The Melancholy Irony of a Sunflower Graveyard

William Blake’s “Ah! Sunflower” takes on a new dimension of melancholy loss when considering it through a lens of economic privilege and tourism. In this poem, the speaker watches a joyful, youthful scene which he can watch wistfully, but cannot participate in. The speaker reminisces, “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” (Blake l. 1-4). The manifest content has dual implications. The first is that he, the speaker, is the sunflower: stationary and worn from observing the world, he awaits the sunset anxiously because it promises rest from his work. The second is the speaker addresses the sunflower as a friend observing the sublime journey of the solitary traveler, world weary yet determined to accomplish his goal. The ambiguous meaning of the lines is accentuated by the rhyme scheme, abab, which increases anticipation of the resolution by distancing the conclusion as if to mimic the slow setting of the sun. 

Both conclusions are fascinating to follow through to the next stanza which illuminates an economically critical impulse to the poem. The speaker continues, “Where the youth pined away with desire, / And the pale virgins shrouded in snow, / Arise from their graves and aspire, / Where my sun-flower wishes to go” (Blake l. 5-8). In the first two lines, the speaker observes the young lovers in Renaissance language, revived from Greek myth, describing the “youth” usually a lustful or strong young man, and the “virgins,” beautiful women, who waste time among the sunflowers with their lovers. This reading elicits some jealousy on the part of the speaker because the traveler has the privilege to rest among the leisurely youths of antiquity, who can enjoy the scene while they must wait and work until the day is out. For the sublime traveler and his youthful company, money seems to be no object, as they can “pin[e] away” the day on a whim of desire, and the women can afford such delicate adornments as “snow.”  

The lines in this poem contain repeated spondee in the meter which creates the illusion of a hitched breath of desire for the speaker: “Arise from their graves and aspire, / Where my sun-flower wishes to go” (Blake l. 7-8). The content of these lines emphasizes his hidden desire to join these wanderers in their careless joy. In order to fit the rhyme scheme and increase anticipation, the clauses are reversed. As they currently stand, they give the impression that the youths rise from their graves to enjoy one last dance together in the sunflower field, and perhaps this is what the speaker images and desires. But if the lines are reversed, they also reveal that when he watches the lovers, the speaker’s buried dreams of joining them stir in their graves in sunflower field, desirous once more to join them. But because the speaker does not have a monetarily privileged gaze, he must continue to work, and his wishes must remain wishes. 

One thought on “The Melancholy Irony of a Sunflower Graveyard”

  1. I never thought to look at this poem from an economic lens or in a contrast between work and leisure—now that you mention it, I can’t un-see hints of potential economic/tourism-related commentary in many poems relating to people enjoying nature. I’m thinking, for some reason, about “Tintern Abbey”: particularly the lines “look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity.” The idea of the speaker of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” looking of nature in a different way, a way intertwined with sadness and humanity, through the lens of economics and tourism makes me think of your interpretation of “Ah! Sunflower”. The difference here, I think, is that in “Tintern Abbey,” the speaker’s sorrow comes from the fact that the nature itself has been reduced to an attraction, yet they accept it, whereas the speaker of “Ah! Sunflower” longs to experience the “youthful” view of nature again?

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