The Extremes of the Rose

I wonder if we think in cartoons.

Roy Lichtenstein summed up our present day succinctly. For four decades he lived his life in relative obscurity, his paintings groping in artistic gloom for the light switch. And then – kapow. His son asked him to paint a really good cartoon; and his cartoon-strip style was born. Bold, bare, ironic, stimulating; he took the world by storm.


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We loved watching his rise, and his exhibition at The Tate; crowds flocked to see the stark black lines, the dots. The yellow, the red, the blue.

Or perhaps we are just drawn to the simplicity of something polarised. It was Sir Edmund Spencer who first wrote down an old piece of folklore: the juxtaposition of roses and violets, red and blue. In his ‘Faerie Queene’ he has a character take a bath in which float the scarlet and deep purple of flower petals: “She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew, And all the sweetest flowers, that in the forrest grew.”

Primary colours: simple, direct, forward, sensual. Passionate, indeed.

Let us look at the rose and the violet, members of the sisterhood of ancient flowers.

The rose: a blatant symbol of love and beauty, it was used by the Romans as a sign to ensure secrecy when confidential matters were being discussed. The matters were not ‘secret’ but ‘sub rosa’. Its intense beauty inspired the nightingale to sing in 14th century Iranian poet Hafez’s work. It became a symbol of man’s passionate devotion for the Virgin Mary. “There is no rose of such vertu,” run the lyrics to Benjamin Britten’s third movement from A Ceremony of Carols, written in middle English by Gerald Bullett, “as is the rose that bore Jesu.”

There is nothing shy and retiring about the rose.

But the violet: it bats its lashes behind an intoxicating perfume, a miniature creature which hides in the shade of the grass, a diminutive delicacy. Nero’s tomb was scattered with violets by people who despite his cruel lunacy admired him; Ophelia deemed it the flower of constancy. And there is nothing which says ‘bereft’ so eloquently as the withering of the little flower, and the stealing away of that perfume. “The odour from the flower is gone,”  writes Shelley in “A Faded Violet”  “which like thy kisses breathed on me.”

Retiring it may be, but its smell is a siren and its absence mourned. It is a flower which speaks to the passions through one of our most basic senses.

One is quite in danger of losing ones head in the presence of the rose and the violet.

“Passionate beliefs”, wrote Bertrand Russell in Education and The Good Life,” produce either progress or disaster, not stability.”

It could be an essay title. Discuss, why don’t you. Yet it rings true, for whilst passion has its place in driving mankind forward, there is a place for that which maintains the status quo. Something green, perhaps; those glorious Euphorbias which were adored by Vita Sackville West and which pepper her fairytale castle grounds at Sissinghurst in Kent.

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Euphorbia has no pungent, dizzying perfume. Nor does it turn the head with scarlet petals. It’s just a jolly good form. A piece of structure for the perennial flower beds. Eye catching, but with a subtle, unassuming stance. What it does, it does beautifully and it is beloved by true gardeners everywhere.

But it does not stir the passions so much. Rather, it engages the intellect.

Roses are red, violets are blue.

But Euphorbia are a cool, stable green.

And some prefer that. Do you?

Written for Side View’s Weekend Theme this week: Roses are red, violets are blue. You can find details of her theme here.


32 thoughts on “The Extremes of the Rose

  1. I love the wild euphorbia that colonises my lawn. I let it have a patch and cut the grass around it. There are different kinds. Where I go,walking there is big one that grows where the cows have been and it has darker leaves and flowers the colour of cream of zucchini soup.

  2. A tour de force on the subject!
    I see we both found Sir Ed indis-Spencer-bill. 🙂
    Of course, some of the Euphorbias seen here are quite passionate in what they do – take pulcherrima – the Poinsettia – for example!

  3. I have never understood the appeal of Roy Lichtenstein: yet I have heard that the exhibition is engaging and revealing, so should probably give it a chance!

    I feel we need both the huge variety that the euphorbia family offers – variety that is in form and structure, (as well as toxicity – the sap in Africa can be used as a dart poison) – and the colour and scent of other flowers, such as roses. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

  4. I love to place these “cool” colors around the garden; they “pop” on dark days and I find them as stimulated to the senses as the red rose and blue violet (though violets have a special place in my heart for my mom’s name was Violet). Ah, Kate, your post has me yearning all-the-more now for spring, which is still far away.

    1. Alas, even when the Spring arrives, Penny, we still have the rain to contend with. The last few years have been a washout for our gardens. We are crossing our fingers for a warm dry Summer; only then can we reclaim them.

  5. For me, I love the more vibrant, passionate colours – I am Aries after all.
    Brilliant post and thanks for including that beautiful choral rendition by one of my favourite choirs.

  6. One of the things I love about England is the dizzying variety of flora. We may have sunny days in winter, and we may have flowers when others do not, but we are very limited in what we CAN grow because of the climate. I will take a riot of all of this with some fuchsia thrown in, and love it passionately.

  7. The rose and the violet are two of my favorite flowers, Kate. Every year the Polish couple that maintain my brownstone plant roses in the garden. I love it when those flowers bloom, not to imply that a patch of garden the size of a welcome mat in Gotham City has anything on the gardens in jolly old England.

  8. What a beautiful post and lovely video–also enjoyed the Elektra Women’s Choir! I raise African Violets and nothing compares to the roses in full bloom. My little cut-back canes are beginning to shoot out and I can’t wait for the first blooms. Just thinking about the spring flowers lightens my spirit! 🙂

  9. I do. I think the greens ‘ground’ the vibrant colours in nature. Guess that is the balance you are referring to….imagine a garden with all colour and no green!
    And I much prefer the hot oranges and yellows of lilies and carnations to roses and violets 🙂

  10. Walt Disney had an interesting take on violets in his cartoons. They were far from “shrinking.” Myself, I love poppies and regret that I cannot grow them in Florida because it’s far too hot here. I used to have them in our garden in Central New York.

  11. But stability is often just a synonym for stagnation. We need passion to move forward and we need to always be moving forward, improving, learning, progressing. Roses for me. 🙂

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