Roses are red, violets are blue – here’s a poetic guide to the perennial flowering plant of the genus Rosa for you….
Just why is that the red rose has become the floral symbol for erotic love?
After all, botanically speaking, a ‘rose’ is just a woody perennial plant of the genus Rosa, in the family Rosacea, which has four main subgenera and hundreds of species with flower petals that come in all colours – the red ones merely being those with a particular combination of anthocyanin pigments in the petals.
But that doesn’t really capture the romantic bit, does it?
Why, for example, is a single red rose so often to be found held between the teeth of a sexy Argentinian tango dancer, or tattooed on the shoulder of a glamorous, doomed youth? Or indeed, clutched in the sweaty palm of a teenage boy on his first Valentine’s date?
Above all, why do so many poets feel the need to constantly compare the object of their affections to red, red roses?
Blame Rabbie Burns
At one level, the answer is simple enough. Roses – and red ones in particular – have always been loaded with symbolism: the heady scent, that vivid colour hinting at hot blood and blushing cheeks…
In Roman Catholicism the rose actually became identified with the Virgin Mary (hence the ‘rosary’ form of prayer) but before that the Romans associated the flower with Venus, the Goddess of Love – and roses also held erotic significance in Sufi Islamic culture.
The great poem that kicked off today’s rose obsessions though, is ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’.
It was written down by Robert Burns in 1794 as part of his project of preserving traditional Scots folk songs, and became the Victorian equivalent of a smash hit single.
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only Luve
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.
It’s a simple lyric, but with all that stuff about seas going dry and rocks melting in the sun even Burns himself worried that people might find it ‘ludicrous and absurd’ rather than ‘simple and wild’. But it packs quite an emotional punch if you’re in the mood (in fact, Bob Dylan once said that ‘Red, Red Rose’ had influenced him more than any other song).
However, while we can let Rabbie Burns off the hook for his bit of overblown romanticism, it’s harder to forgive some of the other red rose ‘poetry’…
Roses are red, violets are blue
Roses are red, violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet, And so are you.
This incredibly popular ditty is familiar from a million Valentine’s Day cards, but actually has origins in some lines from the 1590 epic poem The Faerie Queene by Sir Edmund Spenser:
She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.
It’s a poem that just cries out for satire, and all schoolchildren know much better versions, such as:
Roses are red, violets are blue.
Onions stink. And so do you.
In the age of the internet, ‘Roses are red’ pastiches have been taken to whole new levels. A long-running ‘meme’ involves adding the first line to any news headline or tweet, often with very funny results. For example:
Meat Loaf’s Wolf with the Red Roses
All of these poetic abominations pale into insignificance, however, when compared with the Worst Poem Involving Red Roses of All Time. We refer, of course, to the spoken word introduction to Meat Loaf’s song You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night) from his multi-million selling album Bat Out of Hell…
Oh dear, oh dear. The truth is, most of the time the best way to appreciate red roses is just to look at them, breathe in their scent, and not say anything.
We like them singly, but even more in glorious, room-filling, life-affirming and yes, romantic arrangements. Now that’s poetry…
Our October 2016 arrangement of Red roses ‘Freedom’, astrantia ‘Roma’, hypericum ‘Coco Casino’ and eucalyptus ‘Cinerea’.
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Photo top by Angelynn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons