Monday, February 26, 2007

Rose the Red and White Lily

How much refrain can you tolerate, has always been a question for me. As a child I was annoyed by the way that “I Saw Three Ships” kept harping on about Christmas day in the morning, and it was a trial I could never endure to submit to a rendering of the interminable later verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: once one had the five gold rings firmly in hand, the rest was just a knees-up. Even such songs as "One man went to mow" and the great "Old MacDonald had a farm" were, I am sorry now to confess, only half-tolerated by me. And in my teens I despised any pop song that descended into chorus-repeats half-way through: Mott the Hoople's Honaloochie Boogie was my paradigm case, if you want to know. I just always wanted more invention, I wanted to be kept busy and entertained. I needed stories.

I didn't guess at a different way of listening until I heard this:


It took Salford to sneer at me what ought to have been obvious and in fact ought to have been instinctive in my dancing feet if I'd had any, that neither music nor verse are fundamentally about serving up content in that bedtime-story kind of manner. But never mind that for the moment.

In "Flower of the Holy Ghost", a poem from the anonymous collection Carmina Agnetae (London, late 19th c.), the slender narrative of Lady Eglantine and Sir Eynyon is manacled to an especially punitive refrain. There are 34 stanzas in all but I think you will find stanzas 5-9 an adequate sample:

     And crowned queen of beauty there,
          (Flower of the Holy Ghost,)
     Sat Eglantine that maid so fair.
          (Earthly flowers will fade away,
          But the lilies of heaven bloom for aye
          To pleasure the angel host.)

     Upon a dais, enthroned on high,
          (Flower of the Holy Ghost,)
     Beneath a gold wrought canopy.
          (Earthly flowers will fade away,
          But the lilies of heaven bloom for aye,
          To pleasure the angel host,)

     Clad in white samite, fair to see,
          (Flower of the Holy Ghost,)
     With surcoat of silken broidery.
          (Earthly flowers will fade away,
          But the lilies of heaven bloom for aye,
          To pleasure the angel host.)

     And kneeling lowly at her knee,
          (Flower of the Holy Ghost,)
     To take the prize of chivalry,
          (Earthly flowers will fade away,
          But the lilies of heaven bloom for aye,
          To pleasure the angel host.)

     He came, Sir Eynyon the Fair,
          (Flower of the Holy Ghost,)
     The victor of the tourney there.
          (Earthly flowers will fade away,
          But the lilies of heaven bloom for aye,
          To pleasure the angel host.)

I had to use cut-and-paste to avoid the unspeakable boredom of all that retyping. The printers at New Temple Press, Fleet Street, had no such recourse. They had to set up the lines of type 34 times. Once they missed the full stop after “host”, and once they made it a comma – in stanza 6, above. They couldn’t make up their minds if the fifth line deserved any kind of end-stop. On 16 occasions they gave it a comma, on 18 occasions they didn’t bother.

But whether anyone, even the author, even the hapless typesetter, has ever “read” the poem sequentially from beginning to end, this I find hard to credit. I certainly haven’t. After a couple of stanzas I just skimmed through the narrative lines and skipped all the rest, the same way I handle any other poem with a stupid refrain.

But I think this is quite a good poem, all the same. There are a lot more things to do with a poem apart from reading it.

The “Flower of the Holy Ghost” (which is also the poem’s title) is columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) – poetically to be conceived in its white form, where the resemblance to communing doves is more striking.

The Lady Eglantine makes a chaplet out of columbine at the beginning of the poem: something few people today would know how to do: you need a base, e.g. dried woodbine.

The contrast between earthly and heavenly blooms is in several respects confused: one must suppose, deliberately. Is it sensible to choose, as your instance of an earthly bloom, one with such transcendent associations as the "flower of the Holy Ghost"? Is it sensible, in this already blurry context, to name your earthly heroine after the fragrant Rosa rubiginosa or sweetbriar?

Perhaps it’s also Eglantine, despite being a model of chastity and submissiveness, who is set in contrast to the lilies of heaven?

Red roses and white lilies have gone together in literature for a very long time. There were not many other flower names that literate Europe would commonly understand: they were principally interested in useful plants. For the decorative, "roses and lilies" was a sufficient shorthand, like "gold and silver" for wealth. The historian Athenaeus (fl. 200CE) on the accession of a Ptolemy:

As for the whole floor, it was strewed with every kind of flower; for Egypt, thanks to its mild climate, and the fondness of its people for gardening, produces abundantly, and all the year round, those flowers which are scarce in other lands, and then come only at special seasons. Roses, white lilies, and many another flower never lack in that country.

From this skeletal alphabet of only two letters, a vast symbolism effloresced. From classical literacy the trope of roses and lilies filtered down into European folk culture. These immemorial pairings in European lyrics and ballads are founded more on earlier symbolism than on real flowers; more on the debris of imported literacy than on native wisdom. As with folk-art generally, the bit that matters is the transmutation.

But what plants were the authors speaking about, originally?

The original white lily is the “Madonna Lily”, Lilium candidum (formerly known as Lilium album), native to the Balkans and west Asia, iconographically connected with the Virgin Mary (for centuries there were usually lilies in paintings of the Annunciation)

The original cultivated red rose (in Europe) is Rosa gallica – thought to have been introduced in Roman times to southern Europe (including of course Gaul) from western Asia.

By the middle ages (as e.g. the red rose of Lancaster), the cultivated rose was already usually semi-double, as in the ancient variety known as the “Apothecary’s Rose”, Rosa gallica officinalis (below) . As you can see the colour is light crimson rather than scarlet, the golden stamens still well out in the open.

It is obvious that looking at these 21st century digital photographs does not give you, cannot give you, an accurate idea of what was seen or imagined by a 2nd Century historian. Our interpreting eye is quite different from his: consider for example that it was unknown until the 18th century CE that flowers had a sexual function! We also see the colours differently; if you have no word for magenta then this flower is red, as in all paintings and illuminations. Besides, when you look at the photo and you are morally certain that this picture is only a year or two old, you make all sorts of inferences about where we are and what is outside the frame: a modern garden with machine-mown lawns - for example.

Thus in a sense more than merely literal, these are modern blooms...

103B.5 The knights they harped i their bower,
         The ladies sewd and sang;
         There was mair mirth in that chamer
         Than a’ their father’s lan.
103B.6 Then out it spak their step-mither,
         At the stair-foot stood she:
         I’m plagued wi your troublesome noise!
         What makes your melodie?
103B.7 O Rose the Red, ye sing too loud,
         White Lillie, your voice is strang;
         But gin I live and brook my life,
         I’se gar you change your sang.

I talked about a common understanding, but what was commonly understood was a decorum about appropriate usage. The exact images with which one imbued the words "rose" and "lily" was a more personal matter. The singer of the Child Ballad 103 about the two sisters, Rose the Red and White Lily would most likely have no personal acquaintance with the flowers pictured above, and would imagine local equivalents: in Scotland, dog-rose and lily-of-the-valley, perhaps. When we read the poems ourselves, we conceive not the living instances at which the digital camera is pointing, but legendary red and white flowers of dream-like size and simplicity.

Carmina Agnetae has masses of poems but only one theme, the early loss of love through bereavement. And the lilies of the afterlife. Its characters, its Eglantines and Eynyons come to grief so quickly that there is no chance of individualizing them. Only when gone for ever or mourning for ever are they faintly aglow with erotic life - as if having only now understood their purpose. Only among the lilies of the afterlife is there a glimmering of pleasure.

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