“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 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’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 true intent was the representation of his overarching philosophy something that has been explored at length by many scholars. Religion was the core of Blake’s life philosophy. He professed himself to be a Christian (Davies 158). However, as found in his poetry he often expressed radical beliefs within the confines of Christian belief. In its most generalized form, Blake’s religion-based ideology bares the most similarities to the transcendentalists that succeeded Blake’s era. Blake stated, “The strong man… from conscious superiority… marches on… raging with the inspiration of a prophet’s mind,” meaning any man of note progresses through life confident in his actions, whether or not those actions be wholesomely agreed upon by authority figures (159). Davies summarizes Blake’s religious foundations nicely. He says, “[Blake] did grasp one vital factor… if the religion of Christ is to mean anything at all, a man must make it his own by personal discovery…” (160). Van Sinderen stresses the implications of Blake’s philosophy on liberty saying, “[Blake] believed… the way to God, lies in the imagination… only by complete freedom can man reach his highest powers…” cementing Blake’s belief in the power of the individual rather than the external (Sinderen 27).
Historically, Blake’s views were of his time in a way, but were also influential on successive thinkers as mentioned previously. The late 18th century is correctly associated with the rise of romanticism in Britain, a break from the “animal and gross...” societal settings that Britain found itself mired in previously (Gaunt 9). Blake stood apart then, and stands apart now because of his individuality. In a world of manners and style, Blake broke from the preconceptions of the time, “it is a labour of genius to deny the preconceptions and reveal the truisms as threadbare… it seems a vicious circle… Blake broke the circle,” (Gardner 17). Blake railed against the air of privilege of the preceding time, embracing his individualistic philosophy and expressed everything through his work. He “attacked the dogma that God created rich and poor, master and servant,” through a philosophy that emphasized the power of the individual and the need of the individual to be wholly influential on one’s own life (19).
Looking slightly forward, Blake’s views appear quite similar to the transcendentalists of the mid 19th century. Both Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson stress individualism and an “inner spirituality.” Emerson professed, “What he announces in me, I must find true in me,” stressing the need to find and follow ones own path through a inner religious experience. Similar to Blake, Emerson emphasized “Soul,” what Blake would likely understand as emotion and imagination (Emerson 2). Thoreau spoke of an “internal heat” or “Fuel,” and directly writes, “Cast behind you all conformity… Keep on your own track…” ringing the same ideological bell as Blake with his views on freedom through imagination and calls to find one’s own path to Christ (Thoreau 7, 77). Such sentiments bare startling similarities to Blake, especially when compared to such works as Blake’s Proverbs of Hell wherein he writes, “’No bird soars too high if he soars on his own wings,’” (Sinderen 29).
In passing, a strong correlation between a radical, 18th century poet, and influential thinkers of the succeeding era does not seem important. It seems disconnected from our time, an insurmountable 200+ year ravine appears to exist between our time and Blake’s. The importance and relevance of Blake exists not in his similarities or differences to others, in his work, or his formative experiences, rather, Blake is notable for his approach to societally systemic issues. Gardner understands this. He says, “…even when the poetry is based directly… on an intense personal experience, we are led towards the general implications,” (Gardner 39). Blake’s work exists, in a way, as a guide to addressing societally systemic issues. “My PRETTY ROSE”, “AH! SUN-FLOWER”, and “THE LILLY” exemplify this very thing. They address a series of related, systemic issues, namely the oppression of the poor and the misguided views on sex. More importantly, they exemplify Blake’s work as moving from, “a profoundly felt personal experience (which may be a reaction to social evil) to a fiercely concentrated assault on the falsehoods that inhabit the soul and therefore corrupt society,” (40). Simply, such an approach of distilling intense emotion into concentrated argument and subversion is a relevant approach to systemic issues for anyone, in any time, for anyone to strive for.
Blake became “a hero of today’s radical student,” for good reason; his work persists, supporting his religiously based, individualistic philosophy, and providing a series of examples in how to address the issues of any time, including our own (Singer 4). Continuing on, Blake’s practice of trans valuation and the re-characterization of traditional symbols as evidenced in “My PRETTY ROSE”, “AH! SUN-FLOWER”, and “THE LILLY” serves as an important tool. It helps the reader connect with Blake’s intense emotional motivation in order to inspire indignation at injustice, to inspire action (Gardner 48). Such an approach can be applied to contemporary issues. Police brutality, racism, homosexual rights are all things that seem to arise again and again, pointing to systemic issues. Any movement benefits from the application of a Blakian approach. Sure, traffic-clogging protests physically represent discontent and serve to transfer basic message, and help to raise awareness, but these issues, like the ones Blake addressed directly, are complex. Regardless of the creator’s wit or brevity these issues do not fit on a picket sign. I am not rallying support for some wild-eyed individualist to write a series of illustrated poems on racism, or police brutality, or homosexuality. Rather, I am imploring any person motivated to eradicate some societal injustice to move as Blake did. Distill the highly charged emotions of the issue to a clear and concise argument, and if possible, change the symbols of evil to your own symbols of good.
The success of such an approach may be doubtful, but for examples look to the US civil rights movement of the 1960s. It may seem self-defeating to cite racism as a contemporary societal issue, and cite the African-American civil rights movement as an example of success, but when dealing with systemic issues, success is progress, not the complete eradication of an issue. Progress was certainly made with the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thus, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech stands as a prime example of a Blakian approach to an issue. Dr. King subverts the societally accepted ideal of the American dream, which until that time implicitly excluded blacks, and replaces it with his own dream. He said, “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed…” assigning fresh meaning to a classic phrase that is so strong in its imagery that it serves in the same way as Blake’s Rose (“I Have a Dream…”). More importantly, the Civil Rights movement distilled raw emotional power in the form of rage, sadness, and despair to a highly focused argument, and in the process achieved a great deal. Dr. King’s famous speech is a prime example of my point.
William Blake’s work subverted traditional values by applying new meaning to traditional symbols. In particular, his poems “My Pretty ROSE TREE” and “THE LILLY” exemplify his transvaluation of symbols. From his work one can grasp Blake’s overarching, religiously based, individualist philosophy, which bears many similarities to the transcendental thinkers that succeeded Blake’s era. This connection to the transcendental helps to bridge the gap between the past and present, and assists in focusing on the general implications of Blake’s philosophy. The general implications of Blake’s philosophy provide a means of addressing nearly any societally systemic issue by starting from a point of emotion and concentrating that emotion into a clear argument. Blake’s work serves as an example of this philosophy, thus cementing his relevance as long as emotionally charged issues continue to plague society.
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