Ah! Sunflower - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism

In Ah! Sunflower, Blake combines two common images, but employs them against expectation.

Sunflower – According to legend the sunflower was said to turn continually toward the sun (which Photo by Elnaz Sarbar, available through Creative Commontime-lapse photography now demonstrates!). In mythology, the nymph Clytie dies from unrequited love for Hyperion, the sun god. She is transformed into a flower which tracks the sun during the day, as the sunflower does. Since the sun is traditionally seen as the source of life, the sunflower can also be used as an image which affirms life. In Christianity the sun's rising in the east is seen as a sign of the resurrection and, therefore, of eternal life. In this context, the sunflower's turning to the sun denotes longing for eternal life, rather than affirmation of this one. However, Blake may be criticising this way of interpreting the sunflower, since it seems to speak of foregoing present fulfilment. He felt that the desire for eternity was not noble but belonged to those who have not had the courage to face their other desires.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Before reading the poem, what were your associations with the sunflower?
    • How have these changed?


The distortion of Christian belief about the future life

Blake attacks the approach of some forms of contemporary Christianity. This taught people to accept present suffering and injustice because of the promise of bliss and the absence of all suffering in the next world. It also encouraged the denial of sexuality and other powers in the present, in the hope of future reward. Although this was a consistent teaching of the New Testament, Blake condemned it as the perspective of the ‘fallen' person, who would therefore permanently fail to attain human fulfilment.

Investigating themes

  • What new ideas about this theme do you gain from this poem?
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