The Ultimate Rose


Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens, Henry Arthur Payne, 1908

From Times Literary Supplement:

The rose was made for symbolism, metaphor, allusion. Its beautiful flowers – in the wild, each bearing the symbolically charged number of five petals – bloom alongside vicious thorns. Sight, touch, smell and taste – when petals are distilled into rose water or rose oil – are all captivated (or challenged) by this extraordinary plant. If only sound is missing, then that is a gap rapidly filled, as Jennifer Potter makes clear in this sweeping and sure-footed survey of thousands of years of rose cultivation, by the long playlist of songs in which roses appear. She resists compiling a catalogue (but I can recommend it as a High Fidelity-style parlour game). As a result, the story of rose culture – in all senses of the word – is a tale well worth telling. Not that Potter’s task is an easy one. She presents “two interlinked stories”: that of the physical transformation from the simplicity of the wild briar into the sophistication of the garden rose; and the cultural metamorphoses that the rose simultaneously experienced as the centuries passed. But these stories are far from unilinear, and it has taken a steady hand to find a way to shape them into five sections with a broadly chronological feel which Potter encourages us to “enter at will”, taking the chapters in any order we might choose.

The first impression The Rose makes on its reader is the tactile pleasure of handling a book that has been made into a sumptuous object. The heavy, glossy pages with polished gilt edges emphasize, by counterpoint, a sense-memory of the fleshy softness of the petals depicted in the glorious illustrations. The second impression is just how rich and yet elusive Potter’s subject is. There is agreement on the first surviving representation of a rose, in a delicate fresco painted 3,500 years ago at Knossos in Crete. But there is no certainty, for example, about the vexed question of where many-petalled garden roses, with their long stems and high buds, were first brought in from the wild. The most likely answer, Potter suggests, is that they developed simultaneously in both China and Iran, before spreading westward from the Persian plateau to Asia Minor, Greece and beyond.

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.”

“The Tale of the Rose”, Helen Castor, Times Literary Supplement