The writer is dedicating this column to the Berkshire Botanical Garden, one of our local treasures. Their display of roses is now in full bloom. For hours and address please visit berkshirebotanical.org.
In “Romeo and Juliet” Shakespeare wrote:
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
I quite agree. But give the rose another name, especially a floral one, and it may not attract the same attention from poets. (Try finding a rhyme for “rhododendron.”) There are more than a hundred good rhymes for “rose.” Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), who provided the title for today’s column, used two of them when she later expanded on her famous statement:
Do we suppose
That all she knows
Is that a rose is a rose
Is a rose is a rose?
Roses come in a grand gallery of colors, shapes and sizes, but their importance extends far beyond the garden. Just consider: the rose is the national flower of the United States, UK and a number of other countries; think of the beautiful rose windows of countless cathedrals; there are the 15th century Wars of the Roses (red for the House of Lancaster; white for the House of York); and those secret conspiratorial meetings held under the rose (sub rosa); there’s the Rose Bowl, of course, and dozens of rose festivals; and there’s Pete Rose (well, maybe not.)
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For poets, the rose represents many different things, with love and romance being paramount but not exclusive. Let’s visit five poets to see what the rose meant to them.
For Robert Burns (1759-1796) the rose suggested the purest expression of love. This lyric has been set to music many times, with the lilting Scots words begging to be sung.
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!
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry;
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only Luve
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.
Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote over 2,000 poems, of which this is the most popular. It’s a kind of “carpe diem” lyric with an inviting title: “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) composed a selection of riddle poems that we are supposed to solve, but one of them had such ecstasy about it that she couldn’t help but present the answer herself.
A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!
Leave it to poet/artist/philosopher William Blake (1757-1827) to provide an unexpected and quite enigmatic take on the rose. This is from his “Songs of Experience” as illustrated by Blake himself.
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.
For a more sensual view of the rose, let me direct you to the Irish-American poet, John Boyle O’Reilly (1844-1890):
The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O, the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.
But I send you a cream-white rosebud
With a flush on its petal tips;
For the love that is purest and sweetest
Has a kiss of desire on the lips.
There’s a handsome Daniel Chester French statue of O’Reilly on the Fenway in Boston. He was said to be one of President Kennedy’s favorite poets.
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Finally, I would like to share my two favorite rose poems (see the video link below.) The setting is a posh supper club of the 1950’s where George Backman, at a table near the piano, spots a lovely lady, Jill Tanner, across the room. He offers a present to the words of “Go, Lovely Rose” by Edmund Waller (1606-1687), and she reacts with the help of Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) and the poem, “One Perfect Rose.”