By William Blake
Ah! Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my sun-flower wishes to go.
This poem is deceptively complicated. Whilst, on the surface, it might appear to be a nice, light read about a sunflower in the sun, it is actually about the issues associated with reality, afterlife, and the imagination. The sunflower acts as an allegory for a human being: in particular, a traveller. They are tired of life and wish for something more. This takes the form of an afterlife that may also be associated with a world of imagination where people can visualise their highest aspirations. Blake presents this (afterlife/imagination) as an end-goal that everyone should attempt to reach, as he believes that it will enable them to escape from the brutal realities of human existence.
Metre & Structure
This poem has an alternating rhyme scheme (ABABCDCD) which arguably reflects the pattern of life and death in the poem (as well as reality/suffering and hope/Blake’s imagined world). It is also written in a roughly trochaic tetrameter which may be seen as a purposeful subversion of the traditional iambic pentameter often associated with earthly matters such as love and life.
Line by Line
- “Ah!” – This initial exclamation both demonstrates Blake’s passion and the inspiration that triggered this poem in his mind.
- “Weary of time” – By saying that the flower is “weary of time”, Blake may be suggesting that it is “weary” of the entire process of life and death (human existence) and that it may be longing for a form of constancy considered in Keats’ “Bright Star” and Coleridge’s “Constancy to an Ideal Object“.
- “Countest” – This emphasises the “weary” quality of human reality as the sun-flower is forced to count the steps leading them away from their current existence.
- “The steps of the Sun” / “Sweet golden clime” – Blake here begins to paint an image of not only the “Sun” but also of divinity and the afterlife as the sunflower begins to climb the steps of heaven. This “heaven” (or new world) is “sweet” and “golden”, free from the imperfections that our human reality possesses. It is also worth noting the sibilance in this stanza: this next world is clandestine but beautiful, and these connotations are emphasised by the sibilance.
- “Where the traveller’s journey is done.” – This is both ominous and conclusive, the nature of an ending emphasised by the end stop following the word, “done”. Blake suggests that “the traveller” (or sunflower) will be “done” when they reach heaven (or wherever they are going), yet this idea is subverted by the fact that this is not the end of the poem. After what we perceive to be the end of both the poem and human existence, Blake carries on, suggesting that the sunflower is not “done”, after all.
- “Pined away with desire” – This may have sexual connotations. In human reality (the old world), the Youth is wasting away, crippled by their emotions.
- “The pale Virgin shrouded in snow” – This can be seen as a negative; whilst “the Youth” is wasted by their desire, the “Virgin” is buried or “shrouded” by “snow”, reality preventing the fulfilment of her desires.
- “Arise from their graves and aspire” – Reality is aligned with suffering. By “aspir[ing]” or imagining, both “the Youth” and the “Virgin” are able to “rise” into the afterlife/new world of imagination that doesn’t possess the imperfections of the life that they are now confined to.
- “Wishes” – There is a constant sense of longing in this poem; everyone, including the sunflower, want to abandon reality/life for the sake of the world that Blake depicts. Whether this is a religious afterlife or another world filled with people’s aspirations, it is what we should strive for by searching and aspiring for it.
For a relatively short poem, there’s a lot going on in “Ah! Sun-Flower”. There are also a lot of interpretations that can be had from it; I’ve only really given one that considers the qualities of imagination and religion, but the idea of “the Sun” can represent a lot of things, such as hope, God, happiness and rebirth. The thing to remember about Blake is that his poems have a lot of depth; whilst he may be saying one thing, he is quite often meaning the complete opposite.
It might seem quite bleak, but the message of this poem isn’t actually that bad. What it’s really saying, is summarised in the penultimate line: “Arise from [your] graves and aspire”. So whilst Blake is basically saying that human existence is brutal, he is telling us that we should realise this, “[a]rise from [our] graves”, and find a better life.
As always, thank you very much for reading. If you have any questions for me or would like to offer your own interpretation of the poem, there is a comments section at the bottom of this page. You can check out my other poem analyses here.