My freshman year of college, I took a general survey course of English literature. First semester, we went over Beowulf and Chaucer and that sort of thing, through the Renaissance. In the second semester, we got to the Romantics. When I was assigned Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake, I naturally assumed the poem “Ah Sun-flower” would be in praise of the flower. I mean, “ah” sounds like a good thing. And, I couldn’t understand the rest of the poem. Here it is:
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.
My notes about the poem, which I’m sure were copied verbatim from my professor on the tracing-paper like pages of the Norton Anthology go like this: “yearning for death – Heaven,” “not good, restraint,” and “ironic – don’t want to be like this.” It was one of the many times in college when I would leave a class, and look around at everyone I passed in the street wondering “do they know that? Was I the only one who didn’t?” I had always thought sunflowers were a good thing.
Needless to say, I thought of Blake when I walked to the side of my house last week and found this:
I stood for a long time, just staring at the suicidal sunflower, toppled by its own weight and dreams. I almost felt I should draw a chalk outline around it. I felt a sadness, and a guilt. The seeds had promised “mammoth sunflowers.” Maybe it was too much to plant them on the sunny southern side of the house.
And like any over-analytical English major, I wondered what the sunflower said about me. Did I focus too much on the future, did I strain my neck too much, looking for what was just out of my reach? Should I be more grounded?
Blake believed people should focus on living their life, rather on some future Heaven. I believe that too, but I still do long for a future that I don’t yet have. I think that Blake must have too, a little at least. You can’t write without some sense of longing.
I guess that you need to reach for the sun, but while reaching you also have to revel in the dirt of your daily life. I’ll let you know when I’ve reached that balance. For now, here is one flower that has. Yes, that is our roof.