A Gift of Roses:
The Rose in Myth and Archetype
"A rose is a rose is a rose"--let us begin with that. According to Philip Wheelwright, this line "does nothing whatever to convey to anyone else Miss Stein's probably lively feelings about roses." (1) It would be strange if one of the most quoted statements of the century meant absolutely nothing to those who speak or hear or read it. Even if few can explain it, that is no indication either that it means nothing to us, or even that our conceptions of its meaning differ widely.
If we look closely at Stein's statement we see that it actually contains two statements telescoped together. First, since it explains, it would seem to imply a question, though perhaps only a rhetorical one, and of course the question is, "What is a rose?" The answer is that a rose is a rose. The reaction to such a statement is inevitable--"Of course a rose is a rose. So what? What is that supposed to mean?" The answer to that objection is "A rose is a rose is a rose," in other words a flat assertion that the original definition is complete and adequate, that one need only emphasize the fact of "rose" for us also to be aware of its significance.
Is this a fanciful analysis? Actually, does the appeal of the statement lie only in its absurdity? And aren't all things to a degree meaningful in themselves? The test of all three objections is a substitution of nouns. Try "A peony is a peony is a peony," or "A toaster is a toaster is a toaster." In these statements the apparent absurdity has been retained, perhaps even enhanced, but can anyone believe that either would ever have become a familiar quotation? No, roses are different.
Miss Stein points out significance, but does not explain what the significance is. She does not have to; as at some level we already know. But if we are to bring it fully to consciousness we will need other sources.
Burns, in his poem "A Red, Red Rose," supplies us with a little more information, as well as a line almost as well known as Gertrude Stein's. This very famous poem begins,
My luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
This is the only mention of roses; the rest of this sixteen line poem is made up of other images, all of them commonplace long before Burns' time. And even these two lines seem imprecise, and the information of the second is spread rather thinly. Considering the general tone of modern criticism, with its emphasis on the innovative, the intellectual, the precise, it is surprising that such a poem has retained so much of its esteem and is still widely anthologized. We are informed that a woman is like "a red, red rose," a newly sprung June one, but not told how. One could well imagine a 20th century New Critic demanding that the poet justify and clarify his simile before going on to others, especially since it is self-evident that women and roses are in many respects quite unlike each other. Apparently most readers, even critical ones, accept the proposition that a woman, at least a woman that one is in love with, is like a rose as self-validating.
It has been widely suggested that the linguistic distinction between metaphor and simile, between is and is like is basically false, and that the removal of like often adds neither force nor significance to a line. (2) These are clearly such lines; they have the force of metaphor, for apparently they require no justification. Even if authoritative, however, they give us only limited information. Fortunately, there are other very famous statements on the subject.
Consider Edmund Waller's poem, "Song."
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 hads't 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 wonderous sweet and fair.
Here is a bit more to go on. Waller's rose is to tell the woman something. In one sense, we can say that he is creating the fiction of a talking rose; but, in fact, he is only substituting tell for show, for the rose tells by example, something that it could only do if there were a clear affinity between rose and woman. Waller, however, does not trust metaphor, even his own, for "When I resemble her to thee," makes it clear that he considers the relationship a merely personal and arbitrary one that he himself has created. But in that case, unless the poem were to be sent with the rose, which is not implied, the rose could not itself "tell."
However, in the first stanza we are also told that rose and woman are alike in that both are "sweet" and "fair." In the second and third stanzas we learn that both roses and women must be seen and admired to be of value. In the fourth stanza we learn that both are ephemeral, beautiful, but brief phenomena.
The Little Prince, a less worldly person than Edmund Waller, made the same discovery, but noted it with less a tone of satisfaction:
"But what does that mean--'ephemeral'?" repeated the little prince, who never in his life had let go of a question, once he had asked it.
"It means, 'which is in danger of speedy disappearance.'"
"Is my flower in danger of speedy disappearance?"
"Certainly it is."
"My flower is ephemeral," the little prince said to himself, "and she has only four thorns to defend herself against the world. And I have left her on my planet all alone." (Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, ch. 15)
Robert Herrick's "Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May," gives us a similar message.
If Waller is cautious about metaphor, however, Blake is not, and as a greater poet, he comes closer to the heart of the matter:
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.
Blake's poem lacks the prosaic clarity of Waller's; it is wide in its suggestiveness, and nowhere explicit. It does not even use the metaphoric is. However, worm, bed, crimson joy,
love contain one definite idea--the rose is a vaginal metaphor. This realization focuses a multitude of rose images. For instance, the title "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," gains in significance for a poem that begins, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may."
I don't want to do a dogmatic interpretation of Blake's poem, but certain things are fairly obvious. For one, the worm is not some literal worm that feeds on roses. It is invisible, and it flies, specifically it flies at night, and during storms. This is a long way from standard biology. The kind of storms it flies in are human passions, dark passions. The worm in the rose is an obvious phallic and vaginal symbol, though Blake may be thinking as much or more about the dangers of sexual passions in general than about the specific act of sexual intercourse, even with the mention of "bed," which both suggests a literal bed, and the vagina as bed for the penis.
In Countee Cullen's "Brown Girl Dead," we see roses a somewhat different context:
With two white roses on her breasts,
White candles at head and feet,
Dark Madonna of the grave she rests;
Lord Death has found her sweet.
Her mother pawned her wedding ring
To lay her out in white;
She'd be so proud she'd dance and sing
To see herself tonight.
Here Cullen is following an old poetic tradtion in presenting death as a lover, and equating death with sex, as in the French phrase la petite mort (the little death) for orgasm, probably because of the sense of release it gives momentarily from mental and physical awareness. Orgasm as death was a particularly popular image in the Restoration/18th century period, and the number of puns and plays on words it spawned are too numerous to bother with here, but it is still a common concept and common phrase.
Death in the poem is bridegroom or seducer. The roses here are white rather than the usual red, a symbol of innocence as well as a color contrast. They have, therefore, been placed in the secondary sexual area of the breasts, rather than the too obvious, and too appropriate area of the vagina. Roses are a funeral flower, but a secondary one, for white lilies are the primary death flower. (3)
But let us consider an example, that of a boss placing flowers on his secretary's desk. What would it mean if he left violets?--perhaps that he felt a condescending fondness for her. A mixed arrangement?--probably that he thought the room needed brightening up. Orchids:--probably that he had raised them himself, and was trying to make an impression without spending any money. Roses?--it depends on whether it is a potted rose or cut roses. If the gift is a rose plant, it would seem only a general expression of appreciation; it would be a proper gift for one's mother. But cut roses--that is a different matter. They state, or at least imply, sexual interest; and the receiver, and everyone around her, immediately recognizes the gift as significant, a subject for gossip. In other words, the rose "tells her" that the giver is aware of and interested in the fact that the woman has a vagina.
Why should the rose be especially vaginal?--probably because of its redness, its softness, its scent, and something about the shape of the petals. Since the human race began to walk upright, the human scent has played a very reduced part in the sexual attraction of the male to the female. Its sexual significance has not been lost, however, but has been largely replaced by perfume. There are of course some male scents--after-shave lotion, and so on--but the whole business seems rather mundane compared to the large sums of money involved in, and the elaborate mistique surrounding the perfume business. Not surprisingly, flowers supply many of the scents.
Probably the reader has imagined the roses mentioned by Stein, Burns, Waller, Blake, and in the example above all as red; actually only Burns and Blake specify the color. We assume red, however, and most cut roses are red. One may choose to give a woman a white or yellow rose for variety, because the shop is out of red, because the red ones are too old, for other reasons, but one recognizes such choices as a deviation from the norm.
But why a cut flowr, or flowers? But let us consider a pattern of flower images from Milton:
where Poserpin gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered . . . (Paradise Lost IV, 269-271)
This is a remarkably compressed set of flower associations; first, Poserpina is gathering flowers, always a dangerous activity for a girl, as we know from "Little Red Riding Hood;" second, Poserpina is herself a flower; third, as a result of gathering flowers, she herself is gathered by death.
In Hamlet we see both the sexual and the death associations of gathering flowers in the case of Ophelia, who, when she first appears on stage mad, distributes flowers to everyone while singing sexually suggestive songs. Later we hear that she drowns from falling into a stream while hanging a garland of flowers on a willow bough.
In The Winter's Tale, the heroine Perdita wishes for the flowers that Poserpina, frighted let fall from Dis' wagon. She is, however, well supplied with other flowers which she distributes with almost as much abandon as mad Ophelia does. Certain other flowers she does not have:
O, these I lack,
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o'er and o'er!
Forizel. What, like a corse?
Perdita. No, like a bank for love to lie and play on;
Not like a corse; or if, not to be buried,
But quick and in my arms. (Winters Tale IV iv 127-32)
This is a bold and suggestive speech for so delicate a virgin, and realizing the fact, she suddenly pauses in confusion, before bringing her speech to a quick conclusion:
Come, take your flowers:
Methinks I play as I have seen them do
In Whitsun pastorals: sure this robe of mine
Does change my disposition. (Winter's Tale. IV, iv 132-5)
The Winter's Tale is a comedy, and so, unlike Ophelia, Perdita does not die, but almost immediatel after this speech, the king, Florizel's angry father, threatens both Perdita and her family with death.
A girl's gathering of flowers implies either a likelihood of, or a readiness for, seduction or even rape, and the danger of death. The danger of death probably comes from the well-known psychological and literary association between sexual intercourse and death, and between love and death. (4) Since the gathering of flowers has such strong sexual associations, it is an appropriate observation of Sappho's that the graces, the handmaidens of Aphrodite, love the girl that wears flowers, but turn their backs on one who goes bareheaded. (5)
Girls, however, do not gather roses; roses are given to them by men. As a gift, a rose is
particularly useless. It is neither practical nor expensive. There is almost nothing that can be done with one; it is not even appropriate for wearing. A rose is decorative in a small way, but only lasts a few days. A silk rose, which is indistinguishable from the real thing except when examined closely, does last, but is also less appropriate. Many practical-minded men have gotten a girl silk roses instead of real ones for that very reason, and have been surprised that the gift was so badly received.
Is it a quirk of the female temperament to like cheap and useless gifts? No, for thee are also diamonds, which everyone knows are "a girl's best friend." They are quite a different matter. If cut roses are among the least enduring of things, diamonds are eternal, and nearly indestructible. If a rose has no extrinsic value, a diamond can be readily exchanged for cash. Diamonds can be worn, and are meant to be, for they are the spoils of sexual war. They are evidence of the woman's worth, for they prove that she is valued enough to inspire or require expensive gifts. They also prove her ability to capture a dominant male, one with enough power to take and hold on to valuable luxury items.
Roses exist on a more personal level. One is likely to give a card with roses, to verbalize the personal statement. A card seems unnecessary and not even appropriate for diamonds, since they are by nature public. A rose, or roses is a kind of sacrifice. Remember Sir James Frazer's quotation in an earlier unit: "The animal that is habitually sacrificed to the god was once the god himself." This is a truth that extends beyond animals. In the communion, at least as it is recognized in the Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican churches, the bread and wine which is sacrificed to God, is also God himself. (Lutheran's recognize God's presence in the bread and wine, but do not recognize the fact that it is a sacrifice, since Luther did not entirely understand the nature of sacrifice.) Thus the rose, which is the woman, or at least a symbol of her, is a sacrifice of herself to herself. It not only shares her nature in terms of beauty and sexuality, but both are sadly ephemeral. In fact, it is the ephemeral nature of human beauty that gives it its poignancy. But, however brief, for this moment the woman and the rose are one with timeless and eternal beauty.
Aside from its value as a public statement of the giver's importance and the receiver's success, a diamond is also a tribute to beauty, the eternally beautiful given as a tribute to the beauty of one whose temperal beauty, at least for the moment, approximates the eternal.
Roses are an eminently appropriate gift from a lover, but here is a more problematic situation. In the story "Beauty and the Beast," the father makes a business trip to the city, and asks his daughters what they want him to bring back for them. The two older girls ask for clothes and jewelry--ornaments to attract young men. Beauty, the youngest, asks for only a rose. In a sense, her request is like that of her sisters, except that theirs is aimed at eligible mates, while Beauty's is addressed toward her father. We might suppose that, since she is only fourteen, and from a respectable upper-middle class family, that she has led a somewhat sheltered life, and that her father is her only strong male image.
The trip to the city proves a failure, and the father can buy none of the expensive gifts, but on the way back he passes a palace with a beautiful rose garden and, thinking he can at least please his youngest, and favorite daughter, he picks one of the roses. He is immediately accosted by a beast that threatens him with death unless the father gives him the hand of the merchant's youngest daughter. Reluctantly, the father agrees and returns home. He gives the rose to his youngest daughter, but she recognizes his distress, and gets the truth from him. She willingly offers to sacrifice herself to save her father. To exchange the love of the father and the security for home for the affection of an alien beast would be no doubt a spiritual shock, one that many young women must have experienced in the days when girls were kept close and sheltered to the very day of marriage, but which must often have resolved itself, as it did for Beauty, with the discovery that the beast was relatively tame, and far less bestial then he seemed at first. The beast is large, deep voiced, rough and hairy, and abrupt in manner--in other words, a fairly typical guy. Over time, Beauty becomes fond of the beast, but still cannot imagine herself as his mate.
As always happens in stories that follow this basic pattern, Beauty grows homesick and wants to see her family. The beast is reluctant, but finally lets her go, making her promise to return in a set time, and not be influenced by her sisters. She learns three basic truths from this trip, first that home is no longer quite home, second that she does have another home, one with the beast, and finally that she is needed by the beast. When she finally breaks free from the influence of her jealous and malicious sisters and returns to the beast she finds him nearly dead from missing her. In the Portuguese variant of this story, he does in fact die, but in this one, she brings him back to health, he ceases to be a beast, they marry, and they live happily ever after, as most often happens in fairy tales.
In most film versions of the story the same actor plays the beast and the Prince, and the two are recognizably the same. Even in the Disney cartoon version there is a marked similarity. This is quite appropriate, for it is the same person. The biggest difference is not in the beast himself, but in the way the girl looks at him. We shouldn't therefore suppose that she has no real effect at all. In myth and archetype, one of the chief roles of woman is as socializer, as the one who makes the solitary hero a part of society.
Like the great majority of fairy tales, this one ends happily as we would hope. A stranger and more perverse fairy tale from Portugal is that of "The Girl with a Rose on Her Forehead." As so often happens in fairy tales, this story neglects the most obvious question--what does a rose on the forehead mean in a literal sense? Is it growing there like the daisy on the girl's head in the Dr. Seuss story Daisy-Head Mayzie? The story is much more interested in its significance than in the logistics; it is a symbol of the fact that brother and sister shared a secret garden, and the sister mysteriously became pregnant as a result. It would be hard to argue that this is not an incest theme, especially when the rose and the girl's birth seems to be a matter for shame and secrecy. But more on this story elsewhere.
Examples from literature are probably sufficient to illustrate the archetypal significance of rose with examples from literature, but to show that archetypal significance is also mythic significance, we must look farther. What of religious significance? Roses are not a notable Biblical theme. (Even the rose of sharon is not really a rose.). Perhaps roses were not familiar in ancient Palestine; but, in any case, as a feminine symbol we would hardly expect to find them in the Hebrew scriptures. In post-Biblical Christianity the rose is a very important symbol in mysticism, and is very commonly associated with Mary. Such an association is approprite. Mary is the only truly significant female in Christianity, and her significance is above all vaginal. The two important events of her life, conception by the Holy Ghost and giving birth to Jesus, are both vaginal events. To these has been added the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception--Mary not only conceives, but is in her own conception "immaculate," pure, undefiled, and not under the original Edenic curse.
Another important rose to Catholicism is the rose window of the medieval cathedral. The vaginal significance of the door is fairly obvious; the rose window high above the door is a different kind of entrance, letting influence from above descent into the womb of the church, just as it once descended into Mary. If this line of thought is correct, then the pictures in the windows would be of Mary. Many are, but a number are not. One of the most famous, that at Canterbury, illustrates the Parable of the Sower, and appropriate subject in a slightly different way. The whole subject needs a more extensive study, and I would not have introduced it at all except that, when discussing the subject of roses with a colleague, she presented me with exactly the same train of thought that I had been following.
But what of Protestantism, which is consistently patriarchal in outlook, and which does not recognize Mary as religiously significant? As might be expected, we hear little of roses here. The enormous number of popular and country sentimental "mother songs" of the nineteenth and twentieth century in America, however, indicate the tension resulting from Protestantism attempting to ignore the powerful mother archetype. In many of these songs the mother is given supernatural influence, power that extends beyond her death, and even power of incession similar to that attributed to Mary in Catholicism. And though traditional Protestant denominations have managed to hold the line, Pentacostals and others have allowed a number of "mother songs" into their hymnals.
One song, not a "mother song," which has acheived a certain status in Protestantism is "In the Garden." Were we to imagine what a Protestant hymn should be, we might well imagine something like "Amazing Grace." It is based on a doctrinal point (Grace), it emphasises human depravity ("a wretch like me"), solar imagery ("bright shining as the sun?), abstract intellectuality ("When we've been there ten-thousand years . . . we've no less days . . ."), emphasis on struggle and militant action ("through many dangers, toils and snares; He will my shield and portion be").
By contrast, "In the Garden" is everything we should not expect. It is soft, sentimental, intimate. In the first place, the garden is not God's natural habitat, but the sky, as it is in "Amazing Grace." The songwriter would no doubt use the passage from Genesis 3: 8, "And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day," as authority, but in "Eve and the Apple," we saw that the garden is the property of the Earth Mother (hers by identity), and belongs to the Sky Father only by conquest. Everywhere else in the Old Testament we see that God is to be found either in the sky or on the mountaintops, and most hymns reflect that fact. In both "Even and the Apple," and "St. Peter the Phallic Apostle," we see the sexual significance of the concealed garden, and in this song that significance is reinforced by the line "While the dew is still on the roses." If roses are vaginal, "dewy roses" suggests sexual readiness, and observation supported by the fact that cards sent with romantic intent so often have pictures of roses with either dew or raindrops on them. The idea that moist lips are more sexually appealing than dry ones comes from the same source--by psychological association, moist lips=moist vaginal lips=sexual readiness.
The situation in the song is treated as a rendezvous--the speaker goes to the garden alone, and early in the morning (perhaps so as not to be observed), and while there the speaker and the other share joys that "none other has ever known." In fact, the intimate tone of the sing makes it seem almost perverse, religiously if we imagine the speaker as a woman, sexually if whe imagine him as a man. However, nearly all the strangeness of the song disappears if we change "He" to "She." If the lines were "She walks with me, and talks with me,/ And she tells me I am her own,/ And the joys we share as we tarry thee/ None other has ever known," not only makes sense in a love song, but would even be appropriate in a hymn to the goddess of love and fertility. The line "His voice/ Is so sweet the birds hush their singing," also suggests the Goddess. In Celtic tradition especially, singing birds are associated with the realm of the Goddess. Also, a melodious voice is a natural attribute of the Goddess, far less so of a Sky God.
Such a song does not fit the "logic" of Protestantism, but the Goddess is an archetype, and therefore eternal and omnipresent. Goddess songs in Catholicism are addressed to Mary, in Protestantism to the mother, or to the Goddess under the pronoun "He." Much more could be done with the Goddess in Protestant songs of this and the last century--"there is a Fountain Filled with Blood," for example, but our subject is not the Goddess, but the rose which is her flower, and is the flower of every woman not too young or old for sexual identity. --Jack Hart
(1) Philip Wheelwright, Metaphor and Reality (Bloomington: Univ. of Indiana Press, 1962), p. 161.
(2) Wheelwright, p. 71.
(3) In a typical mythic paradox, lilies are also the primary flower in the celebration of Christ's
(4) This connection is the subject of Denis de Rougemont's famous Love in the Western World.
(5) Sappho, frag. 95, Sappho, trans. by Willis Barnstone (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1965), p. 78.