#79A: Botanical/ Culutural/ Literary History of Roses

#78   Jan 17, 2022: 12,541

(Since my roses essay is so long, I have had to break it into two parts)







The family Rosaceae includes not only the 150+species of flowering shrubs contained in the genus Rosa, but also many fruiting plants such as apples, plums, and strawberries. One of if not the oldest, most prolific, most popular, most widely grown, and most symbolically allusive of flowers, roses have existed for all of recorded history.  Their proliferation through extensive cultivation and hybridization is the subject of many books, so the best I can do here is a simplified outline of the historical categories most central to an understanding of their context in Woolf’s life and works.


For convenience, roses can be divided into five generally chronological categories. Wild and old garden roses, dating back in history as far as prehistoric and Mycenaen times, continue into the stylized roses of the medieval period. Referred to as “primitives” by Sacheverell Sitwell in his 1939 book Old Fashioned Flowers (125), they are simply formed with strong scent and many medicinal uses and bloom only once, usually around June.[i] These include R. canina or the Dog Rose, the classic five-petalled wild climber; Gallicas, a red variety of which is the Red Rose of Lancaster; their hybrid offshoots, the Albas, white climbers, one of which is the White Rose of York. Damask roses, a hybrid of old musk roses and Gallicas, famous for their strong scent and double set of petals, and Centifolia roses, aka Cabbage roses or Provence roses, named for their proliferation of petals and globular shape. are the next step in complexity and sophistication.


Dog Rose


China Roses, the first repeat bloomers, introduced into wide cultivation in Europe in the later 18th century, were hybridized with old garden roses to produce most modern varieties of roses. Tea Roses, another Chinese import whose smell was said to resemble China tea, arrived at the beginning of the nineteenth century; also re-bloomers, their buds had a characteristically pointed shape, with petals opening in a spiral downwards, and added the color yellow to the hybridization experiments.


China rose “Hermosa”  from the Huntington Botanical garden 


Hybrid Teas, still the dominant modern rose, first appeared in 1867, the result of intensive 19th century breeding programs, which combined the scent and hardiness of old roses with the characteristic shape and re-blooming properties of the more recent imports from China. [ii]   


“La France,” the first hybrid Tea Rose.  American Rose Society. https://www.rose.org/single-post/la-france~the-mystery-the-history-of-the-dawn-of-the-modern-rose

The twentieth-century saw the popularity of Floribunda and other Shrub Roses, smaller plants bearing a proliferation of repeating flowers.


Floribunda: Rose 'Pink Gruss an Aachen', by Kluis 1929




 At the end of the nineteenth-century, there was something of a rebellion against the artificiality of the elaborate hybridization experiments that produced entire gardens of spectacular, brightly colored blooms with little scent. William Robinson and his acolyte Gertrude Jeykll both objected to roses having been isolated from the garden as a whole, set out as “a sort of target of concentric rings” (Jeykll, qtd by Horwood, 115).  They felt that the “stiff formal hybrid teas” and the masses of floribundas planted out like Victorian bedding plants went against their modern ideas of a more natural garden (Harwood 116).  Vita Sackville-West agreed and campaigned during her entire gardening life for the recovery and perpetuation of Old Roses with their strong scents and wandering, climbing habit.


Roses at Sissinghurst, EKS 2006.


[i] The first depicted image of a rose is said to be in the Blue Bird fresco at Knossos.  See https://twitter.com/ticiaverveer/status/699634307208454144  Accessed August 21, 2021


[ii] There are of course many descriptions of this history; I have depended mostly on Horwood, who provided me with the clarity of my chronology (see 10-3) and Potter, whose tremendous tome is full of helpful references and details.  The Wikipedia entry on Classification of Garden Roses is also a miracle of concise summarization:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garden_roses .  Accessed August 25, 2021.



As complicated and difficult to summarize as the botanical history of the rose are the manifold branches of its literary and artistic uses. In her socio-historical survey of the Rose, Horwood notes, “The rose has always been a part of the literary canon, from the Old Testament to the Ancient Greeks and Romans . . .  [to] Shakespeare, the English Romantic poets and beyond” (130).  For the Greeks, the rose was the flower of Aphrodite, and thus was associated with both beauty and love. In Jennifer Potter’s massive history of The Rose, she notes that roses received their first classical literary treatment in Sappho’s poetry where roses are planted in the sanctuary of Aphrodite (21) and were later said by Anacreon to have been born with Aphrodite’s birth, a legend incorporated by Botticelli into his Birth of Venus (Potter 23). Aphrodite’s son, Cupid, was also linked to roses; according to Bobby Ward’s Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature, Cupid’s use of a rose to bribe Harpocrates, God of Silence, “into keeping quiet about his mother’s love affairs” gave rise to the term sub rosa, to mark confidences (Ward 312-3). The Romans hung roses over banquet tables and designed ceiling rosettes to remind guests that what happened under the rose, stayed under the rose.


The Greeks grew roses to be used in garlands and perfumes, a practice intensified by the Romans whose obsession with the flowers eventually made roses into symbols of hedonism, intemperance, and transience. Roses appear as an element of the simple life in Virgil’s Georgics, grown among cabbages and lilies, but their consumption by aristocrats in the form of garlands, unguents, scents, and decorative petals eventually reached decadent proportions.  Potter observes that the “Romans loved roses so much they duly dedicated a whole festival to them, Rosalia”; held during the rose harvest beginning in mid-May, the celebrations involved “drunken revelry. . . in which the drinker’s brows were wreathed with stitched garlands and their polished tables buried under a shower of roses” (45).


Petals, especially, were displayed to legendary excess. The floors of Cleopatra’s dining rooms were said to be covered in petals a foot deep for Mark Anthony’s first encounter (Potter 47). Nero’s extravagance included importing enough roses from Persia to cover an entire beach (Horwood 28) and installing ivory panels in his dining room ceilings, “which slid back to shower his guests with flowers” (Potter 47).  The boy emperor Heliogabalus, perhaps inspired by Nero’s surprise showers, supposedly pulled a practical joke on his dinner guests that turned deadly when he dumped so many petals on them that a number were smothered (Potter 48-50; Horwood 30), an event captured for the Victorian era by Sir Alma-Tadema in his seven-foot painting The Roses of Heliogabalus, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888 and 1913.



The next phase of literary rose lore involves their sanctification through the recuperation of roses into the Christian tradition as well as their continued development as symbols of more sensual love through the medieval traditions of courtly love. As Potter points out, flowers played little role in early Christianity. Roses, in particular, “carried the taint of drunkenness, venery, idolatry and unspeakable pagan practices” (75).  However, by gradual symbolic accretion, roses began to be ascribed to Christian figures: Christ’s crown of thorns was said to have been formed from stems of the dog rose (Horwood 37), and the image of Eden as a place where roses had no thorns and of Mary as “the Rose without a Thorn” was popularized by St. Ambrose, among others (Potter 78). By the twelfth century, rosaries, strings of beads traditionally made from tightly rolled rose petals, began to be used as an aid to prayer (Horwood 43).  The apotheosis of the spiritual rose was perhaps achieved at the end of Dante’s Divine Comedy where his vision of God takes the form of a celestial rose, the endpoint of a Neo-platonic progression from earthly to divine love (Potter 91).


At the same time that the rose was being incorporated into Christian ritual and symbolism, it was also being given new sensual embodiment in the literary tradition of courtly love, as exemplified in the French medieval romance Roman de la rose, written between 1230 and 1270 by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean De Meun. Although different in many ways, the two parts of the poem both portray quests to access a rose hidden in a protected garden, described with startlingly graphic genital analogues which portray the forced opening of a bud into full blossom (Horwood 133; Potter 93-9).  One of Chaucer’s earliest works was a partial translation of the Romaunt of the Rose.


            During the fifteenth century, the so-called Wars of the Roses (1455-85) brought the flower into secular and political prominence. Shakespeare’s imaginative portrayal in Henry VI, Part I of the civil wars between the two royal houses of York and Lancaster as having originated in a quarrel in which Richard, Duke of York asked his followers to identify themselves with white roses, while his Lancastrian rival, the Earl of Somerset, countered by choosing red, set up a durable national mythology of the English rose, heraldically resolved when Henry Tudor married Elizabeth of York and created the Tudor rose, combining an outer ring of five red petals with an inner ring of white ones (Horwood 51, 58).



            Shakespeare’s frequent evocation of roses is central to this establishment of the rose as a symbol of England. As early as Spenser’s Shepeardes Calendar (1582), the Tudor Queen Elizabeth had been crowned with roses.  Potter points out that “faire Elisa,” the “Queene of Shepeardes all” is crowned with “a crimson coronet set with ‘damask Roses’” (143), and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy queen Titania sleeps in a bower “Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,/ With sweet musk roses and with Eglantine” (II,I, XX). [i]

Ellacombe’s definitive study of Shakepeare’s plant-lore declares that “There is no flower so often mentioned by Shakespeare as the Rose,” listing seventy passages in which roses are referenced, not counting at least thirty more specifically concerning the red and white roses of the houses of York and Lancaster (264). But his summation of Shakespeare’s use of the rose -- “the Rose is simply the emblem of all that is loveliest and brightest and most beautiful upon earth, yet always with the underlying sentiment that even the brightest has its dark side, as the Rose has its thorns” -- leaves out some crucial nuances.  As Potter points out, Elizabethan slang popularized the rose as a sexual symbol, its picking often, as in the French romances, embodying the taking of a young girl’s maidenhead or virginity (101). Her suggestion that Juliet’s assertion “That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet” (II, ii, l. 43) might be a hidden sexual joke is supported by Juliet’s promise, later in the same scene, that “This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath/ May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet” (II, ii, ll. 121-2). 


Ingeniously following this thread, Potter traces Shakespeare’s ever more tragic presentation of the transience of the rose in subsequent plays, from Duke Orsino’s observation that “women are as roses whose fair flower/ Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour” in Twelfth Night (II, iv, XX) to Othello’s murderous threat before he smothers Desdemona, 

                        When I have plucked the rose,

                        I cannot give it vital growth again,

                        It needs must wither.  (V, ii, ll. 13-5)


To Cleopatra’s lament for the passing of her beauty:

                        See, my women,

                        Against the blown rose may they stop their nose

                        That kneeled unto the buds. (III, xiii, ll. 45-7)


This theme, of course, reaches its literary apotheosis some forty years later in Robert Herrick’s famous carpe diem exhortation  “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.


            A similar concern with transience and evanescence haunts the many roses which appear in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which tend to dwell more specifically on the color and odor of the rose as an analogue to the beauty of the beloved, while also emphasizing absence rather than presence. Sonnet #1 begins the sequence by complaining that the lover is so concerned that “beauty’s rose might never die” that they have buried themselves “Within thine own bud,” by refusing to taste the abundance of joy. A similar negativity appears in Sonnet #35, where the beloved is forgiven an offense with the assertion that “Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud. . . / And Loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.” And Sonnet #54 favors the smell of roses over their appearance, but only because the odor lingers after death.


Sonnet #98 also refuses the usual concentration on visual beauty, saying that since the beloved is absent, the poet cannot enjoy in pleasures of spring: “Nor praise the deep vermillion in the rose” because such rhetorical analogies are mere “figures of delight,” and therefor poor substitutes for the lover’s presence.  This critique of the symbolic or figurative rose reaches its climax in Sonnet #130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” as the poet proclaims:

I have seen roses damasked, red and white, 

But no such roses see I in her cheeks 


The concern with false comparisons manages to enthrone the rose as a symbol of beauty and love, while also questioning the validity of the metaphor.


            Literary roses seem to fade somewhat during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  As Horwood points out, early Romantic poets such as Blake and Wordsworth seemed to disdain the garden rose for being too cultivated, not natural. Blake’s “The Sick Rose” expands upon Shakespeare’s sonnet 35 by telling of a rose eaten from the inside by a worm, while in “To the Daisy” Wordsworth accuses the rose of being both too ambitious and too vulnerable to natural destruction:


Proud be the rose, with rains and dews
Her head impearling;
Thou [daisy] liv'st with less ambitious aim (ll. 27-9).[ii]  (Horwood 141)


Although the rose was temporarily disdained by some poets, two of the most popular romantic renditions of the rose appear during this time. Robert Burns’ 1794 song “My luv is like a red red rose/ That's newly sprung in June” and Thomas Moore’s 1805 poem “The Last Rose of Summer,” also set to music:

'Tis the last rose of summer,
    Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
    Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
    No rose-bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes
    Or give sigh for sigh![iii]


Continuing the Romantic prejudice against garden roses, Keats’s 1816 sonnet “To a Friend who has sent me Roses,” extolls the “sweetest flower wild nature yields,” the fresh musk rose, which he associates with Shakespeare’s Queen Titania.[iv]  The musk rose also appears two years later in Endymion; among the list of things of beauty that are a joy forever is “the mid forest brake,/ Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms.” However, as Horwood points out, Keats also emphasizes the ephemeral nature of the rose’s beauty (141-20).  The haggard knight-at-arms in “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (1819), has pale cheeks upon which “a fading rose/ Fast withereth” (ll 11-2), and in “Ode on Melancholy,” the poet advises the reader to “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,” comparing its transitory beauty to that of “the rainbow of the salt sand-wave” (ll. 15-6).

The full Victorian efflorescence of the rose is perhaps best embodied in Keats’ inheritor, Tennyson, whose rose-drenched poem “Maud,” published in 1855, begins in a garden where “the musk of the rose is blown,” (l. 6), and whose unreliable narrator goes on to celebrate the “Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls” (l. 65) to the point of obsession. Tennyson’s friend and fellow Cambridge Apostle, Edward FitzGerald (Potter 240), brought back the Middle Eastern context of the rose with his translation of the Persian scientist and poet Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat in 1859, a poem whose sensuality was much popularized by the pre-Raphaelite circle, including Swinburne.[v]  This trend of decadent exoticism was continued by Oscar Wilde who included a version of the Persian tale, “The Nightingale and the Rose,” in which a bird sings itself to death on a thorn, staining a white rose red with its blood for the love of a Student which is callously rejected by the materialistic daughter of a Prince, as one of fairy tales in The Happy Prince (1888).


Indeed by the end of the Victorian period there was such a proliferation of roses that they had become something of a visual and symbolic cliché. Violet Dickinson’s friend, Kate Greenaway’s little volume on the Language of Flowers (1884) presents no less than 33 sub-varieties of roses with symbolic meanings, including Bridal (Happy love), China (Beauty always new), Damask (Brilliant complexion), Musk (Capricious beauty); the York and Lancaster roses betoken war, while, rather confusingly, unnamed red and white roses signal Unity (36-7).  By the time that Virginia Woolf began writing, there was thus a complex accretion of possible literary and historical associations for the rose. 


For my separate entry on Eglantine see https://woolfherbarium.blogspot.com/p/eglantine_13.html


[ii] http://www.online-literature.com/wordsworth/540/  Accessed September 12, 2021.


[iii]  Text and information on the poem available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Rose_of_Summer  Accessed September 12, 2021.


[iv] For text of poem and some information on composition see https://allpoetry.com/Sonnet-V.-To-A-Friend-Who-Sent- hMe-Some-Roses Accessed September 12, 2021.


[v] Emily Kopley’s brilliant new book on Virginia Woolf and Poetry helpfully provides an illustration of Virginia Stephen’s copy of the Rubaiyat, given to her by her older brother Thoby for her seventeenth birthday in 1899 (Fig. 2.1, p. 83).



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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...