The Rose in a Perfect Circle

“The Sick Rose.” Songs of Innocence and Experience. Copy Z, Object 39. (1826) The William Blake Archive. www.blakearchive.org

 

The song title “Rose” (Mer de Noms, 2000) of the American progressive rock band A Perfect Circle (which is a side-project of the singer and a guitarist of the band Tool, Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel), caught my attention immedeately as I felt strongly reminded of “The Sick Rose” (Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789, 1794). And I was not disappointed. The first stanza clearly echoes Blake’s poem. The later parts do not seem to have much in common with the poem at a first glance (something I can hopefully dispute), making for a creative adaption that references “The Sick Rose” only to depart drastically from it. The poem serves as starting point for a new story-line. This Rose fights back and escapes its attacker.

“The Sick Rose” can be interpretated in the context of a damaging effect brought about by sexual intercourse. Rose and worm can be seen as representative of the human genitals respectively. In the song, the worm has been exchanged for a snail, thus erasing the sexual connotations of the song or at least weakening them. Yet this does not make for a softer or gentler version; it is only the focus that has been changed. The parasitical attacker is just as destructive as Blake’s. I argue that he is not only compared to a snail, but also to two creatures associated with the devil, namely the Beast, and Baphoment (referenced as a goat).

The song emphasises the stillness of the victim. The attacker is not to be disturbed. The victim submits to the will of the other. The Rose is moved by the wind, an image of passivity that implies that the Rose is not only bend, but it is bend in different directions and is totally at the mercy of the will of the wind.

This stupor is later compared to the utter stillness of an animal trapped by headlights. While the static rose cannot escape the snail, the animal looking at the approaching headlights has fallen into shock and cannot flee to safety. Blake’s metaphor has been paired with another that carries a very similar meaning, but also brings about a decisive change. The worm “flies in the night,” an inexorable approach bringing doom, which can be compared to a car speeding towards a terrified animal on a dark road. The car with its lights on also “flies in the night.” Yet, Blake’s worm is “invisible,” whereas the racing car, or better, its headlights, are both threat to life and cause of the stupefying terror. The victim has the attacker in plein sight, yet remains still as the snail / Beast / Baphoment must not be disturbed. This fixation is mental.

However, this is only partly true, because the narrator of the song refuses to be a helpless animal on the road anymore. S/he refuses to be a victim; s/he refuses to keep still in suffering. S/he puts up resistance against the snail and addresses it directly. The snail has become a “you.” The Rose describes the victim of an abusive and / or toxic relationship who must find the strength to escape.

And this is where the meaning of “Rose” changes. In the later lines, it does not refer to a substantive and a passive plant anymore; it becomes a verb and implies action. “Rose” has two meanings, first it describes the plant as a metaphor for the helpless victim, but then it describes the active resistance against the attacker. The narrator tries to regain his or her autonomy by repeatedly confirming his or her own existence and power to act.

This song is a dark and modernised adaptation of “The Sick Rose.” The victim is not only compared to a plant, which arguably cannot move, but also to a terrified animal which makes clear that the victim is fixed mentally. This explicit reference to stupor illustrates that abuse has many faces. Whereas the scenario of rose and parasite basically remains the same, the snail eats the rose and lives from it, the song adds the new terror of a victim who must learn to consciously fight that which steals its life force instead of just tolerating it. The song touches upon a sensivite topic, namely the question why victims remain in an abusive relationship.  It uses the Blake poem to shed light upon this issue by equaling the Rose that is physcially fixed with a deer transfixed by the headlights of an approaching car. Both cannot help their situation and both cannot escape. Yet, the song also makes clear that putting up resistance, gaining self-consciousness, and fighting back are the only means of survival for the Rose. The Rose must rise.

Listen to the song:

Sources

Blake, William. “The Sick Rose.” Songs of Innocence and Experience. The William Blake Archive. http://blakearchive.org/copy/songsie.z?descId=songsie.z.illbk.39 [16.04.2021]

Keenan, Maynard James, Howerdel, William. “Rose.” A Perfect Circle. Mer de Noms. Virgin Records, 2000.

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