THE ROSE by Jennifer Potter reviewed by Helen Castor – TLS

The tale of the rose
We project on to roses our dreams and our stories, our emotional, spiritual and sexual selves

From the page: “Yet – as the ageing Henry VIII was to discover when he appropriated the image of the “rose without a thorn” for his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, only to find that she was not the chaste maiden he had believed her to be – roses quickly came to represent the earthly pleasures of the flesh as well as the transcendent virtues of the spirit. The thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose contains within its dream narrative an extended sexual allegory of the Lover’s assault on his quarry, the Rose, until at the last “I took the bud at my pleasure . . .”. At the end of the fourteenth century, the poet Christine de Pizan sought to reclaim the rose from its increasing freight of misogynist innuendo; her Lady Loyalty presents vermilion and white blooms to those knights who promise to defend, rather than assail, a woman’s reputation. That she did not succeed is clear from the lament of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra: “See, my women, / Against the blown rose may they stop their nose / That kneeled unto the buds”. By the seventeenth century, “a Rose half blown” had become a standard medical description of female genitals; “and thence”, explained the herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, “came the word To deflower a Virgin”.

Yet, if roses could be used as an allusive means of speaking openly of the sexual and the anatomical, they could also serve to enforce silence: in sixteenth-century northern Europe, conversations that took place “sub rosa” – sometimes literally beneath a rose painted on a ceiling above a dining table – were “to remayen under the bourde and no more to be rehershed”. And the Rosy Cross – a fusion of Christian symbols that “struck metaphysical gold”, as Potter points out – became the sign of the alchemical mysticism of Rosicrucian secret societies in seventeenth-century Germany.

Dip into this extraordinary compendium, and you will find the rose as apothecary’s cure-all and artist’s inspiration; as the symbol of dynastic bloodshed between Lancaster and York, and dynastic unity under the Tudors; as a sensuous and sophisticated presence in Islamic culture, and a brightly coloured badge of American moralizing and patriotic myth-making. Potter even makes room for where roses are not, or at least not in the way that tradition supposes: the Chateau de Malmaison, where the Empress Josephine did not set out to collect every rose then known, as legend would have it; or the White House Rose Garden, which has “not many roses” and, in Michelle Obama, a new First Lady who pays greater attention to her vegetable plot.

But it is churlish to quibble when a protean subject on this scale is handled with such serenity and skill. “What a pother have authors made with Roses!”, exclaimed Culpeper. “What a racket have they kept.” The closest Potter comes to any kind of pother is in her evident irritation with Umberto Eco’s assertion that “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left” (not to mention the fact that a book called The Name of the Rose should fail to mention roses at all until its closing line). “Umberto Eco gave up far too easily”, she declares. “When did he last look, really look inside a rose?” If he did, she believes, he would see a flower that reflects the world back on itself – just as, one might say, the five interdependent sections of this book echo the self-sustaining circularity of the five-petalled rose. It does so because we (in cultures touched by Christianity and Islam, at least) project on to roses our dreams and our stories, our emotional, spiritual and sexual selves. And so Potter ends with what she calls the “greatest rose of all”, one found in an “unexpected source”: the rose of Sharon, in the beautiful poetry of the Song of Songs. But there were no roses in biblical Palestine, nor in the poem’s Hebrew original, which speaks instead of the habasselet, a flower of uncertain identity. Rather, this is a generic, ur-Rose which, thanks to the King James Bible, has taken root in the anglophone imagination because of what it means to us. “The ultimate rose”, Jennifer Potter concludes, “is the one we imagine for ourselves.””

I have always wondered why, in our culture, flowers are associated exclusively with women’s appreciation. I love flowers, filled with pleasure seeing them in a field, across a hill, in a window, and beside a bed. Flowers are the most sublime symbol of the feminine, so why would a man not appreciate them as well?

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