Sunday, January 29, 2012

On the symbolic use of roses

If you were to ask me, what single element in nature has inspired artists more than anything else?  Without a moment’s hesitation, I would answer, “roses”.  Neither jasmines nor orchids have inspired artists across cultures the way roses have, for roses—thanks to their scent and unparalleled beauty—occupy an undisputed place of privilege among flowers since time immemorial.  Roses are favored subjects in art and, thus, used in various artistic disciplines. They appear in paintings, on stamps, in poems, as ornaments, as heraldic badges, and in films.  They have been adopted as the national flower by many countries, including England and the United States, and even wars have been fought in their name.

But, why is it so?  Most likely because of the rich symbolism they evoke.  In literature, a symbol is a character, object, action, name or setting that signifies something beyond itself.  Writers use conventional symbols as well as personal ones to reinforce an idea, go beyond the literal meaning of words, and make the reader muse upon their themes.  

Symbols allow authors to say more with less.  Properly chosen symbols will make readers bring to mind complex ideas without having to read painstaking explanations where just one word would suffice.  Authors such as Eugene O’Neill, Scott Fitzgerald, and Gustave Flaubert relied heavily upon symbols, while others, like Vladimir Nabokov, preferred to avoid them altogether. 

 “Roses of Vargemont”
Pierre Auguste Renoir

A rose is a classic symbol of beauty, passion, love, and secrecy.  The Latin word sub rosa, “under the rose”, means “secretly”.  The rose is, in fact, the emblem of Horus in ancient Egypt, the god of silence.  In Greek mythology, the rose also has a connotation of secrecy.  Aphrodite gave a rose to her son Eros, the god of love; he, in turn, gave it to Harpocrates, the god of silence, to make sure that his mother’s indiscretions would be kept in secrecy.

Red roses are a universal symbol of love.  When reading Robert Burns’s lines, “Oh, my luve’s like a red, red rose”, we get a clear picture of the kind of love he feels.  In the following stanza of “Isabella”, the Romantic poet John Keats compares departing lovers with roses whose stems are blown apart by the breeze only to be reunited at each other’s heart:

Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,
Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart
Only to meet again more close, and share
the inward fragrance of each other’s heart.

Robert Herrick uses rosebuds as symbols of the transient nature of life in his carpe diem poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, by urging maidens to “seize the day” while they are youthful, because youth, like life, is ephemeral:

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, 
Old Time is still aflying, 
And this same flower that smiles today, 
Tomorow will be dying.

William Blake, on the other hand, is wary of passion and, to quote Ben Jonson, of “the sports of love” in the following highly anthologized poem, “The Sick Rose”:
“Long-Stemmed Roses” 
Cheri Blum

Oh 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.

Like most poetry, this poem can be read literally or symbolically.  To some, the poem may only suggest the fragility of a rose.  Yet, a closer reading will reveal that the poem is richly symbolic, full of sexual imagery.  The following imagist poem, “Sea Rose”, by Hilda Doolittle can also be read literally or symbolically.  A sea rose is native of Asia and grows on the coast, often on sand dunes.

“Sea Rose Pond” 
Claude Monet

Rose, harsh rose,
marred with a stint of petals,
meager flower, thin,
sparse of leaf,

more precious
than a wet rose
single on a stem--
you are caught in the drift.

Stunted, with small leaf,
you are flung on the sand,
you are lifted
in the crisp sand
that drives in the wind.

Can the spice-rose
drip such acrid fragrance
hardened in a leaf?

Since poetry came into being, women have been compared to beautiful flowers, so the description of this sea rose breaks free from all conventions associated with a beautiful rose.  Although the poem speaks overtly about a harsh rose, its hidden meaning could well be a woman who lives outside the restrictive social codes of her time: a tough rose, alone in the wilderness.

White Roses in a Glass Vase
Henri Fantin Latour

The meaning of roses may vary according to their color and number.  Apart from love, passion, secrecy, and beauty, roses may sometimes symbolize death, particularly if they are white, as it is the case of this elegy by Sharon Olds, “Birthday Poem for My Grandmother”, where white roses are a recurring symbol, representing both love and death:

I stood on the porch tonight— which way do we
face to talk to the dead?  I thought of the
new rose, and went out over the
grey lawn— things really
have no color at night.  I descended
the stone steps, as if to the place where one
speaks to the dead.  The rose stood
half-uncurled, glowing white in the
black air.  Later I remembered
your birthday.  You would have been ninety and getting
roses from me.  Are the dead there
if we do not speak to them?  When I came to see you
you were always sitting quietly in the chair,
not knitting, because of the arthritis,
not reading, because of the blindness,
just sitting.  I never knew how you
did it or what you were thinking.  Now I
sometimes sit on the porch, waiting,
trying to feel you there like the colors of the
flowers in the dark.

Roses have transcended mythology, history, literature, and plastic arts to become sources of inspiration for choreographers as well.  Michel Fokine created the choreography for Le Spectre de la Rose, while Ronald Petit created The Death of the Rose, a ballet with music by Gustav Mahler from his Symphony No. 5, Adagietto.  In it, legendary ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and Valery Kovtun offer a memorable performance:

No wonder Citizen Kane—considered by many the greatest American movie—revolves around the protagonist’s final utterance: “rosebud”, and what the word implies.  An anecdote is told about Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.  When asked about the title of his masterpiece, he replied that he had the intention to find “a totally neutral title” and that “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”.  By the same token, William Faulkner’s reason for giving the main character of his Southern Gothic tale, Miss Emily Grierson, a rose is equally intriguing.  It is important to point out that in “A Rose for Emily”, the protagonist is nothing less than a murderess.  When asked about the meaning of the title, Faulkner answered: “Oh, it’s simply the poor woman had had no life at all.  Her father had kept her more or less locked up and then she had a lover who was about to quit her, she had to murder him.  It was just ‘A Rose for Emily’—that’s all”.

Perhaps the quintessential ode to a rose appears in the play written by Federico García Lorca, Doña Rosita la soltera o El lenguaje de las flores.  The poem depicts a particular type of rose that lives for a day only, which botanists call “la rosa mutábile”:

Cuando se abre en la mañana.
roja como sangre está.
El rocío no la toca 
porque se teme quemar.
Abierta en el mediodía 
es dura como el coral.
El sol se asoma a los vidrios
para verla relumbrar.
Cuando en las ramas empiezan
los pájaros a cantar 
y se desmaya la tarde 
en las violetas del mar,
se pone blanca, con blanco
de una mejilla de sal.
Y cuando toca la noche 
blando cuerno de metal 
y las estrellas avanzan 
mientras los aires se van, 
en la raya de lo oscuro, 
se comienza a deshojar.

But it is the Bard, with his infinite wisdom and profound compassion, who expresses concern for the sacredness of the rose’s life; its right to grow, live, and die undisturbed on its stem:

But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.
—William Shakesperare



  1. Excellent post, Laura. You have chosen some great examples to "illustrate" your topic. Well done.

    1. Thanks a lot, Diane! I've visited your new blog, which I liked very much, and left a few comments.

  2. I would answer the initial question with "water", not "roses". The sea, rivers, rain, waterfalls...

    I like the way you've explained the symbolism, Laura, and those are excellent examples. I have just one problem: I don't much like roses, at least the frilly cultivated variety.

    Hmm...My love is like a purple, purple iris? An amber, amber lily? A yellow, yellow celandine - or daffodil or primrose?

    In European medieval and some later symbolism, the white rose symbolises virginity, so the red rose becomes, well, the alternative.

    1. Thank you for leaving a comment. When I first thought about the topic, "water" came to my mind instead of "roses".

      It is true that water is omnipresent in literature and in art, particularly in painting, even more so than roses. Nevertheless, it is present in various forms, with slightly different shades of meaning. This fact dissuaded me from choosing water. But I may write about the symbolic use of water in another post.

      Personally, I believe that the beauty of a rose is unparalleled (not the frilly variety, of course); yet other flowers, such as jasmins and wisterias, have better fragrances. All the flowers you mentioned are really very beautiful.

      Though a highly multivalent color, white is usually associated with purity and virginity, red with passion, and pink with innocence (a combination of red and white).

      Your final lines made me laugh!!

  3. Dear Laura,
    I was reading your blog in the USA and in my opinion what is important is not the rose or the water, but the utilization of symbols by the author to avoid a long explanation by using minimal words. Your blog is excellent.
    --Carlos Porta.

  4. Dear Carlos,

    Thanks for visiting my blog. You're absolutely right.

    So glad you liked it.


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