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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

17 June 2022

Poets have always been right about the symbolism of roses, says Malcolm Guite

WHILE I have been away on my North American adventures, the roses have bloomed in our garden, especially those Maggie has kindly planted in front of the Temple of Peace, my little writing hut. Some were presents, some we acquired ourselves, but all were chosen as much for their names as for their scent and beauty: a rose, Ancient Mariner, blossoms opposite one called the Poet’s Wife, and another, Country Parson, looks on at both of them, with, I presume, mild amusement.

But those roses give me so much pleasure beyond the whimsy of their names. There is always a suggestion of mystery and grace in their gradual budding and unfolding, and I am sorry to have missed its earliest stages, although now I have the joy of their opening and their fulness.

The poets have always been right about roses, right to see them as emblems of human beauty, right to see them as symbols of brevity, and yet, at the same time, symbols of eternity, as Dante discovered when, having ascended beyond the furthest sphere, he found that he had really travelled inwards to the heart of a mystic rose whose petals unfolded the cosmos as it blossomed from the love of God.

So, Burns was right in the direct simplicity of his song, “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June.”

And Edmund Waller was right in the poignant and elegiac tone with which he sent a rose to his beloved in the poem “Go, lovely rose!” and asked that rose to speak both of her beauty and of her mortality, to “bid her come forth . . . and not to blush . . .”.

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!

But Eliot is also right when he leads us, in the first of the Four Quartets,

Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

The roses in “Burnt Norton” keep suggesting a moment when time touches eternity, a moment that keeps beckoning, “the still point of the turning world”, both in and out of time, a sudden flowering of consciousness, as graceful and given as the rose itself:

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
. . .
Be remembered. . .

And the rose returns, of course, in “Little Gidding”, the final quartet, where the destructive fires of our fallen nature are finally transformed by the purgative and redemptive fire of Pentecost, the fire of the divine presence. So, the fire rained down in the Blitz of London, as it rains down in Ukraine now, tragically reducing to ash the vulnerable roses of our mortality:

Ash on an old man’s sleeve

Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.

But then both the rose and the fire return, transfigured and eternal, in the final lines of the poem, offering a vision of hope which I also contemplate as I look at my little rose garden:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

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