former – that’s what the poem says. But it is not at all clear to me that the destruction of an ordinary rose by an ordinary pestilential worm is the same kind of thing as the destruction of a cosmic rose by a cosmic worm. And I note that the poet is still, in this final line of the poem, addressing his attention to the rose, not to the worm.
Finally, I want to return to those pronouns. Let’s call the places there the poet address the rose the contact points. There are two contact points in the first line (“O Rose” and “thou”), one in the fifth line, marking the return, and one in the last line, the exit. That’s the core of the poem.
Whether this last run of thinking is best seen as “minimal reading” or “formal analysis and description” is not obvious to me. And, here and now, I don’t much care. We can discuss it later. What’s important that we have a sense of a coherent and flowing gesture in, well, poetic space, one encompassing four segments arrayed over two sentences and two quatrains.
All of that accords reasonably well with the passage Staten quoted from Attridge’s The Singularity of Literature (66).
The simplicity of the strongly articulated phrasal movement contributes to this experience. The arresting initial statement, “O Rose, thou art sick:” – one line, two beats – is followed, after a pregnant pause, by an extension that takes up the seven remaining lines. This extended elaboration of the opening line is made up of three lines of anticipation, followed by the stanza break which further heightens the tension, and then a four-line arrival. And those three lines of anticipation form a crescendo of intensity – “The invisible worm / That flies in the night, / In the howling storm,” – while the stanza of arrival varies the 1:3 balance of the first stanza by taking the reader through two climactic statements of equal length: “Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy; // And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.” (69-70)
To that I would like to recall Staten’s own observation about the seventh line, though not for what it says about the seventh line alone:
It is, for one thing, the only line with three major content words (Rose-sick; invisible-worm; flies-night; howling-storm; found-bed; crimson-joy; dark-secret-love; life-destroy).
Finally, there is the stuff of traditional prosody, lines, feet, beats, rhyme and the rest. All that is entailed in the poem’s form.
* * * * *
The question that’s hanging in the air over my head is of course: did Blake write other poems on this plan, this particular four-part trajectory? Have others? I don’t know. As I said at the outset, I’m neither a Blakean nor an expert in poetry. I’m a theoretician with a fondness for examples.
It would be most useful to have other examples to clarify the analysis – other examples of the same form, or of similar forms. Indeed, without other examples we don’t know quite know what the form is. Does it have to be draped over two quatrains, or is that an incidental feature of gesture? The only way to answer such a question is to consider other cases and see what makes sense in that context.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog