04 August 2010

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

Gertrude Stein wrote this line not once, but many times in her poetry, starting with Geography and Plays. It became symbolic of her approach to poetry and writing, and was merchandised by her partner, Alice B. Toklas. It was intended to shed a fresh light on the hackneyed aspects of the word, yet ironically it has now itself become hackneyed and divorced from its meaning. But let's take a look.

The word "rose" has been heavily used for centuries. Indeed, it's one of the most symbolic words out there. Shakespeare used it many a time ("a rose by any other name") and it had a deep set of meanings in the Language of Flowers. There was a War of the Roses, a mystic order called the Rosicrucians, and endless references and uses in religion and poetry and literature: it stands for peace and love and the Rose of Sharon and the Virgin Mary and so on.

It's a heavily-used word. Any time someone writes about it, then, they're evoking all of those aspects. Often this is intentional. When they named the characters on Golden Girls, the naive character was called "Rose" because it evokes innocence and sweetness. What does a red flower have to do with innocence? Nothing at all, but there was heavy symbolism behind the word. In fact, you couldn't escape it. Even if "Rose" had been cruel, there would have been irony in her name and jokes about it. "Rose" is a burdened word, which makes it rich in meaning.

Gertrude Stein was a modernist - perhaps the most brilliant of them. She saw the rules of writing and literature, and the structures that limited them, and in the modernist tradition tried to leap out of those bonds. When she wrote "Tender Buttons," it was a poem whose meaning was conveyed more by sounds instead of the actual meaning of the words used (although of course those provided an additional level of meaning). When she wrote an autobiography, she only did it because she'd thought of a clever way to escape the limitations of the genre: she wrote it through another person's eyes. And so the burdening of words, like "rose," frustrated her. She asked herself how she could get back to the real meaning of the word.

And so her immortal line, that struck away the detritus. Simultaneously it was beautiful of itself, curious in its repetition (an important modernist stylistic choice), and precise in its meaning. A rose was only a rose and fully a rose.  She defended herself:

I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.
Despite its brilliance, of course, it's easily mocked. It's become an icon of sorts for what is seen as literary critic sophistry. It's repeated by people who don't understand it, but know that it sounds strange and doesn't seem to mean anything. Most famously Ernest Hemingway, bitter at his former mentor, would parody her, declaring:

A rose is a rose is an onion.
But we shouldn't forget that a rose really is just a rose sometimes. And knowing that it can be, is a gift of Stein's.

1 comment:

  1. “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” James Matthew Barrie