Daily Archives: May 29, 2019

Nobody knows this little Rose

The Lady of Shalott, 1875, John Atkinson Grimshaw
Background Image: The Lady of Shalott, 1875, John Atkinson Grimshaw

Consider that instead of her writing about an actual “Rose” which she has plucked from the bush and now leaves an empty space which only the “bee will miss”, she is instead talking about the impossibility of art (a poem) to accurately depict its subject, which in this case is a “Rose”. All through the poem she talks about how the absence of this “Rose” affects the natural world, but never once does she describe the rose other than to use the adjective “little”. Obviously she knows we all know what a Rose looks like, but she only describes how the loss of a “Rose” creates a sadness in nature while it might bring happiness to the person it was plucked for.

Thus the paradox at the heart of this poem is that when the artist goes out into nature and sees a “Rose” and wants to share their vision with someone else – such as by writing a poem about that “Rose” – it is nevertheless impossible to accurately capture (“take it from the ways”) a true representation of that “Rose”. In nature the “Rose” serves to provide for the “Bee” and the “Butterfly” and is thus beautiful in its place in nature, yet when it is plucked “how easy / For such as thee to die” because it no longer can be supported without the natural world it once inhabited. The “Rose” / poem cannot truly exist independent of its natural setting and thus becomes a wilted corpse whom the “Bird will wonder” where it has gone and the “Breeze will sigh” as if they are both saddened that their friend, the “Rose” has died. The “Rose”, in “Hastening from far journey” cannot survive on its own and lies in repose, the way a flower might be pinned to a dead person’s “breast to lie” for all eternity.

Emily knows there is no way to adequately describe a “Rose” that can come anywhere close to doing it the justice a mere “Bee”, “Butterfly”, “Bird”, and “Breeze” can do and so she has written a poem not about a “Rose” but about the lack of a “Rose” in art. It’s a wonderfully complex and modern trick she’s playing with and my first thought when reading this poem was of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. I thought of that poem because when Lancelot finally sees this beautiful woman, she is already dead, she has left her tower (“from far journey” in Emily’s poem) and cannot survive out of context on her own. She is the very essence of beauty, but that beauty can’t exist independent, it requires that this ideal beauty remain in its tower where none can approach it but when it is plucked it immediately dies and all we can do, like Lancelot, is admire the corpse which, though still very beautiful, like a poem about a rose, we know it pales in comparison to the real thing.

And I think the clue Emiy gives us to this meaning is in her line “Only a breeze will sigh” because in order to hear the breeze, there must be something for the breeze to encounter to make any sound at all but if the “Rose” is absent, the breeze has nothing to encounter and thus cannot make any sound. Only in poetry can the absence of something create a sound and this is what Emily has done in writing about the lack of a “Rose”, but the “breeze” is this poem and it is sighing against the nothing that is there. In other words, the poem cannot do justice to the real thing and thus it is impossible to truly appreciate a “Rose” in art / poetry – you have to go out in nature with the “Bee” and the “Butterfly” and the “Bird” and the “Breeze” to truly appreciate beauty. One has to climb the tower and peer in through the window to see The Lady of Shalott in her natural habitat because she can’t survive anywhere else.