Where the Forest Murmers by Fiona Macleod

ROSA MYSTICA

(AND ROSES OF AUTUMN)

. . . Rosa Sempiterna
Che si dilata, rigrada, e ridole
Odor di lode al Sol
. . .

Sitting here, in an old garden by the sea, it is difficult for me to realise that the swallow has gone on her long flight to the South, that last night I heard countless teal flying overhead, and before dawn this morning the mysterious honk--honk of the wild-geese. A white calm prevails.

A sea of faint blue and beaten silver, still molten, still luminous as with yet unsubdued flame, lies motionless beneath an immeasurable dome of a blue as faint, drowned in a universal delicate haze of silver-grey and pearl. But already a change to pale apple-green and mauve is imminent. A single tern flashes a lonely wing along a grey-green line that may be where sky and sea meet, or may be the illusion of the tide refluent from green depths. On the weedy rocks I cannot see even a sleeping seamew: on the havened stretch of yellow-white sand a dotterel runs to and fro in sudden aimless starts, but as suddenly is still, is all but unseen with her breast against a rock covered with the blue-bloom of mussels, and now is like a shadow licked up by twilight.

Along the husht garden-ways beside me and behind me are roses, crimson and yellow, sulphur-white and pale carnation, the blood-red damask, and a trailing-rose, brought from France, that looks as though it were live flame miraculously stilled. It is the hour of the rose. Summer has gone, but the phantom-summer is here still. A yellow butterfly hangs upon a great drooping Marechal Niel: two white butterflies faintly flutter above a corner-group of honey-sweet roses of Provence. A late hermit-bee, a few lingering wasps, and the sweet, reiterated, insistent, late-autumn song of the redbreast. That is all. It is the hour of the rose.

"C'est I'heure de la rose
L'heure d'ambre et flamme,
Quand dans mon Óme
Je sens une Blanche Rose
╔close."

To-night the sea-wind will go moaning from the west into the dark north: before dawn a steely frost will come over the far crests of the hills. To-morrow the garden will be desolate: a garden of phantom dreams. They have waited long, spell- bound! but the enchantment is fallen; in a few hours all shall be a remembrance. What has so marvellously bloomed thus late, so long escaped devastating wind and far-drifting rains and the blight of the sea,.will pass in a night. Already, a long way off, I hear a singular, faint, humming sound, like stifled bees. So . . . the foam of storm is on the skerries of the seaward isles. Already from the north, a faint but gathering chill comes on the slanting wings of twilight. I rise with a sigh, thinking of an old forgotten refrain in an old forgotten poem:

"Ged tha thu 'n diugh 'a d'aibheis fhuar,
Bha thu nair 'a d'aros righ--"

" (Though thou art to-day a cold ruin
Thou wert once the dwelling of a king.)

In the long history of the Rose, from the time when the Babylonians carried sceptres ornamented now with this flower now with the apple or lotus, to the coming of the Damask Rose into England in the time of Henry VII.: from the straying into English gardens, out of the Orient, of that lovely yellow cabbage-rose which first came into notice shortly after Shakespeare's death, or from Shakespeare's own "Provencal rose," which is no other than the loved and common cabbage-rose of our gardens: from the combes of Devon to the straths of Sutherland, to that little clustering rose which flowered in Surrey meads in the days of Chaucer and has now wandered so far north that the Icelander can gather it in his brief hyperborean summer: from Keats's musk-rose--

"The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves--"

to that Green Rose which for more than half a century has puzzled the rose-lover and been a theme of many speculations . . . a thousand wise and beautiful things have been said of this most loved of flowers and not a few errors been perpetuated.

What has become of the Blue Roses to which in 1800 a French writer, Guillemeau, alludes as growing wild near Turin? They are no less phantoms than some of the rose-allusions which the poet has made sacrosanct, that to the Rhetorician have become an accepted convention. Again, we are told and retold that the cult of the rose is a modern and not an ancient sentiment. Even, it is said, the allusions of the Latin poets are not those of lovers and enthusiasts. It is the Rose of Catullus, we are reminded, that blooms in the old Italic literature, the flower of festival, of Venus and Bacchus, alluded to more for its associations and its decorative value than for love borne to it or enthusiasm lit by it as by a fragrant flame.

All this may be so, and yet I am not persuaded that the people of ancient days did not love this flower of flowers as truly as, if perhaps differently than, we do. It is true that the ancients do not appear to have regarded nature, either in the abstract or in the particular, in the way characteristic of peoples of modern times and above all of our own time. But literary allusiveness does not reveal the extent or the measure of the love of objects and places. It is almost inconceivable, for example, that so beauty-loving a people as the Greeks did not delight in the rose. The fact that only a mere handful of roses may be culled from all the poetry of Hellas, here a spray from Sappho, a wine-flusht cluster from Anacreon, a dew-wet bloom from Theocritus, a few wild-roses from the Anthology, an epithet from Homer, an image from Simonides or Pindar, a metaphor in some golden mouth, this paucity--so singular compared with the Rose of Poetry in our English speech, from Chaucer's "Rose of Rhone" to Mr. Yeats's " Rose on the Rood of Time," loved and sung through a thousand years. Such paucity does not necessarily mean that only a few poets casually alluded to this supreme flower, and that it was unnoticed or unloved of the many. Doubtless rose-chaplets were woven for lovers, and children made coronals, and at mourning ceremonies and marriage festivals these flowers were strewn. The very fact that Sappho called the rose the queen of flowers showed that it was distinguished from and admired among even the violets, pre-eminently the flowers of Athens. That she likened a young maiden to a rose is as indicative as when an Arab poet likens his love to a delicate green palm, or as when a northern poet speaks of her as a pine-tree swaying in the wind or a wave dancing on the sea.

Then, again, the Rose would not have been consecrated to Venus, as an emblem of beauty: to Eros, as an emblem of love: to Aurora, as an emblem of Youth: and to Harpocrates, as an emblem of silence: if this symbolic usage were not such as would seem fit and natural. That roses, too, were in general demand is evident alone from their far-famed culture and the great trade in them at Paestum, the Lucanian town colonised by the Greek Sybarites five hundred years B.C. All mediŠval and later literature is full of the beauty and fragrance of the rose, but were it not so, one could infer that the flower was held in high esteem from the fact that it has for ages been the wont of the Popes to have a golden rose exquisitely finished, and, when consecrated, to present it to some Catholic monarch as a token of special regard. Thus it seems to me that were there not a single allusion to the rose by any great poet from Homer to Sappho, from Anacreon to Theocritus, we migbt yet discern the love of the ancient Greeks for this flower from, let us say, a single surviving phrase such as the anonymous lovely epitaphial prayer-poem in the Anthology:--"May many flowers grow on this newly-built tomb; not the dried-up Bramble, or the red flower loved by goats; but Violets and Marjoram, and the Narcissus growing in water; and around thee may all Roses grow."

In Persia and the East, from Hindustan to Palestine, from remotest Asia to Abyssinia and Barbary, the Rose has ever been loved and honoured. SÔdi of the Rose-garden and many another has sung of it with ecstasy. The Hindű god Indra, even Buddha himself, suffered for robbing a paradisaical garden of a rose. How suggestive it is, that the Eve of the Aztec garden of Eden sinned, not for plucking an apple but a rose: it was a fatal rose, too, that the Eve of primitive Mexican legend gathered to her undoing and that of all her descendants.

What innumerable legends centre round this flower. In every country and in either hemisphere, north of the Equator, the poet and the myth-maker and the legend-weaver have occupied their imaginations to enhance its beauty, to deepen its significance.

Long ago Bion told how the rose sprang from the blood of the wounded Adonis, the supreme type of beauty, and of the tears of Venus. An older Hellenic legend declares that the rose was originally white, till Eros, dancing among the gods, upset a goblet of nectar upon Venus's flower, which thereupon became red. Christian legend, on the other hand, would have it that the red rose sprang from the brands which had been lighted at Bethlehem to burn to death a Christian virgin-martyr. Remote from Syria as from Greece, the Scandinavian legend arose that this flower was white till Baldur, the god of Youth and Love, bled at the coming of Christ--akin to which is a Gaelic legend, that the flower was white till a drop of Christ's blood fell from the Cross . . . a variant of which is that the robin, who plucked at the thorns in Christ's forehead till they stained its breast red, leaned exhausted against a wild white-rose on Calvary, which ever after was red as blood. I do not know the origin of the legend save that it is Teutonic in its present colour and shape, of how the Crown of Thorns was woven of the Briar-Rose, and how the drops that fell from the thorns became blood-hued blooms. Teutonic also, I think, is the legend that Judas made a ladder of the rose-briar with which to reach the closed doors of heaven; hence why it is that the name Judas-Stairs is given to the Briar in some parts of Germany to this day, and why the scarlet hips are called Judasbeeren.

Most beautiful of surviving rose-customs is that akin to what is still done in some remote parts of Europe, the placing of an apple into the hand of a dead child, so that the little one may have something to play with in Paradise. I know of a dead Irish girl into whose right hand was placed a white rose, and of a drowned fisherman in whose hand was placed a red rose, symbols of spiritual rebirth and of deathless youth. Against this must be set the strange and widespread aversion to throwing a rose into a grave, or even letting one fall or be lowered there. ("It is throwing red life away" it was explained to me once, with the grim addition, "and Death will at once be hungry for more of the rose-thrower.")

Again, I recall an old legend of the last rose of summer, long anterior to the familiar song so named: a legend of how at Samhain (Hallowmass) when of old was held the festival of summer ended and of winter begun, a young Druid brought a rose to the sunward Stones and, after consecration and invocation, threw it into the sea.

To-day, sitting in my old garden amid many roses, and looking westward across a waveless, a moveless sea, now of faint apple-green and fainter mauve lost in a vast luminous space of milky, violet-shadowed translucency, I dream again that old dream, and wonder what its portent then, what its ancient significance, of what the symbol now, the eternal and unchanging symbol. For nothing is more strange than the life of natural symbols. We may discern in them a new illusion, a new meaning: the thought we slip into them may be shaped to a new desire and coloured with some new fantasy of dreams or of the unspoken and nameless longing in the heart: but the symbol has seen a multitude of desires come and go like shadows, has been troubled with many longings and baffled wings of the veiled passions of the soul, and has known dreams,.many dreams, dreams as the uncounted sand, the myriad wave, the illimitable host of cloud, rain that none hath numbered. The symbol of the Lily has been the chalice of the world's tears; the symbol of the Rose, the passion of uplifted hearts and of hearts on fire; in the symbol of the Cross has dwelled, like fragrance in a flower, the human Soul. The salt, mutable, and yet unchanging sea has been the phantom in which empires have seen Time like a shadow, the mirage by which kings have wept and nations been amorous in a great pride. The Wind, that no man has seen, on whose rushing mane no hand has been laid, and in whose mouth has been set no bridle since the world swung out of chaos on chariots of flame, . . has not that solitary and dread creature of the deeps been fashioned in our minds to an image of the Everlasting, and in our hearts been shaped to the semblance of a Spirit?

A rose, laid on a stone-altar in the sunfire, and thrown into the sea, with strange hymns, with supplication . . . what a symbol this of the desires that do not die with nations, the longings that outlive peoples, the grass of prayer that Time has trampled upon and left and forever leaves green and virginal?

To give that, that lovely fragrant flame of the old material earth, to the altars of the bowed spirit: to clothe it in the fire of heaven: to commit it to the unassuaged thirst of the everlasting graves of the sea.--Surely, here, an image of that Rosa Mundi which has been set upon the forehead of the world since time was, that Rose of Beauty, that Rose of Time, that Rose of the World which the passion of the soul has created as a prayer to the Inscrutable: the Rose of the Soul, of you, of me, of all that have been, of all that are, of all unborn, that we lay upon our places of prayer, and offer to the Secret Fires, and commit to desolation, and Sorrow, and the salt and avid hunger of Death? What came of that mystical wedding, of the world we know and the world we do not know, by that rose of the spirit, committed thus in so great a hope, so great a faith? The Druid is not here to tell. Faith after Faith has withered like a leaf. But still we stand by ancestral altars, still offer the Rose of our Desire to the veiled Mystery, still commit this our symbol to the fathomless, the everlasting, the unanswering Deep.


Return to Contents