“Roses are red, violets are blue…” Who hasn’t heard or read this phrase at least once a Valentine’s Day, 99 times in 100 meant in jest. While no great poetry may come out of that literalistic pairing, it’s indicative of one of the largest genres in the history of writing – floral poetry.
It is possible that there has been no more-visited motif in the history of poetry than flowers. They have come to stand for love, death, rebirth, memory, foolishness, beauty, grace and – among a litany of other things – just plain old flowers. Considering the heavy literary weight that these beautiful budding plants bear, it’s no wonder that scholars have spent hundreds of years publishing papers on Ophelia’s garland speech in Act 4 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet! “Fennel for you, and columbines,” she says to the assembled cast, disarrayed in madness following the death of her father. As Ophelia lists off the flowers and herbs of her garland – “That’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance… and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts” – one begins to wonder if, to paraphrase another Hamlet quotation, there might be method to her madness. “There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died,” she tells her brother, Laertes, and the line aches with both the young woman’s regression to childhood and her paternal loss.
But of course, Shakespeare wrote more lovingly of flowers in other plays. There is the memorable moment in Romeo and Juliet when the young Capulet professes her love for the Montague son by pronouncing, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet…” In fact, the line has become so ingrained in public consciousness, that a common misquotation reads “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And then there’s always 20th century poet Gertrude Stein’s contribution – “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
But whether long stemmed red roses stand for love or simply for natural beauty, there’s plenty to be said about them, which is probably why even the most modern poets haven’t ceased to look to their gardens when it comes to metaphors, symbols and just plain old beautiful descriptions! Looking to cultivate a collection of your very own flowering poetry? Or perhaps you’re hoping to pair a book of poems with a Autumn-themed bouquet of orange lilies and purple snapdragons for your special someone. No matter your goals, consider some of these stand out poetic and floral contributions to the world of language.
A Red, Red Rose – Robert Burns
Robert Burns was a Scottish poet with about as many nicknames as the assembled cast of The Jersey Shore. Regarded in his time and today as the national poet of Scotland, this 18th century lyricist is perhaps most well known for injecting a little Scots dialect into his work while influencing the Romantic movement as a pioneer in the Highlands.
But for music fans and poets alike, it’s possible that Burns’ famous poem “A Red, Red Rose” will be most familiar for other reasons. A love poem, “A Red, Red Rose” really has more in common with song than verse. And lovers of early Bob Dylan may notice some recognizable meter and lyrical influence, particularly in the final stanza – “And fare thee weel, my only luve, / And fare thee weel awhile! / And I will come again, my luve, / Though it were ten thousand mile.”
The lyrical musings of Burns’ played a heavy role in influencing the folk songs of early and mid 20th century America, particularly with singer-songwriters like Woody Guthrie, one of Dylan’s primary influences. And of course there’s always the folk-rock icon’s own advocacy for Burns’ poetry. According to The Guardian, Dylan claimed that “A Red, Red Rose” was one of the biggest inspirations in his life.
So if for nothing else, we owe old Rabbie Burns a debt of gratitude for Blonde on Blonde.
Daffodils – William Wordsworth
During the 19th century’s surge of Romantic poetry, William Wordsworth was the quiet and pensive older uncle to Shelley or Byron’s youthful heartthrobs. As famous for residing in the Lake District among the mountains of Northwestern England as he was for composing such national hallmarks as “Tintern Abbey” or The Prelude, Wordsworth was a soul appreciative of the natural world and with a sharp eye for what made it so vital a part of the human existence.
This is perhaps best exemplified in his 1807 poem “Daffodils,” sometimes referred to as “I wandered lonely as a cloud” after it’s first line. The poem itself was inspired by an event five years early, when Wordsworth and his sister wandered across a startling natural belt of daffodils stretching into the middle distance. As can be seen in that opening line, the poem perfectly epitomizes the solitude of man, but then offers a reminder of nature’s brilliant and bright bounty – the flower.
“…I saw a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils; / Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze,” wrote Wordsworth. He expands time and space here to explain the sublimity of even such a simple sight as a daffodil when multiplied to this degree, describing these bright yellow perennials as “stars that shine / And twinkle on the milky way…”
But the power of these ten thousand (“at a glance”) spring-blooming flowers isn’t soley in Wordsworth’s language, but in the theme of the poem, stated in the first line and reiterated in the closing stanza. For Wordsworth, who spent plenty of time in a London on the verge of the Industrial Revolution, memories of natural beauty made up a lot of what got him through the urban day-to-day.
“For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They flash upon that inward eye,” he says of the rows upon rows of yellow buds and petals. “And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.”
Come Slowly – Eden (211) – Emily Dickinson
Quite possibly the very definition of late-blooming success, Emily Dickinson – one of the most important poetic voices in either America or the entire world – wasn’t even acknowledged by her family until after her death for the veritable cache of lyrical genius she contained. Born in 1830 and passed before her 56th birthday, Dickinson spent most of her life in Massachusetts, very rarely even leaving home. Regarded as eccentric (good to know she was living up to the poet’s typical reputation), Dickinson was an extreme introvert, notoriously spending most of her later life secluded in her room.
And while most of us might pass that time playing XBOX or tossing playing cards into a hat, Dickinson embarked on deeply prolific and deeply personal poetic pursuits, publishing fewer than a dozen of nearly 1,800 poems during her lifetime, according to a variety of sources. But not only was Dickinson writing poetry, she was changing the face of the medium – and a few decades before the world even knew about it. Her verse was notable for its lack of titles, short lines and both fanatical and frightening themes. These are on full display in her poem “Come Slowly – Eden,” which uses the motifs of a bee and a flower to comment on fear, desolation and pleasure. The third line refers to Jessamines as an old-fashioned term for Jasmine, a yellow and white flower of notable fragrance. Interestingly, the poem also offers up a blooming bouquet of em-dashes, almost an average of one a line, which was a daring technique for the time and lends the poem an urgency at odds with the traditional “stop and smell the roses” lingering of the Romantics.
If not her generation’s Lady Gaga, Emily Dickinson was certainly her own brand of progressive.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci – John Keats
For anyone who’s made their way through high school English class awake, John Keats is a name that requires no introduction. But for the sake of the day-dreamers and those who favor the left side of the brain – Keats was among the most famous (and young) of England’s Romantic poets, a peer of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the men who took the Romantic mantle from the likes of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge only the generation before. But like Byron and Shelley, Keats died young. In fact, all three bit the dust between 1821 and ’24 – first Keats to tuberculosis, followed by Shelley, who fell off his boat while sailing around northern Italy in a storm and finally Byron due to a bad fever after a bout of supposedly therapeutic bloodletting. You could say Keats got off lightly, but that’s a stretch.
The poet did receive some minor recognition during his lifetime, but it wasn’t really until after his death (you’ll sense a trend here) that the public grew to appreciate his genius and he became one of the most beloved and famous of English poets, having contributed such iconic pieces as “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to anthologies around the world.
Like many of the Romantic poets, Keats’ verse derives much of its power from sensual and vibrant imagery, with a focus on the natural world that’s rife with personification, melancholy and unadulterated awe at something as simple as a seasonal change.
But Keats’ famous poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (translated from the French as “The Beautiful Lady without Mercy”) takes the natural world and makes it vindictive, eerie and heartbreaking. The poem itself, a ballad in form, is simple in structure and rhyme, but filled with rich and haunting imagery, telling the tail of a young knight-errant who wanders across a mysterious and beautiful woman.
“I met a lady in the meads,” the knight tells us. “Full beautiful, a fairy’s child; / Her hair was long, her foot was light, / And her eyes were wild.”
Keats uses a variety of floral and natural imagery in these stanzas to establish this woman, “a fairy’s child” as something literally worldly, of the earth and nature. As the poet looks upon the knight, he describes his brow as like a lily, white and pale, “With anguish moist and fever dew,” then describes his cheeks as a fading and withering rose.
The knight tells the poet a sad tale. How, ignoring those wild eyes, he accepted the mysterious woman’s advances. “I made a garland for her head,” he says, returning to the floral theme. “She look’d at me and she did love…”
But – as you might’ve seen coming, given the title – things don’t turn out super well for our knight-errant. Before we know it, la belle dame has whisked him away to her “elfin grot” where he falls for the oldest trick in the book and enters into a deep and sudden reverie. In his dreams, the young knight sees “pale kings, and princes too,” alongside a host of ghostly figures, all of whom cry out to him “La belle dame sans merci / Hath thee in thrall!”
The knight-errant awakes, and unlike the modern urban legend variation on this story in which he might be missing a kidney, he finds himself alone “On the cold hill’s side” with only a broken heart.
Whether meant as an allegory for the world’s worst breakup or just a prelude to the Eagle’s eventual hit single “Witchy Woman,” the world may never know. But never have garlands, lilies, roses and fairies been quite so hauntingly beautiful and pitiless.
Queen-Anne’s-Lace – William Carlos Williams
Born at the end of the 19th century, William Carlos Williams was ushered into a new age of literary and poetic rejuvenation as writers cast off the stuffiness of Victorian values and embraced the Modern. Making his living as both a poet and a general practitioner (he had a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania), Williams counted among his peers such influences as Ezra Pound and became one of the leading poets in the Imagist movement, a style of verse that strived for clarity of description and, as you’d expect, an emphasis on imagery.
Though he eventually broke with Pound and the likes of T.S. Eliot, favoring his own experimentation with verse and meter, Williams’ aptitude for concise and clear imagery to serve the purpose of his themes is nowhere more clear than in a poem like “Queen-Anne’s-Lace.”
“Her body is not so white as / anemone petals nor so smooth – nor / so remote a thing…” read a portion of the poem’s opening three lines, all of which continue to lean into one another, forming a delicate yet essential linking chain reminiscent of the flower itself. Choosing to personify the flower as a “Her,” Williams has also established a level of reverence for this flowering plant. He is at once botanist and lover, both equally in awe.
“Each flower is a hand’s span / of her whiteness. Wherever / his hand has lain there is / a tiny purple blossom under his touch,” Williams writes, here speaking of the sun with the masculine pronoun. The sunlight spreads throughout the whole field, until the entirety of it is a “white desire, empty, a single stem, / a cluster, flower by flower, / a pious wish to whiteness gone over – / or nothing.”
Metaphoric expression of longing and passion? Hyper-real still life in words? What Williams intended with “Queen-Anne’s-Lace” rests secondary to what he has accomplished – a truly beautiful poem.
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower – Dylan Thomas
Born in 1914 in Swansea, Wales, Dylan Thomas was primarily famous for two things – having composed some of the most beautiful verse in Welsh history and consistently drinking to excess in such a way that would put most frat houses to shame. Having quit school to pursue journalism, Thomas was the definition of upstart and self-taught. When he published the poem “Light breaks where no sun shines” at the age of twenty, his literary star rose enough to meet a few associates and peers but also worsened his drinking problem, which wasn’t alleviated by marrying an alcoholic either.
Praised in his lifetime, Dylan Thomas nonetheless faced the modern poet’s preoccupation with remaining financially afloat. As famous and well-regarded as he was, money was scarce. However, despite his nearly crippling alcoholism, Thomas’s vinyl and radio broadcast readings of his own works, especially his classic A Child’s Christmas in Wales, helped to establish him as a celebrity amongst the literati, especially in America.
The States didn’t do much to help Thomas’s health troubles though, and after a bender in New York City during the late autumn of 1953, what the poet had thought was a minor chest cold became much worse, landing him in a coma from which he would not wake, dying only days after admission to a local hospital. He was buried in Wales
In “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” which takes its title from its own opening line, Thomas paints us a portrait of the power and poetic violence of the natural world’s renewal and rebirth.
The green fuse drives the flower, of course, and “Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer. / And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose,” Thomas wrote, “My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.”
The poem goes on, crafting a litany of natural forces. Those that drive water through rocks, Thomas says “Drives my red blood…” The same with the sun which dries the mouths of streams or the hand that whirls pool water and stirs quicksand. And through it all, Thomas acknowledges himself incapable and impotent to refuse these natural forces and urges.
In a particularly moving two lines toward the poem’s close, the poet tells us that he cannot soothe the sores of love. He is too powerless against nature. In fact – “And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind / How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.”
Untitled – Edna St. Vincent Millay
In 1923, at the age of 31, Edna St. Vincent Millay accepted the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, only the third woman in history to win the award. But poetry was only a portion of Millay’s contribution to America. An ardent feminist and excellent playwright, Millay was a true renaissance woman.
It’s perhaps fitting then that the poem that would launch her career – at the age of 20, before she’d yet attended college at Vassar – was titled “Renascence.” From here she went on to a prolific career, living around New England and New York State and producing plays and books of poetry, dealing with topics ranging as far and wide as female sexuality to the war efforts of the early and middle 20th century.
When she died at the age of 58, after falling down a set of stairs in her own home, Millay’s obituary quoted critic Floyd Dell as saying that Miss Millay was in her youth “a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and mouth like a valentine.”
Whether written to a young lover – perhaps during one of her affairs at Vassar – or in maturity, it’s not clear, but Millay’s early untitled sonnet beginning “I know I am but summer to your heart, / And not the full four seasons of the year,” takes the motifs of flowers and nature in decline and rebirth and crafts from them a beautifully simple and striking piece of poetry about the waning and waxing passions of a relationship.
Distilling a bitter truth known to anyone who has ever loved, from octogenarians to high school couples, Millay closes her poem “O love, as summer goes, / I must be gone, steal forth with silent drums, / That you may hail anew a bird and rose / When I come back to you, as summer comes.” Because, the couplet reminds us, that the blooming roses and chirping birds of loving summer can always be found elsewhere.
One Flower – Jack Kerouac
While the famous American beat poet Jack Kerouac never lacked for a youthful fan base, the pending U.S. premiere of the long-awaited film adaptation of his novel On The Road has cemented the beat poets’ lines about roman candle fireworks and how “the only people for me are the mad ones” in Facebook profiles across the world. It’s surely a strange time to be a leftover of that reclusive and oddball generation of writers, with James Franco donning Allen Ginsberg’s iconic glasses in the film Howl, and Twilight’s Kristen Stewart spouting off lines of Kerouac’s kinetic prose with the same thought and ease as dialogue about sparkling vampires.
Jean-Louis (or Jack) Kerouac was born in 1922 and was ushered into the spotlight as the voice of a generation when his autobiographical novel On The Road was published in 1957, several years after he had finished writing it. Kerouac lived in this spotlight for only twelve years however, helping to spur the counter-culture revolution of the ’60s and even disown portions of it. In 1969 he died due to medical complications brought on by abuse of alcohol. He managed to outlive Dylan Thomas by a mere eight years, passing at the age of 47. But his legacy remained cemented, as Wikipedia reports that all of his books – even the lowliest, because Kerouac had the habit of being too prolific for his own good – are still in print.
But for all the youthful pomp and celebrated literary libido, Kerouac was at heart a poet. Still famous for his sole, generation-defining novel, it is often in his poetry that the elusive soul of a drunk and drugged flaneur can be glimpsed.
In an introduction to Kerouac’s books of collected haikus, the author is quoted as saying, “I propose that the ‘Western Haiku’ simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture…”
In this way, it becomes easy to see how the haiku may be the perfect poetic form for capturing the beauty of a flower. Shakespeare can string garlands of meaning together, Wordsworth can furnish us with constellations of daffodils, Millay can espouse the most heartfelt of truths about relationships – but at the end of the day, Kerouac’s poem “One flower” is twelve words, none over two syllables, about a single flower. It “make[s] a little picture” of a flower. And that flower is just a flower, “on the cliffside,” and yet it is also Kerouac.
What’d you think of our collection of flowers and poetry? Hoping to see Robert Frosts’ “Asking for Roses”? Not enough dabbling in Eastern canons? Why not drop us a line on our Facebook wall? Or Tweet us a line or two of your favorite floral verse.