Cliché-d picture I took when visiting a church this summer

Today, a poem that demonstrates dry humour, intertextual awareness and general poking fun at other poets: “The Rose Family” by Robert Frost.

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose –
But were always a rose.

The rose family is a category of plants, that includes flowering trees such as the apple tree. (More information here.) This poem uses this botanical categorization to address the bigger issue of ‘what makes a thing a thing’. Just because some scientists have decreed that the apple and the pear are part of the rose family, does this mean they are roses?

The first line of the poem refers to a line from Gertrude Stein’s poem “Sacred Emily”:

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

Here, a frustrated speaker exclaims that we should call things by their names and see them for what they are: a rose is a rose, it doesn’t refer to anything else. Metaphors are worthless. The speaker in “The Rose Family” challenges this by saying that if you look at things through a botanical lens, fruits are technically roses too. So where does it end? If apples are roses too, the jump to calling your sweetheart a rose is not very far.

In the same way that it questions what a rose is, the poem asks what beauty is: ‘the rose’ can be read as ‘something beautiful’. Is there a scientist somewhere who decides what beauty is, does society decree it, or is it ‘in the eye of the beholder’? In the last four lines of the poem, the speaker seems to decide that it doesn’t matter what people will next call beautiful or what will next be in vogue, his lover, ‘you’, is always beautiful and always has been. The beauty of the rose represents something classic, a lasting beauty.

This ‘classicness’ of the beauty of the rose is, of course, exactly what is satirized here. Other poets have used this metaphor endlessly, calling anything – from an apple to a pear – a rose. Think, for example, of the famous line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

In Frost’s poem, ‘You’ is not any lover of his but rather represents any addressee of any poem that likens them to a rose.  The speaker pretends to have an original view on beauty because he sees the beauty of ‘his lover’ regardless of the current fashion. However, by likening a lover to a rose, he demonstrates one of the most standard perspectives ever. The use of this metaphor has become a terrible cliché, and thus a part of our culture and common ideas of beauty. The speaker is an allegory for all poets who use rose-metaphors.


Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Robert Lee Frost was an American poet, known for his realistic depictions of rural life to examine complex philosophical and social themes. He has won many prizes for his work.

Allegedly, when he sold his first poem, “My Butterfly. An Elegy”, he was so happy and proud that he proposed to his future wife, Elinor. She turned him down, wanting to finish college first (good for her!).

Source: Wikipedia (where all the good stuff comes from)



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