The Sick Rose
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Everything worth investigating starts as a minor mystery, in this case the question was why the people that publish collections named "Erotic Poetry" would include this poem. What about it is erotic? Nothing, the first many times I read it, sounds erotic. Definitely not if erotic means, the way we almost always use the word today, sexy, or sexual, or enticing, or anything else between pornography and erotic love. Was this obviously erotic in Blake's time? Does it matter? Not any more that it matters that to get at it I needed Lynch's Twin Peaks and Lindsey Cristofani.
What the hell does a 20th century television drama, even a surrealist soap opera by David Lynch, have to do with an 18th century poem by a poet mostly remembered for his prophetic body and soul melding The Marriage of Heaven and Hell? Everything, if this poem is about rape. Everything, if it's about hidden, repressed male desire in society, in the bedroom, in the family home. The "invisible worm" is nothing else, once you see it that way. "That flies in the night, / In the howling storm", that seems straightforward enough, that such an act would come out of darkness, out of chaos, out of what is uncontrollable and buried, denied, unseen even by the perpetrator. Leland Palmer, the father in Twin Peaks, is given to us as possessed by a sort of demon named Bob, under whose control he repeatedly, over years, rapes his daughter Laura. He doesn't know what he has done until he is near death. Forget the demon part, focus on that he doesn't know. He is a slave to what flies in the night.
"Dark secret love" is poisonous love, not joyful, open, honest love. It's the kind of love that watches the object of desire from the corner of eyes, hoping no one else notices the glance. It wants to possess without being possessed, to have without having to be had and without questions being asked.
What can be done once the rose is sick? Once "thy bed / Of crimson joy" is violated? Maybe nothing. Blake doesn't give us any hope, except that, like all the poems in Songs of Experience, there is a song of Innocence to counter it, somehow. But this is innocence lost, and in human terms that isn't something that can be regained. In Twin Peaks the stain of dark, secret love, is Laura Palmer's death at her father's hand, but that is only the beginning, since the real stain is her loss of innocence, of which we are all, like the characters in the show, complicit. Of course she tries to regain it. Of course she fails. She is so tormented by the recurrence of the act, by how it begins to possess her, to turn her further to darkness and away from love, away from innocence, that she decides to die. Thus the last line of Blake, "Does thy life destroy". The act, the desire itself, the darkness and void that wraps around all of it, is life destroying, always and there isn't an antidote.
Lindsey noticed this all years ago while we read Blake in the back of a car on the way to a restaurant near LAX. Alright, not all, I don't know if Twin Peaks was part of our vocabulary yet, but it hardly matters since I have a feeling she understood the darkness of it already, without that point of reference. I could easily leave that part of the story out. Do you need to know, reading this? Yes. You need to know that saying what seems like a crazy idea (no one else, out of several intelligent readers of literature in that car, thought this poem was about sex) is important. You need to know it might be distilling somewhere, in some mind you don't even think about, and years later might manifest as something new and perhaps important.
That's how all these sort of things get done. That's how an 18th century poem says more about a 20th century television show in eight lines than most cultural commentators have said in many, many more.