The Soul of the Rose

John William Waterhouse ‘The Soul of the Rose’ 1908 (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a bit of an absence – there’s a lot going on here – and I have a file full of images that people have sent me for the blog. I think a good thing to do would be to have a retrospective of these in the long, dark days of winter.

In the meantime, one of those images gave me pause for thought – and those thoughts turned to John William Waterhouse and his painting ‘The Soul of the Rose‘.

I’m sure we’ve all had a moment like this – the heady scent of a rose catches you as you pass by, and you have to stop and get closer. Was that all that Waterhouse depicted in this canvas? I don’t think so.

There are different interpretations of this picture. Christies, who sold it in 1981 for £1,140,000 have an essay to accompany its illustration on their site. It’s here if you want to read it, under the heading ‘Lot Essay’:

https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/john-william-waterhouse-1849-1917-the-soul-4928738-details.aspx

The premise is that it is rooted ultimately in the 13th Century romance Roman de la Rose by Guillaume Lorris. In it, the narrator embarks on a journey with the god of love, who leads him to a rose symbolising perfect love.

Hmmm. That’s not my preferred interpretation.

An alternative comes from the John William Waterhouse website. They, too, have an essay, and you can read it here:

http://www.john-william-waterhouse.com/soul-of-the-rose/

This essay tells us that ‘The somewhat romantic belief of art critics is that the female’s adoration of the smell of the rose in her hand is due to it sparking a memory of a lover, perhaps someone lost or away from her company. This fits with the depicted role of women up to only recently as sensitive creatures who lived in the debt and admiration of their male counterparts.’

Well, maybe, bearing in mind the date of the painting. But this same essay makes, to my mind, a much more important suggestion – that the painting was inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, ‘Maud‘, published in 1855.

I confess, I’ve never read ‘Maud‘, having been given to understand that it makes ‘Romeo and Juliet‘ look positively cheery. And yet, despite this being perhaps the darkest of Tennyson’s poems, it also contains some of his most lyrical work.

If pressed, I could vaguely recall the first few lines:

Come into the garden, Maud,
      For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
      I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
      And the musk of the rose is blown.

The garden in question is that of Harrington Hall, Spilsby, Lincolnshire, not a million miles from here, and that garden certainly saw some activity that inspired the poem.

Part 1 of the poem is here:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45367/maud-part-i

You can read all the other parts, too, ( I definitely will be doing that) and there are many of them. But for this discussion, part 1 is the important one.

The garden described is beautiful, and it contains references to many flowers that could be used in planning such a garden – perhaps someone would like a Maud border…

It also contains the important piece:

And the soul of the rose went into my blood,’

And there we have it, I think: the nub of the painting.

Have you ever really allowed yourself to fully enjoy the the fragrance of the headiest rose? To allow yourself to be subsumed by that fragrance and to clear your mind of everything else? Perhaps only the old roses do this, but it seems to me that there is a chemical reaction in the blood, a physical feeling of…delight. Of the ecstasy that we see on the face of the woman in the painting.

No wonder that so many rituals use incense, or that the Romans fragranced their orgies with basketfuls of rose petals, or that Attar of Roses has been around for so many centuries.

That is what I think Waterhouse is showing us. The soul of the rose going in to our blood and working its magic.

This has been a fairly philosophical series of thoughts, but I’m not apologetic!

And the image that got me thinking? It came from one of our members, and it was entitled ‘The Last Rose of Summer’. Here it is:

The Last Rose of Summer

I wonder, could this be ‘Josephine Bruce’, which had a wonderful scent, and this deep red colour, but has fallen out of favour nowadays?

Thanks for listening!