William Blake’s Songs of Experience makes heavy use of religious symbols while overtly telling of everyday life events. Two particularly compelling poems are “My Pretty ROSE TREE” and “THE LILLY”. “My Pretty ROSE TREE” offers the overt meaning of jealousy; it is the tale of an envious woman. “THE LILLY” offers a more positive overt message, which exults the value in a life of love and beauty. Both of Blake’s poems integrate symbols that are common to Christianity, but their meaning within these poems breaks from their common context thereby offering Blake’s differing opinions on religion, and imparting new values in the process. Furthermore, the location of the poems on the page accentuates Blake’s values.
“My Pretty ROSE TREE” is obviously the story of a jealous woman. Flowers are common symbols for women and femininity and the allusion is not at all disguised (Holm 21). Blake writes, “I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree… but my Rose turnd away with jealousy: And her thorns were my only delight,” (Blake 464). Thus, Blake is rebuffed by a love interest due to the attraction of another “flower”. That meaning is obvious. The rose as a common symbol of Christianity is also immediately present. In Christianity, the rose and thorns represent a variety of different figures and situations based on the context in which they appear. Thorns are oft associated with martyrdom due to the placement of a crown of thorns on Jesus’s head during his crucifixion with the original intention of mocking Christ (“Matthew 27:29…”). The rose flower itself is often a symbol of beauty and virtue (Koehler).
This rich history of symbolism as it relates to the rose makes Blake’s use of it compelling. After admitting the obvious something subtler appears. Given that the rose typically represents virtue, and in this case the rose “turnd away,” and “her thorns were my only delight,” then the poem takes on a new meaning (Blake 464). If Blake ascribed the typical symbolic meaning of virtue to the rose, then the rose tree would not turn away, but embrace that person which desires to “tend her by day and night,” (Blake). However, in the case of Blake’s pretty rose tree, she is prone to jealousy a synonym for envy, a sin which is, “the rottenness of the bones,” (“Proverbs 14:30…”). If Blake’s rose tree embodied typical Christian values it would not be prone to sin such as envy, and thus breaks from the traditional meaning.
“THE LILLY” is a poem that exhibits Blake’s views on love, specifically as it relates to sex. Again Blake uses flowers as a symbol. The rose reappears in a more conservative role along with another feminine symbol, a lamb [sheep]. He writes, “The modest Rose puts forth a thorn: the humble Sheep, a threatening horn,” (Blake 464). In this case, the rose and the sheep represent women practicing the traditional, chaste Christian life turning away from love and sex. This is clarified when Blake continues, “the Lilly white, shall in love delight, Nor a thorn nor threat stain her beauty bright” (Blake). Obviously the Lilly delights in love where others do not. Much like “My Pretty ROSE TREE” the symbols utilized in the poem make it quite impactful. The lily flower, in typical Christian theology, is a symbol of chastity, virginity, and purity (Scaff 111). Lilies often appear alongside depictions of Mary or the Angel Gabriel (Morris 147). However, chastity is gone from Blake’s Lilly. Blake’s Lilly embraces love, delights in it, and is not wilted by that “sin”. Instead she remains bright and beautiful! Clearly, Blake’s Lilly breaks from typical Christian symbols exactly like the rose present in “My Pretty ROSE TREE”.
Blake’s movement from typical Christian ideology and symbols brings into question the true intent of his poetry. Blake was a strong believer in Mystical Christianity, and that presents itself strongly in his poetry (McQuail 121). The use of typical Christian symbols in new ways, in strange ways, exemplifies this religious philosophy. An allusion to Lilly Crucifixions is also a possibility. Such crucifixions are those that depict Christ crucified on a Lilly. They date back to medieval Christianity and “combine… mystical ideas relating to Incarnation, the Virgin’s purity, the sacrifice of Christ… and man’s redemption,” (Edwards 43). Although the ideology is similar and contains a number of parallels, it is unlikely that this is the reasoning behind Blake’s poems given the Lilly Crucifixions obscurity.
Blake’s misuse of Christian symbols is more clearly explained when looking at his views as represented by the rest of his work. As exemplified by poems like “The Chimney Sweeper”, Blake clearly is speaking out against the mistreatment of certain people based on societal standards imparted by religion and societal structure. This viewpoint helps to explain “THE LILLY”. Its message encouraging love did not support promiscuity, but instead is merely representation of another “victim” in society (McQuail 122). It is a call to move away from the harsh sexual repression present in society, much like the rose breaking from its traditional role or the Lilly embracing love.
In addition to the symbols and poetry itself, the situation of the poems on the page also plays a part in bringing further meaning to the poems. “My PRETTY ROSE”, “AH! SUN-FLOWER”, and “THE LILLY” appear in that order from top to bottom on a single page. “AH! SUN-FLOWER” contains a similar message to the “THE LILLY” in speaking out against sexual repression (McQuail). Therefore the page becomes a flyer speaking out against traditional Christian values, pushing the viewer to break away [“My PRETTY ROSE”], and stop sexual repression [“AH! SUN-FLOWER” and “THE LILLY”]. Blake emphasizes the unity of the three poems by capitalizing nearly every letter in the three titles.
Blake used traditional Christian symbols in uncommon ways, ascribing atypical meanings to the rose and the lily in “My PRETTY ROSE” and “THE LILLY” to not only break away from Christian values, but also impart new values moving away from sexual repression. In addition to the poetry, the placement of the three poems the page: “My PRETTY ROSE”, “AH! SUN-FLOWER”, and “THE LILLY” combine to further emphasize Blake’s wishes for society.
Blake, William, and Geoffrey Keynes. Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul 1789-1794. Kindle ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970. Print.
Edwards, John. "Lily-Crucifixions in the Oxford District." Oxford Art Journal 2., Art and Society (1979): 43-45. JSTOR. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.
Holm, Michael Juul., Ernst Jonas. Bencard, and Poul Erik. Tøjner. The Flower as Image. Humlebaek, Denmark: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2004. 21-22. Print.
Koehler, Theodore A. "The Christian Symbolism of the Rose Our Lady and the Rose." The Christian Symbolism of the Rose Our Lady and the Rose. University of Dayton, 5 Aug. 2009. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.
"Matthew 27:29 KJV." Matthew 27:29 KJV. Biblehub, 2004. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.
Mcquail, Josephine A. "Passion and Mysticism in William Blake." Modern Language Studies 30.1 (2000): 121-34. JSTOR. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.
Morris, Frances. "An Early Seventeenth-Century Cope." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 9.6 (1914): 147-48. JSTOR. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.
"Proverbs 14:30 KJV." Proverbs 14 KJV. Biblehub, 2004. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.
Scaff, Susan Von Rohr. "The Virgin Annunciate in Italian Art of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance." College Literature 29.3, Literature and the Visual Arts (2002): 109-23. JSTOR. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.