20 May 2010

'The Red, Red Passionate Rose'—Eco & Masefield on Rose Symbolism

In his fascinating Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco writes that he chose the title of his bestselling debut novel in large part because ‘the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left: Dante’s mystic rose, and go lovely rose, the Wars of the Roses, rose thou art sick, too many rings around Rosie, a rose by any other name, a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, the Rosicrucians.’ [1] I was reminded of this afresh today when I acquired a new addition to my John Masefield collection—The Poems and Plays of John Masefield, Vol. 1: Poems—and read again in ‘The Ballad of Sir Bors’ a striking use of rose symbolism for one particular thing: Christ’s precious blood contained in the Holy Grail.

Would I could win some quiet and rest, and a little ease,
In the cool grey hush of the dusk, in the dim green place of the trees,
Where the birds are singing, singing, singing, crying aloud
The song of the red, red rose that blossoms beyond the seas.

Would I could see it, the rose, when the light begins to fail,
And a lone white star in the West is glimmering on the mail;
The red, red passionate rose of the sacred blood of the Christ,
In the shining chalice of God, the cup of the Holy Grail.

The dusk comes gathering grey, and the darkness dims the West,
The oxen low to the byre, and all bells ring to rest;
But I ride over the moors, for the dusk still bides and waits,
That brims my soul with the glow of the rose that ends the Quest.

My horse is spavined and ribbed, and his bones come through his hide,
My sword is rotten with rust, but I shake the reins and ride,
For the bright white birds of God that nest in the rose have called,
And never a township now is a town where I can bide.

It will happen at last, at dusk, as my horse limps down the fell,
A star will glow like a note God strikes on a silver bell,
And the bright white birds of God will carry my soul to Christ,
And the sight of the Rose, the Rose, will pay for the years of hell. [2]

Eco himself has elsewhere described at length the dangers of overinterpretation, noting the ‘indisputable fact . . . that from a certain point of view everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity and similarity to everything else.’ He then goes on to write, ‘But the difference between the sane interpretation and paranoiac interpretation lies in recognizing that this relationship is minimal, and not, on the contrary, deducing from this minimal relationship the maximum possible.’ [3] While Eco is consciously exploiting the dangers of such overinterpretation in the title of The Name of the Rose—and indeed, it seems to be a recurring theme in his fiction and nonfiction alike—Masefield has made things quite simple for us. His rose is the ‘red, red passionate rose of the sacred blood of the Christ, / In the shining chalice of God, the cup of the Holy Grail.’ I cannot help but think that here we have reached the uppermost possibility of symbolic or analogical deferral.

[1] Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose, tr. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), p. 3.

[2] John Masefield, The Poems & Plays of John Masefield, Vol. 1: Poems (NY: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 79-80.

[3] Umberto Eco, Interpretation & overinterpretation, with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, & Christine Brooke-Rose, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1994), p. 48.


Mark Christian said...

"and not... deducing from this minimal relationship the maximum possible."

Wise words.

This reminded me of David Lyle Jeffrey's essay in which he reconsiders his onetime (somewhat ambivalent) embrace of the the epithet "logocentric." As I recall, he repositions himself, along with Eco (and Steiner), not as logocentrists, but rather as critics ultimately devoted to the metaphysical reality of Authorial presence, as opposed to the interpretive nihilism of deconstructionists like Bloom and Miller.

In that schema, I suppose it's the temptation to paranoiac over-interpretation that would constitute "logocentrism."

aaronandbrighid said...

Wise words indeed, and apparently not understood by all of my readers.

What's the name of this Jeffrey essay, and where was it published?

The Ochlophobist said...


I wonder if the essay MC mentions eventually became this book:


Well worth owning.

aaronandbrighid said...

As it turns out, that book was already on my Amazon wishlist, but an Ochlophobist recommendation raises its priority level a good deal!

Mark Christian said...

The essay is "Mistakenly Logocentric: Centering Poetic Language in a Scriptural Tradition," published in Religion & Literature in 1990.

And I think it was, in fact, included in somewhat revised form in People of the Book.

River Cocytus said...

The interpretive game is far more fun when you accept the analogy without assuming the author precisely meant it.

The 'rose' is an deep topic, and it is most interesting to see the analogies various writers weave (whether intentional or otherwise) that hint, I think, to more of what the rose is.

I'm sure I fully understand Eco here, but is he more or less warning against using possible analogical interpretations to infer certain predilections of the author? I.e interpreting the use of Christian symbols as to indicate a hidden but profound faith in the author, for instance (as an example of paranoiac interpretation?)