The Rose in a Perfect Circle

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


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:


Blake, William. “The Sick Rose.” Songs of Innocence and Experience. The William Blake Archive. [16.04.2021]

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

Love’s Secret Domain

“Love’s Secret Domain” was the title track from the album of the same name released by Coil in 1991, mixing together Blake’s “The Sick Rose” and Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” to create a delightfully disturbing paean to perverse and obsessive love. Listen to the podcast.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at

Zoapod 3: The Secret Domain – Coil and Blake (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Love’s Secret Domain (L.S.D.), released in 1991, was the third album by the group Coil and one which made manifest their interest in Blake, most overtly in the title track but also as an exposition of Blakean energy in various forms throughout the album.

2. Coil formed in 1982, one of its core members, Peter Christopherson, having previously been involved with the industrial group Throbbing Gristle. Both he and fellow member John Balance also contributed to Psychic TV in the early eighties, and much of the work of Coil only makes sense in the context of their associations with Genesis P. Orridge, the founder of both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, as well as the performance duo Coum Transmissions and the cult Thee Temple of Psychick Youth (T.O.P.Y). Orridge provides a nexus in the secret history of one strand of counter-cultural movements of this period – a history that is secret not because it is oppressed or hidden from the public gaze but rather, as with Poe’s purloined letter, lies in full view if one only knows where to look.

3. Orridge, who changed his name from Neil Megson in 1971, developed an interest in magic after meeting William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the early seventies, initially channelling such interest into performance art with Cosey Fanni Tutti (Christine Newby) as part of Coum Transmissions. Developing a deliberately confrontational style, most notoriously demonstrated in the Prostitution exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1976, following which they were denounced as ‘wreckers of civilisation’ by the then Arts Minister, Harold Lever, Coum mutated into Throbbing Gristle which, through its own label Industrial Records, pioneered industrial music and continued the antagonistic approach of Coum, incorporating pornography and Nazi-style propaganda into performances and releases. These, including D.o.A: The Third and Final Report (1978) and 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979), were deliberately intended to be as uncomfortable listening as possible, and the destructive, nihilistic decomposition of TG’s activities inevitably resulted in the group splitting in 1981 – although not so nihilistic that the group was unable to reform in 2004.

4. The dark and disturbing influences of TG were particularly evident on Coil’s first releases, a single track 12 inch called How to Destroy Angels (1984) and the (slightly) more conventional album, Scatology (1984). How to Destroy Angels included a B side that varied with multiple pressings, sometimes containing music, sometimes noise, sometimes a blank face; Scatology and the follow up, Horse Rotorvator (1986) both dealt with often violent queer themes, as with ‘The Sewage Worker’s Birthday Party’ and ‘Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)’, that reflected their involvement in a queer scene increasingly ravaged by AIDS and homophobia, combined with sensibilities and configurations (‘The Golden Section’ and ‘Solar Lodge’) that drew heavily on the occult practices of figures and groups such as Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare and the Ordo Templi Orientis – all of which had a role to play in the work of Psychic TV and T.O.P.Y.

5. This bare skeleton is hardly an “immense earthmoving device from the collective jawbones”, a Horse Rotorvator that will give any sense of Coil’s activities and, more importantly here, their relation to Blake. It forms merely a few brush strokes in a sketch that draws attention to an alchemical process by which Blake, once adopted, would be adapted and would, in turn, adapt the music of Coil.

6. Separated by a period of five years, there is an incredible transformation that takes place between Horse Rotorvator and Love’s Secret Domain, in which Blake has an important part to play. A similar transformation had taken place in Orridge’s work as he moved from Throbbing Gristle to Psychic TV: the harsh, alienating sounds of D.o.A and other early releases had been replaced by acid house and trance, most notably with the appearance of Psychic TV’s Towards Thee Infinite Beat in 1990, one year before Love’s Secret Domain, and Coil’s own album was re-mastered by Thighpaulsandra, who brought with him a lighter style evident in his work with the solo artist Julian Cope and the group Spiritualized.

7. While much of L.S.D. demonstrates a similar acid house style to Towards Thee Infinite Beat, the title track displays altogether darker influences closer in some respects to Coil’s earlier work.

[music ]

8. The song mixes together elements of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” with Roy Orbison’s song, “In Dreams”, which almost certainly is included here because of its appearance in David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet. In that movie, it is used as a disturbing backdrop to the psychotic machinations of Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper). John Balance’s menacing vocals on the Coil track particularly transform the listener’s perception of the Orbison song, mutating it from a plaintive and soft lament into an obsessive paean to perverse love.


9. Behind Coil’s lyrics also lie references to Yeats’s mystical “A Vision” and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, with more sinister evocations of Aleister Crowley’s sexual magic with Rose Kelly, one product of which was his notorious The Book of the Law and its edict “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. Yet if Balance’s vocals alone can distort and make decadent Orbison’s words, manifesting as mania the fixations that underlie the 1963 original, it is the final verse, invoking Blake’s invisible worm as the corroding passion of desire, that fixes this mutation.


10. Blake’s original illustration to “The Sick Rose”, depicting female forms prostrate on a dying flower, in many ways helps orient at least my reading of what is an ambivalent text. The image elicits the reader’s sympathy, while the words in isolation could be interpreted as a disturbing celebration of rapacious energy. It is this sado-masochistic force that informs Coil’s rendition: this song is not a lament for the madness of love but the lust for its intoxication. If the allusion to Crowley and Rose Kelly is laid to one side, and bearing in mind the homosexual themes of their earlier work, it is possible to view “Love’s Secret Domain” as a fiercely erotic trace of perverse, queer desire.

11. In an interview with the magazine Mondo 2000, Christopherson said that he believed that Coil had been travelling the “same mystical paths as Blake”, and both he and Balance believed that the entire album was inspired by a Blakean energy. Their reading of this text to me seems a perversion of Blake, just as it is a perversion of the Roy Orbison song. That does not at all prevent it from being one of my favourite, Blake-inspired tracks, for the contrarian spirit that provokes it does, surely, follow the same paths as that author who perverted Satan into Messiah in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The full Coil track (from YouTube):