The Bitter-Sweet Rose: the Conception of Woman in Roberts' The Book of the Rose
by Glennis Stephenson
In the Prefatory Note" to his Selected Poems, Roberts comments upon the various thematic and stylistic changes evident in his verse. I am far from claiming that this change is of necessity growth," he writes, But it is divergence, and as such might, I think, be taken into account in any serious evaluation of my verse which the critic may find it worth while to make."1 The Book of the Rose is a clear example of such divergence. In this volume, as in the New York Nocturnes that precedes it, Roberts turns his attention from nature and philosophy to women and love. Like most of his contemporaries, he is not usually considered to be a writer of love poetry, and particularly not of the erotic variety to be found in The Book of the Rose. As an analysis of the first section of this volume readily shows, however, Roberts' achievement as a love poet cannot be hastily dismissed. Seen in isolation, a few of the poems may appear weak, but viewed collectively, they certainly seem worthy of consideration; Roberts successfully presents a consistent and unified examination of the male's conception of the nature of woman. She is perceived as having, in her relationship with man, dark as well as redemptive qualities, and man is shown to come, eventually, to accept both aspects of her. While such issues are not usually of major concern to Roberts, there nevertheless are links between the ideas to be found in The Book of the Rose and those to be found in his other works. This is surely a further reason for suggesting that the collection deserves more attention than it is commonly accorded, and should be considered in any study of Roberts' poetry as a whole.
Seven poems from the collection provide the clearest illustrations of Roberts' ideas: On the Upper Deck," The Rose of my Desire," O Little Rose, O Dark Rose," The Covert," The Rose's Avatar," The Wisdom of Love," and The House." While the present essay will focus upon these, references to the other poems will demonstrate that the seven are representative of the whole collection: the series of poems forms an integral unit; it is not simply a heterogeneous collection of lyrics. Roberts emphasizes the unity of the collection by commencing with On the Upper Deck," a verse-dialogue which introduces many of the themes to be developed in the following lyrics; these themes include the duality of the ideal, the peace that can emerge from horror, and the redemptive power of love. On the Upper Deck" also serves to indicate the way in which the woman is initially seen and ultimately accepted by the man in the subsequent lyrics. Throughout the poem, he glorifies the woman as one who is variously fascinating, comforting, and frightening; elevated above the human, she is someone he dares not touch lest she should vanish. Yet in the final stanza, the woman expresses her own fears and her desire for protection, and consequently reveals her human frailty. In the poems that follow, the man attempts to discover why she simultaneously fascinates, comforts, and frightens him, and why he views her with awe, by considering her in the roles of siren, mother, and goddess. Gradually, this leads him to an understanding of her nature and to a realization of the potentially redemptive qualities of love. While the poems are not presented in a strict narrative series, there is within them a general progression of thought; in the final poem, the passive and fearful lover becomes strong, assertive, and capable of offering the woman the protection he previously craved.
As this brief consideration of the relationship between On the Upper Deck" and the subsequent lyrics implies, Roberts is consciously manipulating a persona in The Book of the Rose. The dialogue which introduces the problems to be explored is between an unspecified He" and She." The I" who develops the ideas in the following poems, therefore, is not Roberts, but the He" of the verse-dialogue. Roberts' use of a persona clearly accounts for the discrepancy between the way the woman is shown through her own words in On the Upper Deck" and the way she is shown through the eyes of the man. While Roberts, the poet, perceives her objectively as an ordinary woman with human weaknesses, the persona he employs tends to endow her with exalted qualities. The persona's view of the woman actually reveals more about the man himself than the woman he describes, and it is in this persona's reactions that Roberts' main interest lies. The feelings of the woman as an individual are not of much importance to him, but he is obviously intrigued by her effects upon the man. Although Roberts speaks through a persona in The Book of the Rose, some of the ideas proposed bear a certain resemblance to those found in his other works; consequently, these ideas can be considered as part of Roberts' total poetic vision, and not simply the expressions of the persona. The correspondences noted between woman and nature in The Book of the Rose certainly invite us to consider the collection in the light of Roberts' other works. While the woman in On the Upper Deck" constantly directs her companion's attention to the outer world, he insists upon discussing her and their relationship. When she speaks of the sunset and reproves him for gazing at her when God is at his miracles," the man replies:
Woman and nature, in the form of the rose, are eventually fused in the poem, for
Appropriately, the rose becomes a highly ambiguous symbol in the subsequent verses.
(It is worth noticing the possibility that Roberts was to some extent influenced by the Decadents in his choice of the rose as his major symbol; the flower is liberally strewn throughout many of their poems. But, since the Decadents use the flower in a wide variety of ways, to attempt to associate Roberts' rose with the specific flower of another poet would be futile. Dowson's rose of earthly beauty and sensuality, with its suggestion of innocent joy, has little in common with the morbid rose of cruel and evil beauty used by Wilde in Salomé, and still less in common with Johnson's mystical flower with its obvious Christian overtones. In his use of the rose, Roberts is actually more successful than many of the Decadent poets. While he creates quite a complex symbol, their roses are often no more than simple metaphorical devices; only Wilde and Yeats really attain the complexity of the French rose that their contemporaries seek to emulate.3 Evidence of the Decadent influence may be seen throughout The Book of the Rose, particularly in the diction and imagery. Tears and longing, glory and rapture, and madness and despair are found in abundance in the sensual world Roberts creates. He also displays the same fascination with alliteration and the same liberal use of adjectives to accentuate mood that may be found in many of the poets of the Mauve Decade." To be more specific about the nature of the influence, however, is difficult. Like most terms of its kind, Decadence" is primarily useful in delineating a period of time; the poetry produced in the eighteen-nineties is actually quite diverse. Furthermore, the Decadents are themselves strongly influenced by the pre-Raphaelites and by Baudelaire and by such later French Symbolists as Mallarmé and Verlaine. It obviously would be a difficult--and probably fruitless--task to determine the precise nature of the influence upon Roberts, and to make such an attempt is not the intention of this paper, which while allowing that The Book of the Rose is imbued with the Decadent spirit, is more concerned with the extent to which the resulting collection is, in itself, successful.)
Although it may appear that Roberts is also influenced by the Decadents in his presentation of woman as variously fascinating, frightening, and awe-inspiring, he actually revitalizes the familiar theme by also considering her maternal qualities, and it is in her mother role that the woman is most sympathetically portrayed. In The Covert," woman is seen as a shelter or secret enclosure in which man may feel secure and warm, safely protected from the sorrow of life" (p. 19). Although the image of a womb is not directly employed by Roberts, it does seem to be implied by the man's expressed desire to bury himself, both physically and spiritually, in the enclosure woman provides. This craving for protection is repeatedly shown in many of the poems of the collection. The Fear of Love," for example, begins with this plea: Oh, take me into the still places of your heart,/And hide me under the night of your deep hair" (p. 23). The suggestion in this poem that woman is an object of sexual desire is also found in The Covert" when the speaker asserts that the sorrow of life shall forget me in/The hiding of your hair" (p. 19);4 however, the main emphasis here is on woman as comforter and shelter.
The tenderness and solace that the mother-figure provides is effectively reflected in the varied metre. In the first stanza, where the man expounds upon the pain life brings, the first three lines are forceful, and the harshness of sharp" and bitter" is underlined. Conversely, the unstressed syllables with which each line begins in the second stanza provide a softer, more harmonious rhythm, and reflect the soothing nature of woman's love. The first stanza in this poem also explains why the mother figure is viewed in a positive manner. Such potentially positive elements as rain, long nights, and dawn are shown to bring only pain and sorrow,5 and breath is so vain a prayer" (p. 19). This implies that since death is inevitable, life can hold little pleasure. The woman, however, can hide man from the sorrows life brings, and her warmth and love offset the confusion and fear caused by the knowledge of mortality. In this way, the traditional notion that love may conquer time and death is introduced.
Since the certainty of death constitutes the main horror of life, it is not surprising that woman is sometimes presented in a less positive light. After all, it is she who, in giving life to man, simultaneously condemns him to death. A touch of menace is definitely found in woman when she is described as a sexual creature. Sexuality, woman, and evil have been constantly linked in myth and literature; both Pandora and Eve bring suffering, knowledge, and sin into the world at the same time as they introduce sexuality. Even Aphrodite, whose only divine duty is to make love, is also known as Epitymbria," of the tombs, and as Androphonos," the man-slayer.6 Consequently, a loss of simplicity, harmony and order is often associated with sexual desire, and the sexually attractive woman frequently portrayed as someone to be feared.
The male persona reveals this universal fear of disruptive passion in many of the poems in The Book of the Rose by displaying a nervous mixture of fascination and dread when confronted by woman as a sexual creature. This is particularly evident in The Rose of my Desire," an account of the creation of a wild, dark flower of woman" (p.14). As this phrase indicates, the exotic woman with her glimmering body" and strange face" (p. 14) is both alluring and desirable. There is also the suggestion, however, that she is potentially dangerous; this is reflected in both the setting and the woman's appearance. In the act of creation described, Roberts replaces God and the garden of Eden with an eastern wizard" (p. 14) and a mysterious, tropical setting where a dangerous, uncontrollable frenzy seems to be barely suppressed. The hot, moist, and electric images created by such phrases as the swoon of the tropic heaven" (p. 15), and By the silver shaft of the fountain/He wrought his mysteries" (p.14) effectively generate a sexually charged atmosphere, while the constant use of alliteration in such words as swoon," star," and silver" suggests that this sexuality is possibly dangerous. The unhealthy nature of the orange moon swung low" (p. 14) adds to the effect; no longer the pure planet, high in the heavens, that is associated with the bright, virginal Diana, the moon is entering the phase in which it becomes the mysterious planet associated with the sorceress, Hecate. The reference to camphor trees, formerly renowned for their anaphrodisiacal qualities, intensifies the possibility of evil by indicating the diseased and corrupted nature of the scene.
The woman possesses a similarly dangerous attraction. By noting the lure of [her] strange face" (p. 14), the man implies that he views her as an irresistible snare or trap. The word lure" is employed frequently to describe the woman. In Invocation" her eyes are the Lure of my life" (p. 32), while in Attar" the clear deep of your eyes/A lure of wonder lies to me" (p. 29). The Rose of my Desire" emphasizes the dangerous aspect of woman by also noting that there is a pang in [her] mystic laughter,/A portent in [her] tears" (p. 15); the strange woman is closely allied with sorrow and calamity. Even the substance from which she is created, the hot, sweet mould of the garden" (p.14), intimates decay as well as sexuality.
The dual nature of woman as a sexual being is further developed in O Little Rose, O Dark Rose." Each stanza in this poem depicts a stage of sexual union in which the woman is represented by the rose. Flowers are traditionally associated with the female, and the particular shape of the rose has often led to its direct association with the vulva.7 Roberts certainly implies he has this connection in mind with his highly sexual picture of the rose with its smouldering petals curled" (p. 12). The meeting of the male and female elements is initiated in the first stanza with an account of the rose, delicate and sensual, and the wind, a masculine force of strength that comes for you/From the other side of the world" (p. 12), a description which suggests opposition in sexual terms. The idea of erection and the need for release are implied in the next stanza by the bee, with burdened wings/Too laden to depart," entering the rose that waits in quiet anticipation with the hushed and golden heart" (p. 12). Employing the traditional association of orgasm and death, Roberts then describes climax with two images: the dew that dies in you" (p. 12), and the moth that will drain your sweet/Even though the dregs be death" (p. 13). Ultimately, the aftermath of love is presented when the garden day is done" (p. 13) with the image of the dusk brooding over the rose. Since the poem so clearly follows the stages of sexual union, an examination of the language and images should reveal more about the speaker's view of woman as a sexual being. A superficial reading of the poem might suggest that only a beautiful and harmonious experience is being described. Such a conclusion is supported by the harmony of the musical rhythm, the regular repetition of two basic stanzaic forms, and the soothing duplication of such phrases as I am the" and O little rose, O dark rose" (p. 12). The language and imagery, however, imply that there is a lack of harmony; consequently, tension is created between form and meaning. A hint of quiet menace, for example, is to be found in the picture of the dark rose/With smouldering petals curled" (p. 12). Similarly, the madness of your breath" (p. 12) brings the cruel, ecstatic frenzy of the Maenads to mind, and implies the presence of uncontrollable passion that may lead to destruction.
The possibly malevolent side of woman's nature is further revealed when the effects of the rose upon the male persona are observed. Although initially a vital, powerful force, he is slowly emasculated by the grasping, vaginal rose; paradoxically, the rose drains his strength far more than he drains her sweet" (p. 13). As a moth, he becomes insignificant and fragile, a creature that is irresistibly drawn to the destructive flame of her sexuality. When the act is completed, he is left as the impotent dusk, a symbol of the end of day or life. Now he is capable only of brooding over the rose Until the morrow's sun" (p. 13). It appears, therefore, that Roberts' use of the death metaphor is meant to convey the idea of actual death as well as sexual climax. Woman as a sexual being is more than just an object of desire; the apparently passive receptacle of the rose may also be an active, devouring force, a devitalizing power that leaves man impotent or lifeless. This menacing side of woman is constantly placed in juxtaposition with her attraction when she is described as a sexual being. In Attar," for example, the speaker asserts:
Similarly, in Invocation" he claims that the woman's lips contain Honey and fire, delirium and repose" (p. 32). Therefore, man initially echoes the universal fear of woman as siren, and the wild dark flower of woman," like Circe, Parthenope, and Lilith, appears to be yet another temptress who plans to entice and destroy.
Ultimately, however, man's submission and destruction may be seen in a positive light. The final stanza of O Little Rose, O Dark Rose" is actually ambiguous. Although the lines suggest that man is left weak and impotent, they also propose the possibility of rebirth with the morrow's sun," and they convey a certain sense of peace; life and death are shown to be inextricably entwined. Perhaps the woman is not actually dangerous, then, but only appears to be so because she contains the incomprehensible mystery of creation and destruction. The man's fear may simply be the result of his inability to understand her. It is notable that woman's enigmatic nature is the first idea to be introduced by The Book of the Rose. The epigraph to On the Upper Deck" contends that
"The Rose of my Desire" also suggests that the woman is, above all, mysterious, for she is on earth forever homeless/But intimate of the spheres" (p. 15); while desirable, she is neither controllable nor comprehensible. Submission to her apparently darker side, however, is redemptive.
Nature is presented in a manner similar to woman in On the Upper Deck." Bathed in the golden light of the sun, the sea and sky convey a sense of beauty and peace, and the woman notes:
In the dark, the aspect of the scene changes. Since the sea and sky are no longer clearly visible, they seem unfamiliar and threatening:
Everything that cannot be clearly seen and understood grows menacing. The woman's next words are significant. Look down, close in," she tells her companion:
Out of the horror of the dark sea and sky a new fiery beauty appears, and the possibility of rebirth is suggested. In The Book of the Rose, Roberts thus indicates that fulfilment may emerge from the darkness of both woman and nature.
This idea is developed further when the woman is viewed in a mystical light as a goddess. As goddess, she is neither as comforting as the mother, nor as threatening as the siren, yet she possesses both qualities. The potentially threatening side of her nature is illustrated by The Rose's Avatar," a poem which describes the transformation of a rose into a woman's lips. Since the word avatar" is most commonly used in Hindu mythology, the title immediately implies that this is a mysterious eastern deity, not an idealized Christian figure. Permeated with sexual passion, the rose's breath contains Hid scents and hushed seraglio dreams" (p. 18). But violence lurks just beneath the surface of the rose; it exudes the madness of the Maenad's joy/The tenderness of death" (p. 18). This dangerous sexuality is emphasized by the ambiguous nature of the rose:
Such lines indicate that the rose may be either the actual lips and mouth or the vulva and vagina. Woman as goddess becomes a figure of ultimate beauty touched with menace.
She does, however, possess the ability to bestow life and strength upon man. In The Fear of Love," an experiment in free verse which unfortunately fails because of an overly melodramatic touch which renders the poem mildly ridiculous, the woman replaces God. Believing she has the power to breathe life into his soul, the speaker pleads:
The goddess also possesses all the wisdom of the world, and one of her functions is to teach man The Wisdom of Love." In the poem of this title, woman becomes a venerable figure. The man, in an attitude of prayer with his spirit at her feet" (p. 25), learns the necessity of total submission in order to gain the wisdom and favor of the goddess. As an initiate into the mysteries of love, he is taught the lore inscrutable" by the woman containing all pain, pleasure, and knowledge in her brow's white ken" (p. 25). The means by which this wisdom is acquired seems to be through the act of love; this is at least implied by lines such as these:
Anticipation is an emotion more often associated with sexual union than with sleep. Furthermore, the reference to her hair suggests that knowledge of the ancient mysteries only comes when man enters the woman and achieves the climax which teaches the secrecy of joy,/The long content of death" (p. 26). The wisdom he learns is indeed bitter sweet" (p. 25); although he learns of the doom that haunts/The fleeting of the years" (p. 25), he is also taught that the immortal fire of their love, drawn from life's eternal core" (p. 27), shall continue to burn unquenched/When time shall be no more" (p. 27).
The phrase bitter sweet" is also the most appropriate description of woman as she is viewed in The Book of the Rose. She is a harmonizing influence, and shelters man from fear and disorder in her mother role, while providing him with wisdom as a goddess. Yet paradoxically, since her sexuality inevitably links her not only with the mystery of creation but also with the horror of destruction, she becomes incomprehensible, and so creates fear and disorder as a siren. After embracing this darker side of her nature, however, man is fulfilled; through her redemptive love he achieves some form of immortality.
After reaching this understanding, the man is ultimately able to offer the sanctuary of his own love to the woman in the final poem of the sequence, The House." It is significant that the shelter he offers is presented with the womb-like image of a house, deep-walled and warm" (p. 34). Love as a shelter is seen as feminine and motherly regardless of the sex of the lover. These characteristics of love are skilfully reflected in a variety of ways in the poem. The type of language used often resembles the language a mother would use to address her child; such endearments as O little dark head, too dear and fair," and Come in and be comforted, little dark head" (p. 35) effectively suggest a motherly tone. Even the sound of the words chosen by Roberts helps to convey the idea of a large, comforting entity enclosing a helpless, childlike being. The warm, enveloping vowel sounds of My heart is a house, deep-walled and warm/To cover you from the night of storm" (p. 34) provide a striking contrast with the delicate, tripping consonance of O little white feet, too softly white/To roam the world's tempestuous night" (p. 34). Furthermore, the soothing refrain, always indented from the main body of verse as if to suggest an inward motion, repeatedly restores metrical order to the widely varied metrical combinations that constitute the stanzas. In this manner, the ordering, harmonizing influence of sheltering love is reflected in the form of the verse. 8
The protection the man offers, like that the woman provides, is against time and death. There are certainly many references to time in The House." The buffeting skies and the bitter air" (p. 35) represent Time as a supreme wrath scourging the earth, and this wrath creates the fear and confusion that is reflected in all of nature:
Roberts effectively simulates this disorder in the metre by employing a highly irregular combination of iambs and anapests that change to choriambs at the two climactic moments of horror.9 Yet protection from time and death may be found inside the house, for the man asserts that the years like sleet on my window beat" (p. 34). As the softness of the repeated vowel sound suggests, disordering Time, although he sweeps the wold with his wings of dread" (p. 35), can only knock ineffectually at the window of the shelter love provides.
It is possible that in exploring the roles of woman and learning to embrace her darker side, the speaker may come to see her as a symbol of life itself. He often claims that for him, the woman constitutes life. In The Wisdom of Love," for example, he asserts:
Even in the introductory dialogue, the man idealizes the woman as the Rose of Life" (p. 6); he believes that she represents all the beauty and joy of life. Although it is possible that this is no more than conventional flattery, it is interesting to note that in the poem entitled The Rose of Life," the man is no longer referring to the woman; he has progressed to a discussion of life in general. This rose, like the woman, has beauty, wisdom, and love, but finds it cannot release my spirit/Of its strange woe" (p. 20). In the second stanza, the wind explains the reason for this unhappiness. The rose, possessing all joy, must necessarily also possess the whole world's sorrow" (p. 21). Joy and sorrow, beauty and horror, life and death, all opposites are closely entwined, and at day's high noon," therefore, one will always find that still, dark descends" (p. 21). While it may not be possible to establish conclusively that the woman in The Book of the Rose actually comes to symbolize life, there is little doubt that, in this collection, Roberts explicitly explores a theme which links his love poetry with his other works more closely than is generally supposed. As D.G. Jones observes, the work of Roberts displays a concern with the problem of how, not only to tolerate but in some measure affirm the darkness as well as the glory, the apparently negative element in nature." 10 This problem is surely also explored in Roberts' love poems; and he seems to conclude that if the beauty, love, and wisdom of woman are inextricably interwoven with what may appear to be threatening menace, then this darker side must be actively embraced. Indeed, Roberts often appears to view the menace as an essential part of woman's attraction, for beauty lies, as he suggests in How Little I Knew," not only in the freshness of the dawn and the warm brightness of the day, but also in the mystery and threat of midnight's dark (p. 16).
The Book of the Rose, however, is not only of interest for the similarities it displays with Roberts' other works, and it is unfortunate that the collection is generally dismissed as poetry with no depth, no universal significance, and no unifying objective. James Cappon, whose opinion represents the essence of most critical judgements upon the work, is surely wrong to suggest that Roberts does not get much farther than some sweet honeysuckle verse on the light touch of her hand or the mystical perfection of her kiss."11 Admittedly some of the verses display weaknesses; like Johnson, Roberts has an unfortunate fondness for melodramatic exclamations, and he sometimes fails to inject the Decadent phrases he employs with much life. Nevertheless, the sequence of poems as a whole is successful. Through the use of a persona, Roberts explores a variety of universal themes, creates a complex symbol in his use of the rose, and presents a highly unified examination of a man's conception of woman. Furthermore, the ambivalent attitudes of his persona effectively create the poetic tension which is often skilfully reflected in the diction and structure of the verses. The Book of the Rose is surely one example of divergence in Roberts' work that deserves more attention than it is commonly accorded; it should certainly not be hastily dismissed as sweet honeysuckle verse."
Charles G.D. Roberts, The Book of the Rose (Toronto: Copp, Clark, 1903), pp. 5-6, all further references to this edition cited in text. [back]
Superficially, Roberts' rose may appear to be influenced mainly by Yeats. The similarities, however, are not extensive. Although the titles and phrases of the poems in The Book of the Rose may appear reminiscent of those in Yeats' The Rose, there are many differences in the manner in which the symbol is used by the two poets. When they are similar--both use the rose as a symbol of love, woman, beauty--they are only similar because they are using the symbol in highly traditional ways.[back]
Hair imagery is often employed by Roberts with the same sexual implications found in such poems as Swinburne's Rondel" and many verses of the Decadents. [back]
Rain, long nights, dawn and breath may be potentially positive symbols of fertility, passion, new beginnings, and life.[back]
Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: Vol I (Middlesex, Penguin 1955), p. 70. [back]
Barbara Seward, The Symbolic Rose (Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 7. [back]
Each stanza varies the manner with which it combines iambs, anapests and choriambs. The couplet comprising the refrain continually regulates the meter. [back]
Choriambs may be seen to initiate the two lines Down from the naked heights of cloud/Care and despair cry low, cry loud" and the line Time sweeps the wold with his wings of dread."[back]
D.G. Jones, Butterfly on Rock (University of Toronto Press, 1970), p. 87. [back]
James Cappon, Charles G D. Roberts (Toronto: Ryerson, n.d.), p. 117. For similar opinions, see E.K. Brown, On Canadian Poetry (Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1973) pp. 50-51, and W.J. Keith, ed. Selected Poetry and Critical Prose by Charles G.D. Roberts (University of Toronto Press, 1974), p. xxvii.[back]