The Lilly - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of The Lilly

The Lilly

The unassuming rose and the gentle sheep both have means of protecting themselves and keeping others at bay. The lily delights in love, lacking anything to defend itself and this leaves its beauty totally unalloyed.


This is a deceptively simple poem where Blake uses another flower image to reflect on the nature of true, unrepressed, love. Critics agree in reading this in the light of his approach to sexuality and his interest in Jacob Boehme.

Imperfect symbols

  • The rose, symbol of love, is modest and unassuming but it still has a thorn. It cannot be approached with complete freedom and openness - there are restrictions. It seems to be protecting itself; whoever approaches risks pain and harm
  • Similarly, the sheep, for all its simplicity and vulnerability, has horns which keep others at bay. They are a deterrent and a threat.

These generally esteemed symbols of love and of meekness are a reminder that what is often admired may not be perfect. The human experience of love and simplicity is still combined with self-defensiveness, and the desire to keep others at bay and maintain control. The rose and sheep therefore speak of a fallen humanity which jealously guards itself against others, rather than giving itself freely.

The significance of the lily

Lilies are frequently associated with the colour white and the iconography of the Virgin Mary, thereby representing purity and virginity. However, in Boehme's thought, the lily represents the new world, in which the divided, fallen state of humanity has been transcended. The lily therefore represents pure love which has no barriers to others, no prohibitions, because it is free of possessiveness over itself.

Blake, therefore, turns upside down the contemporary ideas about purity, which the lily would normally denote. The purity of the lily does not consist in the absence or denial of sexuality. It lies in guilt-free freedom such as that of Adam and Eve before they knew they were naked as a consequence of their rebellion against [3God. (See Big ideas from the Bible >  Garden of Eden; Adam and Eve; Second Adam.)

Investigating The Lilly

  • Do you think it would be possible to understand this poem if you knew nothing of Blake's beliefs?
  • Do you think this is a drawback in appreciating his poetry?
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