The Curious Symbolism of Roses in Literature and Myth

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the symbolism of that perennially popular flower, the rose

Roses are sometimes known as the queen of flowers, and they are perhaps the richest in symbolism, whether in Christianity, classical myth, or modern (especially romantic) literature. But the symbolism of roses is a curious topic, because red and white roses have attracted such starkly different connotations.

Rose symbolism in classical mythology

In Greek myth, roses are closely linked with Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite. One day, Adonis was gored by a wild boar during a hunting trip and died in Aphrodite’s arms as she wept; the first red roses were said to have sprung up from his blood as it soaked into the earth, staining the nearby white roses a deep crimson.

This helps to explain how red roses came to be inextricably linked to romantic love (and adorn millions of Valentine’s Day cards every year): the idea is that such love transcends death and lives on beyond the lovers’ own short lives.

The Romans even had a festival (didn’t they always), named Rosalia, which was celebrated on various days in May and June every year in the Roman calendar and involved paying tribute to the spirits of the dead; roses figured heavily in the festival, as the name suggests.

And speaking of festivals, Dionysian festivals in ancient Greece and Rome often featured roses, which were worn as garlands because roses were thought to prevent drunkenness. And if you were knocking back the wine in honour of Dionysus (or Bacchus in Roman times), you probably needed something to ward off a stupor.

As Hans Biedermann observes in his informative post on rose-symbolism in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), this is probably how the rose came also to symbolise discretion. To this day, the Latin expression sub rosa (literally, ‘under the rose’) denotes something said under the veil of secrecy.

The rose in Christianity

Many pagan elements of nature symbolism are mirrored by Christian symbols, and this is true of the symbolism of roses: much like Adonis’ blood spilling into the earth and creating the first roses, so in Christianity, the rose symbolises Christ’s blood shed at the Crucifixion. In both Christian and pagan tradition, then, the rose is closely related to the idea of resurrection and rebirth. In ancient Greece, it was a common custom to lay roses upon graves for this reason.

The mystical community known as the Rosicrucians even took its name from the Latin for ‘rose’ and ‘cross’, with its symbol being a cross (specifically, a saltire) with a rose in each of the four corners and a fifth rose in the centre.

Later, as the Virgin Mary became a more central focus of Christian worship, she became associated with the rose, and was often depicted surrounded by them. Such associations have inspired many poets, especially medieval poets such as Dante Alighieri (where the rose figures frequently as a symbol for Mary) and the two French poets who wrote the medieval allegory the Roman de la Rose (a long poem that Chaucer would later translate into English).

In this poem, the rose garden has particular significance, symbolising both romantic love and Christian perfection.

Symbolism of roses in literature

All of these prior connotations of the rose flower have been used by poets and novelists over the centuries. The medieval examples of Dante and the Roman de la Rose are by no means isolated examples. White roses often denote purity, while red roses are commonly linked to romantic and passionate carnal love.

Roses can also symbolise the beauty of the beloved. Even in the seventeenth century, this was an old idea, as Edmund Waller’s famous song ‘Go, Lovely Rose’ suggests:

Go, lovely rose!
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.

A century later, Robert Burns compared his sweetheart to a red rose in a famous poem (or song):

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

Roses are beautiful, blooming, delicate, pretty, and (at least in many poems) the redness of the roses also calls to mind the hot and passionate (and romantic) associations of the colour red. Bob Dylan once said that Burns’s poem was the single greatest influence on him.

But of course, such comparisons – as Waller and Burns and many other poets have shown – can quickly become familiar, even over-familiar or cliché. It was Salvador Dali who quipped that the first person to compare the cheeks of a beautiful woman to a rose was obviously a poet, but the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.

So some poets have sought to remind us that roses exist in the real world as actual flowers, pollinated by insects, tended by gardeners, rather than as mere symbols in the pages of poetry books. William Blake, a contemporary of Burns, still imbued the rose with symbolism even as he painted a more grounded picture of the flower in his ‘The Sick Rose’:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

In his study of William Blake, the scholar D. G. Gillham draws a helpful distinction between metaphorical and symbolic imagery, arguing that in ‘The Sick Rose’ Blake does not compare one thing neatly with something else (metaphorical), but rather offers up an image (or collection of images) without telling us what they are to be compared to.

This makes ‘The Sick Rose’ symbolic, because the rose, its bed, and the worm which destroys it are all clearly representative of something else, but Blake does not tell us what this something else is.

This is what makes a poem like ‘The Sick Rose’, and a number of other Blake poems, so rewarding but also so mysterious: the imagery contains rich symbolism but it would probably be unwise to reduce such imagery to a simple ‘rose = love’ equation. Some words of analysis may therefore be helpful.

In the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson – better-known in her lifetime as a gardener than as a poet, because so few of her poems saw publication until after her death in 1886 – gave roses to friends as gifts, and even wrote a poem to accompany one such present:

Nobody knows this little Rose—
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it—
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey—
On its breast to lie—
Only a Bird will wonder—
Only a Breeze will sigh—
Ah Little Rose—how easy
For such as thee to die!

Dickinson’s poem reminds us, after all, that roses are first and foremost a part of nature, and we have merely superimposed our own associations onto them. Or as another poet, Gertrude Stein, once asserted: ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

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