| By Susanne Kimball |
Along with our need to breathe and eat there is also need to inhabit some small piece of the earth, which becomes the basis for celebration. Whatever other purpose holidays serve, be it political or religious, a primordial impulse of human beings is to celebrate the earth and its relationship to the sun and moon. The birth of Christ in all likelihood took place in March (remember “The Ides of March”: Tax time, as decreed by the emperor Caesar Augustus, Luke 2:1). We celebrate this event in December instead, as if to say that we need to light candles on the shortest day of the year the way the ancient pagans did to chase away the darkness.
Easter week is determined by the lunar cycle in early spring; it expresses sentiments that associate love, loss and sorrow to the renewal of the earth, a tradition known to Greeks, Babylonians, Syrians and Egyptians, by way of a number of dying and returning gods: Adonis, Dionysus, Tammuz, and Osiris, different names for the same principle. The Greeks adopted the resurrection ritual tied to the earth’s turning as early as the 7th century BCE. What could be more symbolic than after a beautiful youth died to see red flowers, roses, as his transformed self – changed but alive? Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps is a testament to this preoccupation.
As with most other holidays, with the exception of American presidents’ birthdays and our Independence Day traced to a particular date, Thanksgiving, for all its political and historical overtones, is essentially the celebration of the harvest and native to all cultures.
This brings me to St. Valentine’s Day. On February 14, or there about during the third century, a young Roman convert to Christianity was martyred. What has this to do with hearts and red roses? As with most celebratory events, the origin goes back to Pre-Christian times. The Lupercalia, as it was known, was a fertility rite that took place at a time when the swallows return home from Africa; swallows mate for life. The church frowns on such frivolities, but was not then, or now, able to forbid the ancient vestiges of “profane” love, it could merely superimpose this saint’s day on the tradition as if to say, this is the ideal love, a love based on sacrifice.
The language of profane love has come down to us from the rhetoric of the Troubadours, and may have been inspired by the eroticism of Song of Songs. Religious thinkers insist that this poem express the relationship between God and Israel. I would like to suggest that ‘S of S’ is foremost, and whatever else it may be, a love song. The poem in its sensual form does not really need to transcend into a religious realm. The love between two human beings is sacred in itself, just as life itself is. It is enough to signify the mysterious fascination we have with Eros, which is a landscape, a vineyard, a flower garden. The tangible world, the world of nature, and we in it have evolved naturally because it is the nature of nature to grow from root to trunk to branch to bud.
The flowering of the bud is our consciousness. We can only flower out of the health and the reach of our roots into the unknowable realm of the spirit. But because of our discomfort, our lack of ease at the root of ourselves, we have invented a god above and apart, who will save us from the consequences of our dis-ease in order to become whole again for having denied our bodies. By contrast, the language of Solomon’s servant girl, who prefers her shepherd lover over the mighty king, links her and her lover to the natural order. Better to be loved by a shepherd than to be the most recent member of Solomon’s harem.
We have no other language for love, whether divine or profane. Be it religious or profane, the language of love is the same for both. I risk saying there would be no understanding of divine love if it were not grounded in the most fundamental human experience.
It is not difficult to understand that in February, a dreary month too far from the earth’s renewal, we are hungry for something – that our cares turn to the mystery of love and the rose which symbolizes this sentiment, a preoccupation native to poets, mystics, lovers, and dreamers alike as Yeats’ “far off, most secret and inviolate rose” suggests.
The botanical properties of the rose are not incidental to the flower’s symbolism. Within the genus Rosa there is so much variation that it has led to a wide production of roses, native to many climates, as if to say that love can spread without limits. It is the cultivated rose, not the wild one, as love and courtship are cultivated, which is significant. Yet, as ubiquitous and sturdy as the rose is, its beauty is short lived and vulnerable to a host of pests, as Blake’s Sick Rose suggests:
O rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
In this short poem, all the perversions in the name of love: lust, greed, control, ownership, even murder, are made visible.
Among the ancients, the rose was an aspect of Aphrodite, as well as the muses who guide the hand of the poet (an anthology is a flower gathering, hence, a collection of poems: flowers for the soul.) The rose of Rome was known as the rose of Paestum, and later, the rose of Assisi. Vergil’s roses described in the Georgics do not exceed their usefulness; a rose hedge encloses the “hortus” (the typical Roman kitchen garden) to keep out sheep and goats and invite bees, which the poet insists are the model for the well-regulated state! Nevertheless, roses are no less beautiful for being useful and anticipate the medieval tradition of celebrating rose gardens as places for silent contemplation, as the expression “sub rosa” suggests.
Natural beauty to early Christians was not significant esthetically, rather, it was a lure away from God. (Think of the monk with his cowl to prevent any worldly distraction). Yet the rose does appear in Cathedral art (the rose windows at Chartres Cathedral is the visual equivalent to Dante’s vision of Paradise) to become the ruling flower by the persistence of pagan tradition, transcending its erstwhile function as an emblem of Venus and related to sex. So it was proscribed by such early church fathers Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria as the compulsory badge of prostitutes, a mark of shame. Somehow, nonetheless, the rose evolved to be part of Christian symbolism by merging Judea-Christian traditions with earlier pagan ones. The garden in Song of Songs celebrates the Rose of Sharon, which according to Hebrew scholars was not a true rose but a shrub related to the mallow plant.
St. Jerome renders the Hebrew poet’s words into lilies. And so they appear in the King James version: “As the lily among the thorns, so is my beloved among the daughters” (S of S 2:2). Luther translated the same flower as a rose. By analogy, the first verse of Isaiah 11, “and there shall come forth a rod” is transcribed as “Lo, how a rose ere blooming.“ In the 15th century Praetorius Hymn, Christ is that rose, (later on he wears the crown of thorns). It raises the point about the persistence of roses to symbolize the beauty and fullness of creation, expressing both human and divine love.
St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas recognized that the soul is the true nature of a human being, and that beauty is the sensual translation of the spirit. No matter how many laws were imposed on physical beauty, our human need for it must be fed.
I am a retired professor of Comparative Literature, having taught literature on all levels as well as creative writing at the University of Texas, San Antonio, till 2014. Since having relocated here in Asheville, i still teach occasionally courses in Shakespeare and American fiction at Blue Ridge Community College, but my greatest passion is growing roses.