By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we picked ten of the best poems about flowers, to create a kind of anthology: the word ‘anthology’ stemming, we might recall, from the Greek for ‘collection of flowers’. Now, it’s the turn of that most emblematic flower: the rose. Roses are a common feature of love poetry, and are often associated with romance and beauty.
But what else have poets uses roses to represent? This selection of ten of the best rosy poems provides some idea …
1. Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung, Roman de la Rose.
For Love it prayeth, and also
Commaundeth me that it be so
And if ther any aske me,
Whether that it be he or she,
How [that] this book [the] which is here
Shal hote, that I rede you here;
It is the Romance of the Rose,
In which al the art of love I close …
Le Roman de la Rose (i.e., The Romance of the Rose) is a French medieval poem begun by Guillaume de Lorris and continued by Jean de Meung; Chaucer began translating it into English (though he never finished doing so), and the lines quoted above are from the Chaucer translation (also linked to above, side-by-side with the French original).
It takes the form of an allegorical dream vision, where ‘Rose’ refers both to the name of the lady in the poem and the concept of female sexuality. A long work to begin this pick of rose poems, but a classic!
2. Edmund Waller, ‘Go, Lovely Rose’.
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 …
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. But this is a charming lyric, and proved very influential on later love lyrics (and it was much parodied).
3. Robert Burns, ‘A Red, Red Rose’.
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; here’s Burns’s classic lyric.
4. William Blake, ‘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.
5. John Keats, ‘To a Friend Who Sent Me Some Roses’.
As late I rambled in the happy fields,
What time the skylark shakes the tremulous dew
From his lush clover covert;—when anew
Adventurous knights take up their dinted shields;
I saw the sweetest flower wild nature yields,
A fresh-blown musk-rose; ’twas the first that threw
Its sweets upon the summer: graceful it grew
As is the wand that Queen Titania wields.
And, as I feasted on its fragrancy,
I thought the garden-rose it far excelled;
But when, O Wells! thy roses came to me,
My sense with their deliciousness was spelled:
Soft voices had they, that with tender plea
Whispered of peace, and truth, and friendliness unquelled.
So concludes this charming sonnet from a second-generation Romantic poet, John Keats (1795-1821), in response to being sent some roses. Here we find the intense sensuousness we expect from Keats, and the unexpected idea of the roses have ‘voices’ only adds to the sensory overload.
6. Christina Rossetti, ‘The Rose’.
The lily has a smooth stalk,
Will never hurt your hand;
But the rose upon her brier
Is lady of the land.
There’s sweetness in an apple tree,
And profit in the corn;
But lady of all beauty
Is a rose upon a thorn.
When with moss and honey
She tips her bending brier,
And half unfolds her glowing heart,
She sets the world on fire.
Here (reproduced in full) is a little-known but rather lovely poem about the rose from the prolific Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-94). Rossetti implies that the rose’s beauty is enhanced by the sense of danger that it coexists with: that ‘thorn’ that accompanies the sweet rose.
7. Emily Dickinson, ‘Nobody Knows This Little Rose’.
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.
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: the poem quoted above (in full).
8. Gertrude Stein, ‘Sacred Emily’.
This 1922 poem features the line, ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’ in which that initial, capitalised ‘Rose’ refers to a woman named Rose. However, Stein later used variations on the sentence in other writings, and ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’ – meaning ‘things are simply what they are and no more’ – has become the quotation for which she is probably best-known.
9. H. D., ‘Sea Rose’.
Active in the second decade of the twentieth century, the Imagists sought to strip poetry back to the image – a central metaphor, simile, or vivid image which would be both striking and original. H. D., born Hilda Doolittle in 1886, was widely regarded as the best poet of the group, the ‘perfect Imagist’, and ‘Sea Rose’ shows why.
Taking the earlier connotations of the rose and reworking them, H. D. describes a rose of the sea which has an ‘acrid fragrance’ instead of the more traditional sweet scent of the conventional rose. This poem is from H. D.’s 1916 collection Sea Garden, in which many plants and animals are reimagined via the looking-glass world of the ocean.
10. Dorothy Parker, ‘One Perfect Rose’.
Let’s conclude this pick of classic rose poems with one from the great American wit and one-line wordsmith, Dorothy Parker (1893-1967). Prefiguring the poetry of Wendy Cope in some ways, ‘One Perfect Rose’ gently pokes fun at the cliché of a man giving a woman a rose as a romantic gift.