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Complicated Goodness / A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

(William Blake, “The Sick Rose,” Songs of Experience)

Are you a flower and are you good?

Returning from a failed quest for the holy grail, Lancelot — heartbroken, half-mad — addresses King Arthur and describes himself this way:

“in me lived a sin
So strange, of such a kind, that all of pure
Noble, and knightly in me twined and clung
Round that one sin, until the wholesome flower
And poisonous grew together, each as each,
Not to be plucked asunder.

(Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Holy Grail,” Idylls of the King)

In Tennyson’s version of this medieval tale, the anguished Lancelot is the best knight ??? the mightiest warrior, the handsomest man, the kindest and most courteous of the Round Table. Second only to Arthur himself, Lancelot embodies ideal goodness, and not just in deed but in feeling as well. Yet because of his love (chaste? unchaste?) of the beautiful Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife, he cannot untangle himself from also feeling that he is bad ??? a central, complicating desire around which all his goodness twines.

What makes Tennyson’s Lancelot so compelling is this internal struggle ??? his longing, even while acknowledging its impossibility, to “pluck asunder” what he perceives as sinful in himself, wishing only the wholesome flower of himself to remain. Yet the more he wrestles against his own nature, the more the material world seems set against him as well:

And forth I went, and while I yearn’d and strove
To tear the twain asunder in my heart,
My madness came upon me as of old,
And whipt me into waste fields far away;
There was I beaten down by little men“.

Since Lancelot equates his nature with a flower, the phrase “O rose, thou art sick” from William Blake’s poem seems especially applicable. Is it the rose’s fault that it is sick? The worm has entered the rose’s “bed of crimson joy,” the sensual body ??? and the intimacy of this weird, storm-howled intruder seems to threaten everything dear to the rose. We might read the worm simply as a seducer ??? but more complexly also as desire itself worming its way into the rose’s heart ??? it’s tender core asked to confront its own, often inexplicable, passions. Observe Blake’s illustration: that worm looks exuberant, full of vitality and delight.

Although it can be destructive, are we really meant to condemn desire?

There’s no easy answer. The full name of Blake’s work in which “The Sick Rose” appears is Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul — even the title embraces the dichotomy. And taking excerpts from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, we get some fresh approaches:

Exuberance is Beauty.

He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

To create a little flower is the labour of ages.

Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.

One cannot believe everything one hears in hell, but much of it is possible to be believed, and so holds some truth (an image) in it. (And isn’t this how poems work too — giving us images possible to be believed, to reach new forms of truthfulness? No matter if other facets of truth are contained elsewhere.) From Blake’s perspective, heaven and hell need each other, and we need both kinds of truth.

Did Lancelot breed pestilence by not acting on his desire? (And depending on the version you read, he may have acted on it after all — and more than once.) But Arthur’s whole knightly society (and the beliefs which inform our concept of romantic love, even into modern day) was built on restraint and courteousness. With all those roving knights and only so many noble ladies to go around, the love triangle became elevated to a grand gesture. Sex is only one possible course of action for desire or response to beauty — although one might argue the most exuberant. (The etymology for exuberant comes from the root uberare — to be fruitful. So exuberance is beauty as fruit follows flower — hell was right.) The knights aspired to express their desire by transmuting it into chivalrous deeds, brave feats, and lyric expressions of admiration. Understanding, too, may be a kind of action. Even anguished self-questioning of error, Lancelot’s most fervent labor (and his beauty):

But the claim… that beauty and truth are allied is not a claim that the two are identical. It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree is “true,” but rather that it ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience of, as well, error. This liability to error, contestation, and plurality — for which “beauty” over the centuries has so often been belittled — has sometimes been cited as evidence of its falsehood and distance from “truth,” when it is the case that our very aspiration for truth is its legacy…. It comes to us, with no work of its own; then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labor.”

(Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just)

Guinevere was beautiful, and whether or not she was true, for her Lancelot sought the truth of his own error — a little flower. Oh Lancelot. What are we to make of you — the best one, the flower of a Romantic age — undone by your own desires, the start of the crack in Arthur’s court that shatters the vessel — yet still in yourself struggling, beautiful, and good?

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” says Gertrude Stein in 1913. Lancelot is Lancelot. And to Lancelot, Guinevere, and all the troubled flowers, this offering:

“Cover up cover up the two with a little piece of string and hope rose and green, green.”

(Gertrude Stein, “Book,” Tender Buttons)