The Rose

Christina Rossetti was really well-situated in life – daughter of scholars and revolutionaries, sister of writers and artists, and a poet in her own right. She was in the middle of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which (love them or hate them) must have been an interesting place to be.

She’s the author of one of my favorite poems – The Goblin Market, which I like to reread in the fall. It’s allegorical and homoerotic and full of the kind of intense and near-fatal longing that good Romantic poetry should be.

She also wrote this tiny, understated gem, called The Rose:

The lily has a smooth stalk,
Will never hurt your hand;
But the rose upon her brier
Is lady of the land.

There’s sweetness in an apple tree,
And profit in the corn;
But lady of all beauty
Is a rose upon a thorn.

When with moss and honey
She tips her bending brier,
And half unfolds her glowing heart,
She sets the world on fire.

It’s a simple poem; not the most impassioned thing she ever wrote, and even feels a bit unfinished, perhaps. But it has a certain message in keeping with the type of themes she tended to explore.

Rossetti’s poetry has been described as lyrical, and a lot of is has a structure that lends itself well to music. This poem has been translated into a song more than once, but I recently heard Ola Gjeilo’s version of it, and…oh. my. god. If you’re moved by chorale music or great piano pieces, give this a listen…

His album ‘Winter Songs’ also has an instrumental version of the song. I am obsessed. The music that Gjeilo wrote really gives these lyrics what they deserve – a sort of stark melancholy. He heard a certain melancholy here that I initially missed. This beautiful thing will hurt you. This fire it ignites comes with a price.

Sometimes less is more, and after a poem like The Goblin Market, this one does feel a bit bare. But if you can set aside that particular bias and appreciate the simplicity of The Rose, then what you’ve got is something actually quite powerful. It says something about beauty, and risk, and the value of things of life. It says a lot by saying very little. I admire that in a writer.