The poem “Ah! Sun-Flower” by William Blake is both beautiful to the eyes and pleasant to the ears. However, its content entails much more than the name suggests. After closely reading the poem, one learns that Blake’s intentions lie far into the depths of human thought of the afterlife.
Specifically, Blake addresses who reaches the superior realm of existence after death. Although it remains unnamed throughout the piece, this higher plane is characterized by Blake as a positive place of light and timelessness. Through contrasting symbols of innocence and experience, Blake is able to show that it is the former that is closer to this higher realm of existence.
In the first stanza of the poem, Blake presents the features that embody this higher level of life. Through the use of end rhyme, Blake determines that this is a place mainly of timelessness and light.
By rhyming alternating lines, the words “time” and “clime” as well as the words “Sun” and “done” are paired and thus related to one another (1- 4). The first pair of words expresses that the “clime,” or atmosphere of this other realm is characterized by timelessness (3).
This is because the word “time” is used in the phrase “weary of time,” suggesting a want for eternity (1). Therefore, the pairing of the two words suggests an atmosphere of perpetuity. The next pair, “Sun” and “done,” indicates that this realm is a place of light (2, 4). Within the poem, “done” refers to the higher plane of the afterlife because it is where the “travelers journey” ends (4).
The traveler is called so because of his voyage from the current plane of existence to the subsequent higher plane. The traveler’s voyage is “done” when he or she reaches this greater level of existence (Blake 4). The “Sun,” which exudes an enormous amount of light, exemplifies the illumination of the higher plane because it is used in conjunction with the word “done” (2, 4).
Through the use of imagery, Blake further develops the realm’s luminous qualities as well as introduces its positive attributes. Specifically, these aspects are represented by the image of the “sweet, golden clime” in reference to the higher realm’s environment (3). Both the words describing the atmosphere, “sweet” and “golden,” carry blissful connotations (3).
The word “sweet” suggests that this is a place superior to Earth since the Earth is a place of both sweetness and bitterness (3). The word “golden” implies that the higher plane is worthy of praise, as anything associated with the word gold is highly valued (3). However, this word also carries with it a sense of light or brightness.
The color of gold is comparable to the color of the light of the sun mentioned earlier. Thus the gold further illuminates the atmosphere. While this eternal plane of light and bliss sounds appealing to all, it is only some who will reach its gates.
Once establishing a description of this greater realm, Blake symbolically introduces the innocence of life. Blake presents innocence through the use of the “Youth” and the “Virgin” (5-6).
By nature, both innocents lack age and the experience associated with age. Although the youth is languished “with desire” and the virgin is “shrouded in snow,” neither will act on their instincts because of these two factors (5-6). Their naïveté blinds them to the bitter side of life gained from experience while their youth shields them from the grueling effects of time and old age.
Upon their deaths, the youth and the virgin “arise from their graves and aspire” for the described higher realm (7). The phrase “arise from their graves” suggests that the two innocents have died, although they are not on the same journey that the traveler is on (7). The two innocents still “aspire,” or search for this higher level of existence even though they have passed from life to death (7). Therefore, even with the touch of death, the innocents cannot reach the higher plane.
In contrast to the “Youth” and the “Virgin”, Blake establishes that the “Sun-flower” is symbolic of human experience (1, 5 – 6). While the youth and the virgin are human in nature, the sunflower is not. However, Blake personifies the flower to create a closer relationship between the sunflower and humanity. In the first line of the poem, the sunflower is paired with the word “weary” (1).
This word personifies the sunflower by giving it a human emotion. In the next line of the piece, Blake uses the pronoun “who” in reference to the sunflower (2). The two words in combination elucidate the flower’s relationship to mankind. In addition, the sunflower’s name suggests an innate closeness with the “Sun” beyond the capabilities of the innocents (2). The “Sun,” which is a part of the higher plane, is directly contained in the sunflower’s name (2).
Throughout the poem, Blake establishes both that the sunflower represents those who are experienced in life and that it is closer to the higher realm by more than its name suggests. Blake initially introduces the flower as being “weary of time” (1). This implies that the sun-flower has lived for a long time and has gained the experience acquired through life and its events.
In feeling exhausted by time, the sunflower yearns for timelessness. The sunflower is also “seeking” after the “sweet” atmosphere of the higher realm of existence (3). Since the sunflower is experienced, it has lived through both the positive and negative aspects of life. As a result, the Earth seems bitter and the sunflower yearns for a place only of sweetness. Not only does the sunflower yearn for blissful eternity, it also “countest the steps to the Sun” (2). The word “countest” both accentuates the sunflower’s exhaustion as well as implies that the sunflower is waiting to reach this higher realm (2). In counting the steps to the sun, the sunflower is quantifying how much further it has to go until he reaches the sun, or the other realm with which it is associated with.
The sunflower is experienced; it has lived through both the positive and negative aspects of life. This is primarily because the sunflower has lived for a long amount of time. As a result, it has nothing further to experience on the Earth. This is in contrast to the innocents. The innocents have lived only for a short amount of time, encountering only the positive side of life. The youth and the virgin continue to search for the higher realm even after death because they have died in their youth and innocence.
In doing so, they lack the experience of life and the knowledge of time. The sunflower, who has been subjected to both innocence and experience, is weary of time because it is simply waiting to travel on its journey to eternity.
By presenting the opposing entities in the different states of life (the innocence in death and the experience in life), Blake is claiming that it is only after both innocence and experience that one can reach the higher plane of existence.
Blake forms the true meaning of the piece by juxtaposing images of innocence with experience. He creates the idea that the experienced being will eventually reach the desired destination because of his or her time spent on Earth and the experience gained in the process. The innocents unfortunately share a less pleasing fate due to their lack of age and experience.
In asserting this bold statement about life and death, Blake addresses a question that has plagued man for almost all of time: Who will reach the utopia of the afterlife? Straying from the typical determinant of this question as a battle of good versus evil, Blake states his claim in terms of the contrasting states of the soul known as innocence and experience.
Blake, William. “Ah! Sun-flower.” Songs of Innocence and Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. 43.