by Syeda Ali
SWEET rose, thou lovely blooming flower,
Whose fragrance fills the leafy bower,
With pleasure thy beauties view,
And love thy softly tinted hue.
An emblem shalt thou surely be
Of matchless grace and purity,
A fitting gift for maiden fair
To prize and guard with tender care.
In beauty shall thy bud and bloom
Wave round the lonely, hallowed tomb,
Thy rich and living sweets to shed
Amid the dwellings of the dead.
With regal grace shalt thou adorn
The wreath by proudest beauty worn,
Or flourish in luxuriant bloom
Within the lowly peasant’s room,
But I would have this heart of mine
For “Sharon’s” Rose a fitting shrine,
Its living Essence there to dwell
As in some hidden secret cell
To purify and cleanse from sin,
To keep me spotless “fair” within,
And by its matchless beauty hide
The stain of nature’s guilt or pride.
If mine, this precious fadeless rose,
When frosty age around me close,
When other flowers droop dead or low
This blooms with rich eternal glow.
Its cheering perfume still the same
When death dissolves the earthly frame
And sweet immortal joy bestows
‘The Rose’ was originally published in the 232nd issue of The British Workwoman (1863-c.1913) a monthly penny evangelical temperance magazine aimed at women, as stated in the BLT19, a website dedicated to understanding the history of ‘work’. The Workwoman nonetheless was set up and controlled by men and modelled after the British Workman, reinforcing gender ideas within the British (Victorian) workforce unlike some other mid-Victorian magazines which promoted feminist views, such as the English Woman’s Journal. Unlike these magazines, the Workwoman aimed to educate working-class women about their duties as guardians over their family, exercising emotional restraint and self-control (temperance) over their husbands/family, in order to build them in to better citizens.
The Workwoman reminds women constantly of their duties and even suggests new responsibilities that working-class women must undertake; through the form of scripture lessons, stories, articles and even illustrations. For instance, an issue of the British Workwoman, stated the Biblical quote “A woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised. – Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her.” (Proverbs, 31:30) whilst presenting an illustration of the Empress Catherine and Peter the Great, the Tsar of Russia in the late 1600s (See Figure 1). The Workwoman appears to model the ‘ideal’ workwoman using the character of Empress Catherine, depicted (contrary to historical fact) as a once-working class woman who had risen through the ranks and became the Empress of Russia, as well as invoking new introductions for her sex.
In their essay in Extraordinary Ordinariness: Everyday Heroism in the United States, Germany, and Britain, 1800-2016, Christiane Hadamitzky and Barbara Korte argue that using the epigraph above Empress Catherine’s illustration, the magazine “(…) sets an intention to praise working women (…) also hints at the fact that the praise of female work is to be performed quietly, in private (…).” (Hadamitzky and Korte, p.66). Nonetheless, it is possible that editors had cleverly cited the Biblical teaching in order to place the illustration – and perhaps the magazine itself – into a Christian context so as to avoid being associated with feminist political and social views of women. The fact that the magazine is written by men also suggests that the editors aimed to allow women to recognise their own importance within the nation, using the illustrations and literary works as a primary influencer within the magazine; doing so, would allow women to improve the morality of the nation.
Whilst ‘The Rose’ doesn’t focus on the concept of the ideal workwoman, it instead caters for the Christian Evangelical concept of the magazine whilst also being aimed towards women. The rose, even though it is often associated with femininity (a convention the magazine plays with), in this case actually refers to Christ, as the last lines unequivocally show.
On the front page of the issue, immediately before the poem, the editors introduce an illustration of a young – supposedly working-class woman, picking flowers outside a home; underneath the illustration, however, is an epigraph (quoting the poem) saying “Sweet rose, thou lovely blooming flower.” It would be quite sensible to assume that – along with the allusions to Christian terminology within the poem – the editors had ingeniously placed the illustration on the front page of the magazine to emphasise the importance of the poem, and how it structures the overall Christian theme throughout the entirety of the issue.
For instance, in the illustration, we can clearly see that the woman appears to be standing outside a cottage – a home that would undoubtedly belong in the country. Also, the woman is seen picking roses without gloves or a knife and collecting them in her small basket – despite the fact that roses also have thorns growing out of their stems. If we are to evaluate the illustration without the influence of the poem, we would be given an impression that the illustration is instead portraying the gentleness/femininity that is commonly associated with women.
However, the editors of the Workwoman most likely want their working-class readers to place the illustration in the context of ‘The Rose’ in order to identify the Christian themes surrounding it. The fact that the woman is reaching out and clutching the roses without fear of the thorns pricking her, symbolises the idea that the woman is in fact trying to achieve salvation – purely due to the fact that roses play a prominent part in Christianity.
While often associated with the “Rosa mundi” (Alighieri, p.355), the Virgin Mary, here, as previously explained, it refers to Jesus. The depiction of the countryside also connects with the overall message of the British Workwoman, indicating that femininity instead belongs in nature rather than in a gritty urbanised area. Ultimately, if we were to take this further, it is possible that the editors are attempting to use the poem and illustration to educate the working-class women, showing that a woman’s place is not in a factory but, instead, in a natural, private space where they would be able to educate their families and provide emotional/moral support to their husbands/families, in order to prepare them (the men) for work in the city.
In order to understand the illustration, we must first take a moment to understand the Christian terminology of the poem itself. Despite many attempts of research, I have unfortunately not been able to identify the enigmatic author of the poem, ‘Elise’; however, in an odd way, this allows us to have a broader understanding of the poem. We are unaware of whether or not Elise is a working-class woman or a middle-class woman, or whether or not it is a pseudonym used by a male author in order to give the impression that it is written by a woman. Nonetheless, the lack of knowledge about the identity of the author allows readers to perhaps identify themselves with the overall theme of the poem.
One important aspect of the poem is the significance of the number 8in the form of 8 syllables and 8 line stanzas; the number 8 quite significant overall especially within Christian numerology. Within the Bible, there are many instances in which the number 8 is referenced; for example, in the Old Testament, 8 people were saved in Noah’s Ark in order to continue the human race, which allowed a new beginning for humanity. Also, the number is connected to Jesus and his resurrection, due to the fact that Jesus was resurrected on the 8th day after he was chosen to be sacrificed for the sake of humanity, as well as having shown himself to his disciples and people eight times before ascending once again. This ultimately displays a prominent theme of salvation within the poem – again linking to the illustration, in which the woman is clearly trying to reach salvation by clutching the roses despite the fact that it would hurt her. This ultimately links in with the overall form of the Workwoman, which itself has (certainly for economic and technological reasons) 8 pages per issue. What the form of the poem offers above all is an idea of congruence with the contents of the poem and with the magazine as whole.
The use of roses is also quite significant within the poem, as well as in other stories within the issue, linking in with the idea that a woman’s place is in the countryside rather than in the city. For instance, the poet refers to the “Rose of Sharon” – the rose of Sharon originating from the Old Testament, especially within the Song of Solomon; “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.” (Solomon 2:1). The ‘Sharon’ refers to a valley and is understood to “(…) the largest of the coastal plains in northern Palestine.” (Woudstra, p. 206), however, in the next verse, the Song of Solomon continues: “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” (Solomon, 2:2) If we are to link this closely with ‘The Rose’, it is clear that the poet had indeed taken inspiration from the Biblical chapter. Solomon directly associates his ‘love’ with the idea of roses, again symbolising the concept of purity and the love/passion that Solomon has for his ‘love. However, this association is utilised by the poet in order to emphasise the idea of a woman’s place being in the countryside, working in fields rather than in urban spaces or in factories; it is as if the poet is portraying the idea that women thrive more around nature.
In terms of the other stories within the issue, it would be wise to assume that the issue was actually published either during Christmas or the New Year, especially due to some of the stories referencing Christmas, however, as modern readers, we are unaware due to the fact that the date has not been printed on the newspaper. Some of the images, stories and poems appear to also be connected to ‘The Rose’: for instance, an illustration of thorny roses surrounding a biblical quote: “What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his soul?” (British Workwoman, p.28), whilst the story ‘Little and good’ uses prominent Biblical imagery, including the quotation ‘A man reaps what he sows’ (Galatians 6:7-9). ‘Little and Good’ employs relevant biblical imagery in order to portray the idea that women who achieve salvation through helping their family will be rewarded, although it appears to be also warning that if they do not and instead decide to follow their ‘worldly desires’ and abandon their family in search for work, then they may be punished.
If up to now I have been stressing the congruence of the poem with the rest of the magazine, compared to the usual language of the British Workwoman, its language and syntax are entirely different. Immediately upon reading the first stanza of ‘The Rose’, we can identify the language as being similar to the poetic language used during the Enlightenment period, especially in pre-Romantic poetry. The style in particular is reminiscent of Alexander Pope’s poetry, a “central figure in the Neoclassical movement of the early 18th century”. The writer of ‘The Rose’ appears to take inspiration from Pope; for example, in the last stanza ‘Elise’ says; ‘And sweet immortal joy bestows (…).’ recalls Pope’s translation of The Odyssey of Homer Book 5, in which Hermes – acting upon the orders of Zeus, demands that Calypso release Odysseus. Calypso, however, holds the gods in contempt and curses them, telling them that they ‘envy mortal and immortal joy.’ (Homer, pg.85) Whil this could be a quotation either from Pope directly or from one of the many anthologies which included his poetry (such as this one), this is less a quotation than an allusion to the Neo-Classical/Enlightenment period that fits the dominant image of the magazine as nostalgic for times gone by.
Of course, close to the end of the 19th century (number 232 must have been published around 1882, almost 20 years after the monthly magazine’s inception in 1863), there was a distinct rise in radical views about women, such feminist views eventually leading to the creation of the suffragette movement. Nevertheless, using all the above information we can infer that perhaps the publishers/editors of the Workwoman had a negative outlook on the feminist advancements such as the contemporary Married Women’s Property Act (1882). The magazine itself was perhaps created in order to call its working-class female readers away from what would be deemed as a threatening change, and instead lead them more towards a pathway that would eventually lead them to salvation since they would be fulfilling their duties to their families and to society.
As an avid decadent reader, I noted that the difference of the British Workwoman from decadent texts written around the same time or shortly after is very striking. Both of course have entirely different outlooks upon social life – one of which is more conservative and religious, whilst the Decadent writers focused on the concept of individualism and “aestheticism.” However, when it comes to the depiction of flowers within decadent poetry, it is entirely possible that the initial depiction stems from popular sources such as the British Workwoman. If we were to scrutinise ‘The Rose’ without the influence of Christian terminology and instead focused on the concept of the flower on its own with the influence of Victorian social norms, we could identify the clear correlation between a ‘rose’ and purity. Of course, throughout the literary canon, women have often been depicted as pure and virginal – symbolically linked with flowers too; hence why, it is appropriate to identify a rose with the concept of purity, humility and perhaps innocence.
Unlike the British Workwoman, Decadent authors often tended to have new and rather controversial outlooks on such matters. Decadent poetry, nonetheless, whilst being controversial in its kind, continued to use natural imagery, including roses, in order to portray their own ideas of human experience. Ernest Dowson, for instance, was a prominent poet of the decadent era who was known for his promiscuous writings – one of which being Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae. Like the writer of ‘The Rose’, Dowson appears to take inspiration from the ancient poets, particular due to the fact that the title of the poem alludes to Horace’s Odes, Book 4, Volume 1, in which the narrator speaks about how he has grown as a person since a particular period within his life; “I am not as I was in the reign of good Cinara.” (Horace, p.205) However, Dowson uses the portrayal of roses in order to emphasise the yearning for the lover, Cynara; “I have forgot much, Cynara! Gone with the wind, Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng (…) lost lilies out of mind (…).” (Dowson, lines 13-15) If we are to compare this particular poem to the British Workwoman, we can see quite a lot of similarities between ‘The Rose’ and Dowson’s ‘Cynarae’; both poems appear to portray a sense of yearning and perhaps obsession with the concept of the past, the same way that ‘The Rose’ appears to be obsessed with living in the past, due to its constant allusions to Neo-Classical poetic language.
List of References:
Alighieri, Dante, The Divine Comedy, Vol. 3, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow trans., Fields, Osgood: The University of Michigan, 1870, (Google Books Version: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4lhdAAAAMAAJ&dq=virgin+mary+rosa+mundi&source=gbs_navlinks_s : Accessed 01/04/2020)
Anonymous, ‘Alexander Pope’, Poetry Foundation, available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/alexander-pope (Accessed 01/04/2020)
‘BLT19 Periodicals’, Nineteenth-Century Business, Labour, Temperance and Trade Periodicals, Available at: http://www.blt19.co.uk/periodicals/ (Accessed 29/03/2020)
Anonymous, ‘Married Women’s Property Act’ (1882), legislation.gov.uk, available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Vict/45-46/75/enacted (Accessed 01/04/2020)
Burdett, Carolyn, ‘Aestheticism and Decadence’, The British Library, available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/aestheticism-and-decadence (Accessed 01/04/2020)
Homer, The Odyssey of Homer. Translated from the Greek by Alexander Pope, James Hunter, 1790 edition (Google Books Version: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=t5lgAAAAcAAJ&dq=Homer+the+odyssey+pope+envy+immortal+joy&source=gbs_navlinks_s : Accessed 01/04/2020)
Horace, The Odes of Horace: Translated in to an English Verse with a Life and Notes, Theodore Martin ed., Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1861 (Google Books Version: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=fU0VAAAAYAAJ&dq=horace+ode+i+am+not+as+i+was+in+the+reign+of+good+cinara&source=gbs_navlinks_s – Accessed 02/04/2020)
Negri, Paul ed., English Victorian Poetry: An Anthology, Dover Thrift Editions, 2012, p.220
Hadamitzky, Christiane and Barbara Korte, “Everyday heroism for the Victorian Industrial Working Classes: The British Workman and The Britsh Workwoman, 1855-1880” in Simon Wendt, ed., Extraordinary Ordinariness: Everyday Heroism in the United States, Germany, and Britain, 1800-2015, University of Chicago Press, 2017: 53-77.
Woudstra, Marten, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Joshua, revised Ed., Wm. V. Eardmans Publishing, 1981
 The poem suggests a ballad (AABBCCDD Rhyme Scheme), a form of verse that alludes to music; links us with the Song of Solomon from the first stanza.
 ‘Flower’ and ‘Bower’ – Read as one syllable: (For example, “flow’r”, “bow’r”)
 ‘Bower’ – a pleasant place of shade under trees in a garden or woods.
 “Rose Of Sharon” – First referenced within the Old Testament, in the Song of Solomon. “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.” (Solomon, 2:1) –
– “Sharon”: A large valley-plain in Palestine. During Solomon’s time, it was believed to have been a wild, fertile plain with beautiful wildflowers, thus, Sharon was known for its beauty during these days.
– “Sharon”: A possible reference to a Shulamite woman; Solomon’s bride.
 Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, Book V, (Alexander Pope’s transl.), Calypso: “thou envy sweet and immortal joy.”
 ‘Jesu Redemptor’ – Allusion to a Gregorian chant by the same name, “Jesu, Redemptor Omnium” (Jesus, Redeemer of All). Often sung during Christmas.
 Unknown Poet/Author. Female?