When Is a Rose Not a Rose?

I discuss the expression “seize the day” on p. 52 of Common Errors in English Usage. It occurred to me that this entry might provide an opportunity to post a favorite project of mine which has not before appeared on the Web.

Some years ago a video education company approached me to become one of their recorded teachers, but we couldn’t agree on the subject I would teach, so I wound up declining the offer. However, I did create a sample lecture for them on the carpe diem theme as it relates to traditional love poetry. 

The source of the expression is an ode by Horace with a fairly lofty tone. But the “gather ye rosebuds” theme related to it has a distinctly less genteel meaning, which I decided to write about.

I’ve shared this talk only once, with a local garden club. I’d love to have more opportunities to deliver it in person, complete with the poems discussed. For copyright reasons, I can’t include the translated poems here or the one at the end which is still under copyright, but I can link to them. You will enjoy this piece only if you click on the links and explore them.

When Is a Rose Not a Rose?
by Paul Brians

Romeo says to Juliet “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Which raises the question, just how sweet is  a rose, anyway? Or—or to put it another way—if a man compares a woman to a rose, should she be flattered?
Today roses are especially associated with romance. What is a surer token of affection than a gift of a dozen long-stemmed red roses delivered to the beloved’s door? Or think of the silver rose given to the fiancée in Richard Strauss’s opera, Der Rosenkavalier. But roses have had a host of different meanings.
Although many sources will tell you that roses were introduced into Europe in the 18th century from China, this is true only of certain showy cultivated varieties. Wild roses grew widely in Europe and in the Americas, and were noted for their beauty and fragrance from ancient times. Most frequently they were connected in the arts in some way or other with women or female principles.
The Egyptians associated roses with the goddess Isis. Cleopatra is said to have slept in a bed strewn with roses. The classical Greeks associated the rose with Aphrodite, the Romans with Venus. In the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary adopted several of the characteristics of Venus, including the title “Star of the Sea” (the so-called “evening star”—the planet Venus), but also the rose. In Christian use, a thornless rose came to symbolize Mary’s virginity and stand for innocence generally.  One scholar even argued that before the Fall from perfection the roses in the Garden of Eden would have been free of thorns.
A 14th century hymn  to Mary often heard today at Christmas-time begins “Ther is no rose of swych vertu as is the rose that bare Jesu.”
On a less exalted level, the rose is the metaphorical symbol of the desired love object in the hugely influential Medieval French allegory, The Romance of the Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris & Jean de Meung, translated in part by Geoffrey Chaucer.
In Persian and Turkish poetry roses are connected with women, but also with mystical love of the divine and with pure innocence. Roses are often referred to in the poems of writers such as Rumi and Hafiz,  and the same shift occurred in Europe, with roses being used in various forms of esoteric worship, including Rosicrucianism, a mystical doctrine whose name means “Rose Cross.”
The most exalted use of the rose as a mystical image occurs at the climax of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy when the pilgrim has a vision of God surrounded by the Heavenly Hosts in the form of an enormous glowing white rose.
The circular rose is such a pervasive image that it lends its name to label objects of the same shape, such as a compass rose or the rose window in a Gothic church. The rose was also used in heraldry, and the conflict between the 14th century House of York whose symbol was a white blossom and the House of Lancaster, symbolized by a red one, was known as “The War of the Roses”—not to be confused with the modern “Tournament of Roses” in Pasadena.
In Rome, a meeting to discuss confidential matters from which the public was excluded was marked by a rose being placed on the door outside the room; so such discussions were called sub rosa—“under the rose”—and the phrase persists today to label secretive doings. Faced with this bewildering array of meanings, we may be tempted to say that sometimes, as Gertrude Stein said, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
But the thread of meaning we are going to trace today is a much narrower and less exalted one: the rose as symbol of the transitory nature of youthful beauty.
A late Roman writer called “Florus”—probably because of  his many poems on roses—presents what would become the classic formula in a poem beginning Venerunt aliquando rosae, best translated by James J. Wilhelm in his classic anthology Medieval Song. Unfortunately that version is not available on the Web, but you can read David Camden’s translation of Florus (see Poems X and XI). 
The seemingly sweet and delicate words of these lines convey a stinging message. The “pyramids” referred to are rosebuds. They represent the young woman the poet is courting. He is telling her that while she is young and attractive, she is desirable; but if she resists his advances too long her looks will fade and no one will want her. The moral: “Do it now!”
If you doubt this interpretation of the poem, listen again, this time noting the progression from admiration to disdain as the flower opens and then wilts. 
This pattern becomes the dominant theme of poetry usually associated with the theme called carpe diem—“seize the day.” Robin Williams neglected to explain this to his students in The Dead Poets Society, but carpe diem poetry traditionally has less to do with personal growth and exploration than with seduction.
An anonymous late Roman poem known as The Vigil of Venus takes the form of a hymn to the goddess of love. Like the Florus poem, it associates the opening of rosebuds with the loss of virginity. Note that in Greco-Roman mythology the color of the rose is also associated with the blood of Venus, here referred to as the “Paphian,” because the island of Paphos was one of several places she was said to have been born. Roses are also said to be made from the kisses of her son Cupid and to symbolize the blushing cheeks of bashful virgins. The stanza begins with Venus as a nature goddess causing spring showers to carpet the fields with roses. Again, Wilhelm’s version is best, but an early translation by Thomas Parnell will give you the idea. 

Here the poet promotes marriage rather than seduction, but that becomes rare in later poetry.
A variation on the theme of the bloody rose is another brief poem by Florus, no. XII.
Blood is of course associated with the loss of virginity, or defloration. (A vivid work of art conveying this flowery metaphor is Jean-Honoré’s Fragonard’s The Sacrifice of the Rose in which lightly clad maiden swoons as Cupid simultaneously embraces her and sacrifices her “rose” on an altar, presumably to himself. ) The image of young love, loss of virginity, and blood were tightly linked in European tradition. In addition, Venus was often depicted as a fierce goddess, capable of great violence. The love she fostered was not all hearts and flowers—blood could flow as a result, in more than one sense. Remember that her son, Cupid, shoots lovers with his arrow. In another Florus poem he is stabbed by a rose-thorn; and the poet underlines the frequent link between the beauty of the bloom and the sting of the thorn (Poem XIII).
There is related tradition begun by a Hellenistic poet known as the “Pseudo-Theocritus” according to which Cupid complains to his mother about having been stung by a bee and she replies that his pain is nothing compared to that of the lovers stung by his arrows. There are many later versions, including one by Robert Herrick, another by Thomas Moore, and paintings and drawings of the subject by artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Antoine-Jean Gros, and BenjaminWest.
This link between love and suffering is one of the most powerful and pervasive influences of the Classical world on later European literature and art.
So already we see that the rose has a certain ambivalence about it. A bed of roses is a charming idea, but a crown of thorns is a fearsome instrument of torture.
But even separated from its thorns, the rose delivers a threat along with its promise of delight: the threat of aging which the first Florus poem highlighted.
There are many such flowery carpe diem poems. One of the most straightforward is  a sonnet by the 16th century French poet Pierre de Ronsard: Je vous envoye un bouquet que ma main. The translation I’m using is not very poetic, but it is clear.
 Falling petals as symbols of the brevity of life are commonplaces in Chinese and Japanese poetry, of course, where cherry and plum blossoms usually bear this message; but in Europe the flower most often used is the rose.
Another straightforward articulation of the theme is the speech of John Milton’s brutish Comus, trying to seduce a virtuous lady. Again an aging woman is compared to a withered rose. A “vermeil-tinctured lip” is a bright red one, a youthful lip. “List” in the first line means “listen,” and “cosen’d” means “deceived.”
List Lady be not coy, and be not cosen'd
With that same vaunted name Virginity,
Beauty is natures coyn, must not be hoorded,
But must be currant, and the good thereof
Consists in mutual and partak'n bliss,
Unsavoury in th' injoyment of it self.
If you let slip time, like a neglected rose
It withers on the stalk with languish't head.
Beauty is natures brag, and must be shown
In courts, at feasts, and high solemnities
Where most may wonder at the workmanship;
It is for homely features to keep home,
They had their name thence; course complexions
And cheeks of sorry grain will serve to ply
The sampler, and to teize the huswifes wooll.
What need a vermeil-tinctured lip for that
Love-darting eyes, or tresses like the Morn?
There was another meaning in these gifts,

Think what, and be adviz'd, you are but young yet.

In the previous century, Shakespeare’s Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers his daughter Hermia a stern choice between the barren life of a nun and marriage to Demetrius, the young man he has chosen for her. In this passage, it is virginity which is thorny.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires;
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father's choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
Thrice-blessed they that master so their blood,
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage;
But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd,
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness.
Many people know the line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” without realizing that it is the first line of Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”
Like Theseus’ speech, it is an admonition to marry young.
GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,

  Old Time is still a-flying:

And this same flower that smiles to-day

  To-morrow 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 for ever tarry.

If you are wondering how durable these marriages based on youthfully warm blood could be in the long run, keep in mind that the average human lifespan used to be much shorter than it is today, especially for women, who frequently died quite young in childbirth. The argument that time is short and love urgent had greater plausibility in ages when many people could expect to die in their twenties or thirties.
The most famous carpe diem poem in English using the symbol of the rose is from the 17th century, Edmund Waller’s “Go, lovely rose.” It takes the form of an envoi—a speech delivered to a messenger to be delivered to someone else—in this case, a lady the poet desires, but who is reluctant to give herself to him.
The poet tells the rose to go to “her that wastes her time and me.” In this line the word “waste” is used in the sense of “wasting away.” The poet is withering for lack of affection, and time is a-wasting. He begins by flattering her beauty by comparing it to that of the rose, but then goes on to urge her to display her beauty and accept his admiration. There may well be here a suggestion that she should undress.
The final stanza is a shocker—the thorn in this rose poem. He tells the rose to die after having delivered its message as a reminder to the woman how brief a time she has to be both young and beautiful. As in so many poems “seize the day” here means “seize the man.”
    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.
    Tell her that's young
And shuns to have her graces spied,
    That hadst thou sprung
In deserts, where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died.
    Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retired:
    Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And not blush so to be admired.
    Then die! that she
The common fate of all things rare
    May read in thee:
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair!

This theme of naked flowers being held up as an example to bashful beauties is made even more strikingly in an anonymous poem famously set to music by John Dowland, “Come away, come, sweet love.”  (Hear Sting’s rather nice version on YouTube.) In the third and final stanza roses are mentioned under the label “fair Cyprian flowers.” “Kypris” is another name for Venus, and these are certainly meant to be roses. But the daring touch here is that the lilies, so often identified with purity and the Virgin Mary, take on a much more erotic meaning through a blasphemous allusion to a parable of Jesus which can be found in Matthew chapter 6, verses 28–30:
And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O  men of little  faith?
In this parable Jesus is referring to the lily’s natural beauty as being its God-given garment; but the poet suggests that its true beauty is its bare self, and urges the young woman to strip naked. Building on his daring Biblical allusion, he suggests also that an insistence on wearing clothes is a sign of vanity and sinful pride. The path of virtue, he suggests, is the path of naked love.
The carpe diem theme is dealt with much more subtly in this poem than in Waller’s, but there are repeated references to the need for haste which clearly echo that tradition. “Wastes” in the second stanza again means “is passing away”—she is wasting time, but what is being said is that time itself is wasting away. Note that “naked morn” alludes to a Homeric formula according to which the dawn blushes red as she rises naked from the bed of night. In the line “Pleasure, measure, love’s delight,” “measure” means “dance.”
Here is the entire poem:
Come away, come, sweet love,
The golden morning breaks,
All the earth, all the air
Of love and pleasure speaks,
Teach thine arms then to embrace,
And sweet rosy lips to kiss,
And mix our souls in mutual bliss.
Eyes were made for beauty's grace,
Viewing, rueing love's long pain,
Procur'd by beauty's rude disdain.

Come away, come, sweet love, 

The golden morning wastes, 

While the sun from his sphere 

His fiery arrows casts: 

Making all the shadows fly, 

Playing, staying in the grove, 

To entertain the stealth of love, 

Thither, sweet love, let us hie, 

Flying, dying, in desire, 

Wing'd with sweet hopes and heav'nly fire.

Come away, come, sweet love,

Do not in vain adorn

Beauty's grace that should rise

Like to the naked morn:

Lilies on the river's side,

And fair Cyprian flowers new blown,

Desire no beauties but their own,

Ornament is nurse of pride, 

Pleasure, measure, love's delight, 

Haste then, sweet love, our wished flight.

Another interesting variation on the theme of sending roses to a woman the poet is courting  is depicted in Ben Jonson’s “To Celia,” where he interprets her refusal of the gift as a kind of involuntary gift of herself; the roses come back smelling, not of their native fragrance, but of her even sweeter bodily aroma.
He deliberately varies the carpe diem theme by saying that he sent her the roses hoping that they would never wither under the influence of her transcendent beauty, which suggests powers of prolonging youthful loveliness. When the second stanza begins “I sent thee late a rosy wreath,” the meaning is “I sent it lately, recently.You can hear the anonymous musical setting of this poem sung by John McCormick in 1910 on YouTube.

DRINK to me only with thine eyes,
  And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup
  And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
  Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
  I would not change for thine.

I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
  Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope that there
  It could not wither'd be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe
  And sent'st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
  Not of itself but thee!

It is clear that the messages roses bear to women in traditional European poetry are as much threatening as flattering. Some seem downright insulting. They come from an age when men were confident of their supremacy, and the breaking down of women’s resistance was depicted as a kind of amusing game. The poets see no need to describe their own attractiveness—that is taken for granted. They need only persist to succeed. Even when, in Jonson’s case, the poet is rebuffed, he perseveres in courting her by writing this poem. Today he might be viewed as a stubborn stalker.
The carpe diem love poem died out as the Romantic era began, where cynical, manipulative attitudes toward love fell out of fashion and men like these ceased to be regarded as charming and amusing and were instead disdained as “vile seducers.” The new mood is clearly reflected in Robert Burns’ famous poem “A Red, Red Rose.” In the first stanza the youthful beauty of the woman is emphasized; but the rest of the poem, instead of warning her that this beauty will soon fade, is devoted to declarations by the poet that he will love her forever.
O my luve's like a red, red rose. 

That's newly sprung in June;

O my luve's like a melodie 

That's sweetly play'd in tune.
 As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

So deep in luve am I;

And I will love thee still, my
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
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!
Most rose poems are addressed to women. But let us conclude by looking at two exceptional works in which the man is compared to a rose. The first is Shakespeare’s Sonnet no. 54. We know it is addressed to a young man rather than a young woman not only because he is called a “lovely youth,” but because it belongs to a whole sequence of sonnets many of which are unambiguously addressed to the same young man.
Shakespeare distinguishes the transitory beauty of the rose with its lasting fragrance, suggesting a sort of parallel between the body and soul.  Keep in mind that older roses were much more fragrant than the tea roses which dominate today’s gardens. As the sonnet goes on it is clear he is thinking of the distilling of roses into a perfume which can long outlive the blossoms it is made from. He contrasts it with lesser flowers which have the beauty and the thorns of the rose, but lack its delightful odor. He then gives the theme a typically Shakespearean twist by stating that the “odour” of this young man will last because Shakespeare is writing this poem about him, and the poem will spread his fame down the ages. Shakespeare may have been vain about his own abilities; but it is justified vanity, for although the identity of the young man in question has long been lost, we still read and admire his account of the young man’s beauty.
O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
The canker-blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns and play as wantonly
When summer's breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo'd and unrespected fade,
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:
  And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
  When that shall fade, my verse distills your truth.
The last poem is my favorite of all rose love poems, e. e. cummings’ somewhere i have never travelled. He is most frequently remembered for his innovative typography, using mostly lower-case letters, unconventional punctuation, parentheses, etc. But he was also a great love poet, and this is one of the greatest love poems of all times.
Instead of oozing overbearing self-confidence like the others, cummings pictures himself in complete awe of his beloved and her effect on him. As a modern man he thinks of love as the opening of hearts to each other rather than the piercing of hearts with an arrow.
The woman’s power is mysteriously subtle as well. The final line marvels at the way she opens and encloses him like a spring rain whose power lies in a multiplicity of dainty raindrops. Throughout the poem he pairs images of strength with images of delicacy. The result is a moving portrait of a man in love.

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