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Rain Of the many symbolic aspects of rain we shall describe two, both obvious

developments of rains real effects: rain as suffering or bad luck and rain as

fertilizing force from above.

Rain often stands as a synecdoche for all bad weather and thus a symbol of

lifes unhappy moments. We save for a ‘‘rainy day’’; into every life some rain

must fall. The Lords mysterious ways include bringing sun and rain on the

just and unjust alike (Matt. 5.45). Festes song about the unpleasant events of

each phase of life (at the end of Shakespeares Twelfth Night) has the refrain,

‘‘For the rain it raineth every day.’’ Lear on the heath finds wind and rain

responding to his inner fury and pain.

In the oldest Greek texts the subject of the verb ‘‘rains’’ is often ‘‘Zeus’’ (e.g.,

Homer, Iliad 12.25; Hesiod, Works and Days 488); later the subject is omitted, as

it always is in Latin pluit; in English and other modern languages a

place-holding ‘‘it’’ governs ‘‘rains’’ (cf. French il pleut). Zeus is

‘‘high-thundering,’’ ‘‘cloud-gathering,’’ ‘‘rejoicing in the thunderbolt,’’ while a

common epithet of Jupiter is Pluvius. In Latin poetry it is sometimes Sky that

sends rain, and it is the seed that fertilizes mother Earth. ‘‘Father Sky / pours

it down into the lap of Mother Earth,’’ says Lucretius (1.250--51); ‘‘And so we all

arise from sky-born seed. / There is one father for all. When the fostering

earth, / Our mother, takes within her his moist droplets, / Grown big, she

bears the glossy corn’’ (2.991--94 trans. Esolen). According to Virgil, ‘‘in spring,

the country swells / Clamouring for the fertilizing seeds. / Then the almighty

father Heaven descends / Into the lap of his rejoicing bride / With fecund

showers’’ (Georgics 2.324--26 trans. Wilkinson). Claudian uses similar sexual

imagery for dew, not always distinguished from rain: ‘‘[Zephyrus] shook his

wings wet with fresh nectar and played the bridegrooms part to the soil with

fertile dew’’ (Rape of Proserpine 2.88--89, trans. Gruzelier). In Spensers variant,

 ‘‘angry Jove an hideous storme of raine / Did poure into his Lemans [Lovers]

lap’’ (FQ 1.1.6).

In Christian terms, of course, it is God who sends what Shakespeares Portia

calls ‘‘the gentle rain from heaven,’’ which she invokes as a simile for mercy

(MV 4.1.184). Rain is the cure for spiritual dryness or thirst, for the waste land

of ‘‘accidie’’ (torpor) or despair. So Eliots The Waste Land begins with a flight

from the cruel rain of spring, the surprising rain of summer, and ends with

the ‘‘dry sterile thunder without rain’’ that announces what the soul must

learn to do.

See Cloud, Dew, Lightning, Rainbow, Wind.

Rainbow The seminal text for the symbolism of the rainbow is Genesis 9.8--17, where

God makes a covenant with Noah: there shall be no more floods, and ‘‘I do set

my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me

and the earth’’ (13). It is a ‘‘natural symbol’’ for a bond between earth and

heaven, as it is a product of the sun (heaven) and rain (falling from heaven to

earth), while its arc reaches from earth to heaven and back to earth. Milton,

who calls it the ‘‘humid bow’’ and ‘‘showery arch’’ (PL 4.151, 6.759), retells the

story: Noah ‘‘over his head beholds / A dewy cloud, and in the cloud a bow /

Conspicuous with three listed [banded] colours gay, / Betokening peace from

God, and Covenant new’’ (11.864--67).

In classical literature the rainbow is also a divine token, though not so

benign. Marked on clouds by Zeus, rainbows are portents to mortals; Zeus

sends a rainbow as a sign of war or storm (Iliad 11.27--28, 17.548--49). It is

personified as Iris, the messenger of the gods, but her rainbow-like qualities

are not brought out in Homer or Hesiod. In Virgils Aeneid, where she often

does Junos bidding, she descends ‘‘on the path of a thousand-colored arc’’ and

ascends by ‘‘cutting an arc under the clouds’’ (5.606, 9.15). Ovids Iris, ‘‘clad in

various colors,’’ also traces a rainbow path on her missions (Met. 1.270, 11.585).

The rainbow was thought to drink up moisture, which then falls as rain

(Plautus, Curculio 131a; Virgil, Georgics 1.380; Ovid, Met. 1.271).

For the most part Renaissance literature repeats classical and biblical usage,

but Shakespeare may be evoking a recent sense of ‘‘iris’’ as the circular colored

membrane of the eye when the Countess asks Helena why she weeps: ‘‘Whats

the matter, / That this distempered messenger of wet, / The many colored Iris,

rounds thine eye?’’ (AWEW 1.3.150--52).

For the Romantics rainbows retain their numinous character but they are

symbols of a covenant less with God than with nature. Wordsworths heart

leaps up at the sight of one in a surge of ‘‘natural piety’’ (‘‘My heart leaps up’’).

Goethes Faust turns his back on the sun at the opening of Part II, as if to say

he will cease trying to grasp Truth or the Absolute directly, and instead turns

to the rainbow, the Wechseldauer (‘‘change-permanence’’) of transient

waterdrops in eternal pattern, which symbolizes human life, lived in colored

reflections of the light (4715--27).

Newtons theory of optics caused a stir among poets mainly for its explanation

of the spectrum, and hence the rainbow. Thomson uses such optical

terms as ‘‘refracted’’ and ‘‘prism’’ to describe ‘‘the grand etherial bow,’’ which

looks one way to the ‘‘sage-instructed eye’’ (instructed by ‘‘awful Newton’’) and

another to the ‘‘swain’’ filled with wonder and amazement as he ‘‘runs / To

catch the falling glory’’ (Spring 203--17). At a famous dinner with Wordsworth,

Lamb, Haydon, and others Keats lamented that Newton had ‘‘destroyed all the

poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours’’ (Haydons

account). Drawing on the metaphor of weaving, which since Milton at least

was a commonplace in rainbow descriptions (see ‘‘Iris Woof,’’ Comus 83), Keats

in Lamia states, ‘‘There was an awful rainbow once in heaven: / We know her

woof, her texture; she is given / In the dull catalogue of common things’’

(2.231--33). The rainbow thus became the main exhibit in the contest of

science and poetry.

Raven The raven and the crow are not consistently distinguished in biblical or

classical literature, and in English literature they are both sometimes grouped

among such similar birds as the chough, daw (or jackdaw), and rook. The

primary associations of these black carrion birds, not surprisingly, are

negative, but there are some interesting favorable associations.

The first raven in the Bible (Hebrew ‘oreb, which can refer to the crow as

well) is the first of four birds Noah sent forth to learn if land had appeared;

the raven ‘‘went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the

earth’’ (Gen. 8.7). As a carrion-eater the raven presumably found something

edible floating on the flood, so it did not return to the ark: a good sign.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament ravens are scavengers, and hence ‘‘unclean’’

(Lev. 11.15), but once, rather mysteriously, they bring bread and meat to Elijah

in the desert (1 Kgs 17.6). (Milton retells this story in Paradise Regained

2.266--69). One of the many rhetorical questions the Lord puts to the humbled

Job is ‘‘Who provideth for the raven his food?’’ (Job 38.41), a question answered

at Psalm 147.9 -- ‘‘He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens

which cry’’ -- and elaborated by Luke (12.24). God will provide. Shakespeares

Adam invokes these texts when he offers his lifes savings to Orlando in As You

Like It (2.3.43).

In the Song of Songs the lovers locks are ‘‘black as a raven’’ (5.11), a phrase

that must be commonplace wherever ravens are found. It is very often hair

that provokes comparison with them, as in Chaucers description of the hair

of King Lygurge: ‘‘As any ravenes fethere it shoon for blak’’ (Knight’s Tale 2144).

‘‘Raven’’ has become an adjective meaning ‘‘black,’’ with little or no additional

connotation. Alluding perhaps to the Song of Songs Byron praises ‘‘the

nameless grace / Which waves in every raven tress’’ of a beautiful woman

(‘‘She Walks in Beauty’’). In Greek and Latin ‘‘white raven’’ was proverbial for

something extremely rare or unheard-of, like ‘‘black swan.’’

The raven was occasionally said to be the companion or messenger of

Apollo; it is ‘‘Phoebus bird’’ in Ovid, Met. 2.545 (see 5.329), and ‘‘the dark

attendant of Apollos tripod’’ in Statius, Thebaid 3.506.

It is mainly as an eater of carrion, including human carrion, that the raven

is known in classical literature. The raven (Greek korax) does not appear in

Homer, though it is a major theme in the Iliad that corpses may be devoured

by birds. Theognis complains that everything has ‘‘gone to the ravens’’ (833),

perhaps better translated as ‘‘to the crows,’’ the equivalent of ‘‘to the dogs’’ in

English. Several characters in plays by Aristophanes have a habit of saying es

korakas! -- ‘‘to the ravens!’’ or ‘‘Go and be hanged!’’ (Wasps 852, 982; Birds 27;

etc.). In a memorable simile the chorus of Aeschylus Agamemnon depicts

Clytemnestra after she murders Agamemnon: ‘‘standing on his body like a

loathsome raven she hoarsely sings her hymn of triumph’’ (1472--74).

The raven (and the crow) prosper when men slaughter one another, and so

they are associated with battlefields and gallows and more generally with

imminent death. Horace sardonically assures a servant, non pasces in cruce

corvos, ‘‘You wont hang on a cross to feed ravens’’ (Epistles 1.16.48), while

Petronius records an insult: ‘‘a gallows tidbit, ravens food’’ (58).

The raven is one of the three beasts of battle (the others being the wolf and

the eagle/vulture) that occur as a formula or commonplace a dozen times in

Old English poetry. In Brunanburh, ‘‘The host of corpses behind them they

left / to the black raven (sweartan hraefn), the beak-faced one, / the dark-clothed

one, and to the dun eagle, / the white-tailed erne, hungry war-bird, / and to

the greedy wolf, grey beast of the woods, / to devour and relish’’ (60--65, trans.

Malone). On the eve of the great battle in Elene, the wolf howls a war-song and

the eagle shrieks (27--31); as the battle looms ‘‘over their heads the raven

cried, dark, thirsty for slaughter’’ (52); and then as the battle begins, raven,

eagle, and wolf rejoice. There is an interesting variation near the end of

Beowulf, where ‘‘the dark raven, / eager for the dying, will have much to say, /

to tell the eagle how it thrived at the feast, / while with the wolf he spoiled

the corpses’’ (3024--27).

The raven, like the wolf, belonged to Odin, the Norse war god, sometimes

called Hrafnagud, ‘‘Ravengod.’’ An epithet of ‘‘raven’’ in the Old English Exodus

(164) is wealceasig, ‘‘chooser of the slain’’ or ‘‘carrion-picker,’’ cognate with

Valkyrie (or Walkyrie), the terrible Norse goddesses of battle who work out the

fate of warriors. An early Old Norse poem, Hrafnsmal, is a dialogue between

one of the Valkyrie and a raven. Celtic traditions are similar. In the Irish Tain

Bo Cuailnge, the war goddess Badb Catha is called ‘‘Raven of Battle.’’ The

medieval ballad ‘‘The Twa Corbies’’ begins with a plan by the ravens to

breakfast off a slain knight. Joel Barlow gives sarcastic ‘‘Advice to a Raven in

Russia’’ who has been following Napoleon in 1812: the corpses will be too

frozen to eat -- ‘‘With beak and claw you cannot pluck an eye’’ -- so fly south,

fly anywhere, for there are plenty of men slain in Napoleons ubiquitous


It was proverbial that ravens peck out the eyes of the slain: see Proverbs

30.17 and Aristophanes Birds 582. Catullus wishes a miserable end to an

enemy: ‘‘your eyes torn out and swallowed by the ravens black throat’’ (108.5).

Villons ‘‘Ballade of the Hanged’’ announces that ‘‘Magpies and ravens

[corbeaulx] have caved our eyes / And plucked out our beards and eyebrows’’

(23--24). Milton denounces bishops as ‘‘ravens . . . that would peck out the eyes

of all knowing Christians’’ (Animadversions sec. 13).

In Latin literature the raven (corvus) or crow (cornix) was thought to foretell a

rainstorm (Virgil, Georgics 1.382; Horace, Odes 3.27.10--11) and in both Greek and

Roman culture these birds, among many others, were used in augury or

bird-prophecy generally. Combined with its habit of eating corpses, this

association led to the widespread view that the raven (in particular) is a bird

of ill omen, usually foretelling death. The owls shriek and ‘‘revenes qualm

[croak]’’ both foretell evil in Chaucers Troilus and Cressida 5.382. The crow has a

 ‘‘vois of care’’ in Chaucers Parliament of Fowls 363. ‘‘The ominous raven with a

dismal cheer, / Through his hoarse beak of following horror tells’’ (Drayton,

Barons’ Wars 5.42). Marlowes Barabas opens the second act of The Jew of Malta

with a fine simile: ‘‘Thus like the sad presaging raven that tolls / The sick

mans passport in her hollow beak, / And in the shadow of the silent night /

Doth shake contagion from her sable wings.’’ Lady Macbeth says, ‘‘The raven

himself is hoarse, / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my

battlements’’ (Macbeth 1.5.38--40). And Othello cries, ‘‘O, it comes oer my

memory, / As doth the raven oer the infected house, / Boding to all’’ (Othello

4.1.20--22). The most famous raven of the foreboding sort is Edgar Allen Poes.

Aristophanes records the belief that the raven or crow lives five human

generations (Birds 609), while Ovid gives the crow (cornix) a life-span of nine

(Met. 7.274). The longevity of the bird was so well established that Martial

could write of an old woman, ‘‘Plutia, having outlived all crows . . . ’’ (10.67.5).

Shakespeare calls the crow ‘‘treble-dated’’ (‘‘Phoenix and Turtle’’ 17); Tennyson

calls it ‘‘many-winterd’’ (‘‘Locksley Hall’’ 68).

The two ravens of Odin were named Huginn and Muninn, Thought and

Memory, faculties of the mind that quickly fly over space and time. This Norse

tradition may have combined with the classical notions of the birds longevity

and prophetic powers, and perhaps with Noahs sending of the raven as scout,

to produce the idea that ravens know everything. In his catalog of birds,

Chaucer lists ‘‘the raven wys [wise]’’ (PF 363). This idea, seconded by the Elijah

story, may have led to the tradition of good and helpful ravens, as in these

lines by Shakespeare: ‘‘Some say that ravens foster forlorn children / The

whilst their own birds famish in their nests’’ (Titus 2.3.154--55).

Red Red in literature is the color of fire, gold, and roses; it is the color of faces

when they show embarrassment, anger, or the flush of health or passion. It is

also the color of blood, of course, but less often than one might think, purple

being its traditional literary color.

In Renaissance poetry red and white are often paired as the colors of beauty

or love. Spring, according to Petrarch, is candida et vermiglia, ‘‘white and

vermilion’’ (Rime 310). Shakespeares Venus tells Adonis he is ‘‘More white and

red than doves or roses are’’ (10); when Adonis alternately blushes for shame

and turns pale with anger, she is pleased with both his red and white (76--77).

Viola says, ‘‘ ‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white / Natures own sweet

and cunning hand laid on’’ (12N 1.5.239--40). Red and pale make another

contrast frequent in Shakespeare; it means cheerful and sad. ‘‘Looked he red

or pale,’’ asks Adriana, ‘‘or sad or merrily?’’ (CE 4.2.4); Hamlet asks Horatio the

same question about the ghost (1.2.232); Autolycus jokes, ‘‘the red blood reigns

in the winters pale’’ (WT 4.3.4). In Milton even angels blush red with love,

‘‘Celestial rosy red, loves proper hue’’ (PL 8.619).

Red is sometimes the color of the devil, in a tradition that goes back to

Esau, who was ‘‘red, all over like a hairy garment’’ (Gen. 25.25). Mann invokes

this tradition with his eerie red-haired figures in Death in Venice and Doctor


The red cross of St. George is the old emblem of England; Spenser adopts it

for his Red Cross Knight in Faerie Queene book 1. The red planet is Mars; it

indeed looks pink, and it stands for the god of bloody war: ‘‘Ye shal be deed

 [dead],’’ a character in Chaucer vows, ‘‘by myghty Mars the rede!’’ (Knight’s Tale


See Purple, Rose, Scarlet.

Reed see Pipe

Right see Left and right

Ring The ring is a sign of a pledge. In Terences Eunuch the phrase ‘‘made pledges’’ is

literally ‘‘gave rings’’ (541). In Beowulf and other Germanic epics rings are the

most prominent bonds between lord and vassal: Hygelac dispenses rings

(1970), Beowulf is called ‘‘ring prince’’ (2345), castles have a ‘‘ring hall’’ (2010,

2840), and so on. In modern literature the ring is more often a pledge

between a man and woman, either of betrothal or marriage. Shakespeare

makes good use of improper pledging and parting with rings in several of his

comedies, such as All’s Well that Ends Well, where Diana extracts a ring from

Bertram, who intends to break his vows to Helena, who passes her ring to

Diana, etc. In Merchant of Venice rings circulate like ideal money (real money

being the major source of conflict in the play): given away impulsively they

end up on the right fingers and bind their wearers more tightly together.

There are many magic rings in literature. To name a few: the ring that

makes Gyges invisible (Plato, Republic 359--60); The Ring of the Nibelung (the title

of Wagners opera cycle), which gives absolute power to its owner; the ring of

Canace in Chaucers Squire’s Tale, which lets her understand birds; the ring of

Tolkiens Lord of the Rings, which gives power but also corrupts.

River As rivers mark territorial boundaries, crossing them is often symbolically

important. The literal crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land by the

Israelites has served as the vehicle for many Christian and Jewish spiritual

concepts; Christian meanings are seconded by the baptism of Christ in the

Jordan by John the Baptist. In classical myths the shades of the dead had to

cross the river Acheron into Hades, ferried by Charon. When Dante drinks of

Lethe and Eunoe at the top of the mount of Purgatory he is ready to ascend

into heaven.

To ‘‘cross the Rubicon’’ has been proverbial since the seventeenth century

for an irrevocable step; the Rubicon marked the border between Italy and

Cisalpine Gaul, and when Julius Caesar crossed it with his army in 49 bc he

became an invader (see Lucan 1.183ff.). It is equivalent to ‘‘the die is cast,’’

which Caesar said as he crossed the stream (Suetonius, Julius 32). When young

Jane Eyre is punished by the hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst, she began ‘‘to feel

that the Rubicon was passed’’ (C. Bronte, Jane Eyre, chap. 7).

Traveling up or down rivers might also mark changes in symbolic states.

Drifting down the Mississippi on a raft into slave territory, Huckleberry Finn

and Jim seem to give themselves to fate. In general, as George Eliot observes,

‘‘So our lives glide on: the river ends we dont know where, and the sea

begins, and then there is no more jumping ashore’’ (Felix Holt chap. 27). As

Conrads Marlow steams up the Congo in search of Kurtz, he goes deeper into

something primitive and horrible, though whether it is Africa itself or the

character of the Europeans is left ambiguous (Heart of Darkness).

In classical literature a country, region, or city was often named after its

rivers. Dionysus announces at the beginning of Euripides Bacchae, ‘‘I have

come to Dirces stream and Ismenus water,’’ that is, to Thebes, known as the

‘‘two-river city.’’ Dante reports that ‘‘I was born and grew up / Above the lovely

river Arno in the great city [i.e., Florence]’’ (Inferno 23.94--95). A poet might

then be identified as ‘‘the poet of River X,’’ as we occasionally call Shakespeare

the Bard of Avon. This habit combined with the symbol of the swan, the

singing river-bird, to produce Horaces phrase for the Theban Pindar, ‘‘the

swan of Dirce’’ (4.2.25--27), imitated in ‘‘Swan of Avon,’’ and the like. (See

Swan.) A similar formula identifies inhabitants of a country by naming the

river that they drink. Homer reports a group of Trojan allies as those who

‘‘drink the black water of Aisepos’’ (Iliad 2.825). Horace refers to those who

‘‘drink the Don’’ (the Scythians) and those who ‘‘drink the deep Danube’’ (the

Dacians) (3.10.1, 4.15.21).

In the 1840s hundreds of poems and songs about the Rhine were published

in Germany as part of a surge in nationalist sentiment. ‘‘Father Rhine,’’

suffused with memories of the Nibelungen and the Lorelei, was taken as the

source and essence of the German spirit.

The river has been pressed into many metaphorical uses. A poet in the Greek

Anthology praises Stesichorus for channeling ‘‘the Homeric stream’’ into his

own verses (9.184). In one of his odes Horace praises another Greek poet for

his eloquence: ‘‘As a river swollen by the rains above its usual / banks rushes

down from the mountain, / so does Pindar surge and his deep / voice rushes

on’’ (4.2.5--8; trans. Shepherd). Cicero and Quintilian in their treatises on

rhetoric stress the importance of ‘‘fluency,’’ the flumen orationis or flumen

verborum, ‘‘river of speech’’ or ‘‘stream of words.’’ When Dante meets Virgil in

the opening of the Inferno, he asks, ‘‘Are you that Virgil, then, and that

fountain / Which pours out so broad a river (fiume) of speech?’’ (1.79--80). After

describing the river Thames, Denham addresses it: ‘‘O could I flow like thee,

and make thy stream / My great example, as it is my theme! / Though deep,

yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull, / Strong without rage, without

ore-flowing full’’ (‘‘Coopers Hill’’ 189--92). Pope, in his imitation of Horace,

Epistle 2.2, writes, ‘‘Pour the full Tide of Eloquence along’’ (171). Thomson

distinguishes two sorts of eloquence among many: ‘‘In thy full language,

speaking mighty things, / Like a clear torrent close, or else diffused / A broad

majestic stream, and rolling on / Through all the winding harmony of sound’’

(Liberty 2.257--60). Poetic genius is compared to the Nile by Lebrun-Pindare: it

rises in the rocks ‘‘without glory or name,’’ sometimes ‘‘buries itself amid

unknown gulfs,’’ and then suddenly comes into the light and is worshipped by

all Egypt (‘‘Ode on Enthusiasm’’ 93--100). Shelley refers to ‘‘Poesys unfailing

River, / Which through Albion winds forever’’ (‘‘Euganean Hills’’ 184--85).

Mangan begins a poem by addressing it: ‘‘Roll forth, my song, like the rushing

river / That sweeps along to the mighty sea’’ (‘‘The Nameless One’’).

A tributary of this tradition traces the river of poetry back to Mount

Helicon, sacred to the Muses, on the slopes of which were Hesiods village of

Ascra and two springs, Aganippe, which produced the stream Olmeius, and

Hippocrene, which gave rise to the Permessus; the water of either of these

would inspire the poet who drank. Petrarch complains that ‘‘he is pointed to

as a strange thing / who wishes to make a river flow from Helicon’’ (Rime 7).

 ‘‘From Helicons harmonious springs,’’ Gray writes, ‘‘A thousand rills their

mazy progress take’’; they grow into a ‘‘rich stream of music’’ (‘‘Progress of

Poetry’’ 3--4, 7).

The inverse of the river of speech is the speech of the river. In English

‘‘babbling brook’’ is a cliche, and in literature every variety of speech has been

heard in rivers: they babble, brawl, murmur, prattle, rave, shout, sing, and so

on. Not surprisingly poets have found rivers companions, counterparts,

exemplars, and teachers. Near the opening of The Prelude, for instance,

Wordsworth remembers the river Derwent that flowed past his boyhood

home: ‘‘one, the fairest of all rivers, loved / To blend his murmurs with my

nurses song, / And . . . / . . . sent a voice / That flowed along my dreams’’ (1805

version 1.272--76).

If speech or poetry flows like a river, so does the mind. We commonly speak

of the ‘‘stream of consciousness’’ and the Freudian theory of the unconscious

is filled with hydraulic metaphors. Dante speaks of ‘‘the stream of mind’’ (or

‘‘memory’’: de la mente il fiume, Purgatorio 13.90). Wordsworth, finding the

sources of his mind unsearchable, asks who could say ‘‘This portion of the

river of my mind / Comes from yon fountain’’? (1805 Prelude 2.214--15). Shelley

speaks several times of ‘‘the stream of thought’’ (e.g., Alastor 644), and his

poem ‘‘Mont Blanc’’ begins with a complex simile likening the Ravine of Arve

before him with the ‘‘everlasting universe of things’’ that ‘‘Flows through the

mind,’’ while ‘‘from secret springs / The source of human thought its tribute

brings / Of waters’’ (punning on ‘‘tributary’’) (1--6).

It is common to speak of the phases of a river from its source to its mouth

as ages in a human life. So Thomson describes the Nile: rising from two

springs he ‘‘rolls his infant stream,’’ then ‘‘he sports away / His playful youth

amid the fragrant isles’’; ‘‘Ambitious thence the manly river breaks’’ and

‘‘Winds in progressive majesty along’’ (Summer 806--15). The metaphor is

implicit in the description of ‘‘Alph the sacred river’’ in Coleridges ‘‘Kubla

Khan,’’ which rises from a fountain that seems to be in labor, meanders for a

while, and then sinks into the ‘‘lifeless ocean.’’ In The Excursion Wordsworth

offers an elaborate simile: ‘‘The tenour / Which my life holds, he readily may

conceive / Whoeer hath stood to watch a mountain brook / In some still

passage of its course . . . / . . . Such a stream / Is human Life’’ (3.967--87). ‘‘O

stream!’’ the Poet in Shelleys Alastor asks, ‘‘Whose source is inaccessibly

profound, / Whither do thy mysterious waters tend? / Thou imagest my life’’


In Wordsworth again, that great poet of rivers, we find real rivers and

many of their possible symbolic meanings (speech, poetry, life) flowing

together. To give one more example from The Prelude (1805), book 9 opens with

a retrospect on the poem so far: ‘‘As oftentimes a river, it might seem, /

Yielding in part to old remembrances, / Part swayed by fear to tread an

onward road / That leads direct to the devouring sea, / Turns and will measure

back his course -- far back, / Towards the very regions which he crossed / In his

first outset -- so have we long time / Made motions retrograde.’’

Holderlin was as interested in rivers as Wordsworth, and in several of his

Hymns, such as ‘‘The Rhine’’ and ‘‘The Migration,’’ he has a great river stand

for the life or spiritual history of a nation.

Informing most of these meanings is the river as an image of time itself.

According to Plato (Cratylus 402a), Heraclitus said that ‘‘all things are in

process and nothing stays still, and likening existing things to the stream of a

river he says that into the same river you could not step twice.’’

Ovid has a catalogue of rivers in Met. 2.239--59. Spenser gives a short

catalogue of great rivers, from the Nile to the Amazon (FQ 4.11.20--21),

followed by a long one of English rivers (4.11.29--47).

See Fountain, Sea.

Rook see Raven

Rose There were several varieties of rose in the ancient world, as there are

hundreds in the modern, but the rose in poetry has always been red (or

‘‘rose’’) in color, unless otherwise described. ‘‘Red as a rose’’ is the prime poetic

cliche, and poets have used every other term for red to describe it, such as

Shakespeares ‘‘deep vermilion’’ (Sonnets 98) or the ‘‘crimson joy’’ of Blakes

‘‘Sick Rose’’. The rose blooms in the spring, and does not bloom long; the

contrast is striking between its youth in the bud and its full-blown maturity,

and again between both these phases and its final scattering of petals on the

ground, all in the course of a week or two. It is rich in perfume, which seems

to emanate from its dense and delicate folds of petals. It is vulnerable to the

cankerworm. And it grows on a plant with thorns. All these features have

entered into its range of symbolic uses.

The rose is ‘‘the graceful plant of the Muses,’’ according to the Anacreontic

Ode 55; indeed Sappho had called the Muses themselves ‘‘the roses of Pieria’’

(frag. 55). So it is only right that the rose has been the favorite flower of poets

since antiquity. The most beautiful poems, in fact, were compared to the

flower, as when Meleager praises some of Sapphos as roses (in ‘‘The Garland’’),

a metaphor in keeping with the meaning of the word ‘‘anthology,’’ which is a

gathering of poetic flowers. (See Flower.)

Homer does not mention the rose (Greek rhodon), but his favorite epithet for

Dawn is ‘‘rosy-fingered’’ (rhododaktylos). (Sappho also liked ‘‘rose’’ compounds,

calling the moon ‘‘rosy-fingered’’ and both Dawn and the Graces ‘‘rosyarmed.’’)

The Greek tragedians do not mention the rose, either. But thereafter

the rose comes into its own: it is the flower of flowers, their glory, their

queen, their quintessence. In Achilles Tatius novel (2.1), Leucippe sings a song

in praise of the rose: ‘‘If Zeus had wished to give the flowers a king, he would

have named the rose, for it is the ornament of the world, the glory of plants,

the eye of flowers, the blush of the meadow . . . the agent of Aphrodite.’’

Another Anacreontic poem (no. 44) goes on in the same vein: ‘‘rose, best of

flowers, / rose, darling of the spring, / rose, delight of the gods,’’ and so on.

Goethe theorized that the rose was the highest form of flower. Cowper wrote:

‘‘Flowrs by that name promiscuously we call, / But one, the rose, the regent of

them all’’ (‘‘Retirement’’ 723--24).

Almost any flower can represent a girl, but the rose has always stood for the

most beautiful, the most beloved -- in many languages ‘‘Rose’’ remains a

popular given name -- and often for one who is notably young, vulnerable, and

virginal. Shakespeares Laertes, when he sees his sister Ophelia in her


madness, cries ‘‘O Rose of May!’’ (Hamlet 4.5.158), bringing out not only her

uniqueness but the blighting of her brief life. Othello, on the verge of killing

Desdemona, thinks of her as a rose which he is about to pluck (Othello

5.2.13--16); Orsino tells Viola, ‘‘women are as roses, whose fair flower / Being

once displayd, doth fall that very hour’’ (12N 2.4.38--39). The French poet Baif

vows, ‘‘I will not force the Rose / Who hides in the bosom / Of a tightly closed

bud / The beauty of her flower’’ (‘‘La Rose,’’ in Livre des Passetems II).

Ronsard writes, ‘‘such a flower only lasts / From morning until evening’’

(Odes 1.17, ‘‘A sa maistresse’’); Quevedo asks, ‘‘What good does it do you, /

rosebush, to presume on your good looks, / when no sooner are you born /

than you begin to die?’’ (‘‘Letrilla lirica’’ 4--7); but its brevity has made it the

more cherished. ‘‘Loveliest of things are they / On earth that soonest pass

away. / The rose that lives its little hour / Is prized beyond the sculptured

flower,’’ according to Bryant (‘‘Scene on the Banks of the Hudson’’). Lamenting

the passing of great Persian kings, Omar Khayyam, in Fitzgeralds famous

version, says, ‘‘Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say; / Yes, but where

leaves the Rose of Yesterday? / And this first Summer month that brings the

Rose / Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away’’ (33--36).

A sexual connotation of Greek rhodon, the hymen or female genitalia (as in

the modern French phrase, ‘‘to lose her rose’’), was combined with the brevity

of the rose-bloom to embody the common ancient theme of carpe diem (‘‘seize

the day,’’ from Horace 1.11): make the most of your brief time on earth, or

your even briefer youth. In another ode Horace urges us to bring wine and

perfume and ‘‘the too brief blooms of the lovely rose’’ (2.3.13--14). Anacreon

uses rose imagery in his odes on this theme, but it was Ausonius who

explicitly equated the brevity of our life with that of the rose. His influential

poem De Rosis Nascentibus has the much-translated line Collige, virgo, rosas, dum

flos novus et nova pubes (‘‘Pluck roses, girl, while flower and youth are new’’ 48);

it is interesting that he addresses a virgin, not a boy or man who might pluck

her, a displacement not unlike the girl-gathered-while-gathering-flowers motif

common in classical poetry. (See Flower.) Ausonius symbol is repeated in the

bird song in Tassos Gerusalemme Liberata (16.15) -- ‘‘So in the passing of a day,

passes / The flower and the youth [or ‘‘green’’] of ones mortal life . . . Gather

the rose of Love’’ -- which in turn inspired the song meant to tempt Guyon

into the Bower of Bliss in Spensers Faerie Queene: ‘‘Ah! see the Virgin Rose, how

sweetly shee / Doth first peepe forth with bashfull modestee . . . Lo! see soone

after how she fades and falls away. // So passeth, in the passing of a day, / Of

mortall life the leafe, the bud, the flowre; . . .Gather therefore the Rose whilest

yet is prime, / For soone comes age that will her pride deflowre’’ (2.12.74--75).

Ronsard has ‘‘Gather from this day the roses of life’’ (Second Sonnets for Hйlиne

43). The best-known example in English is Herricks stanza ‘‘Gather ye

Rose-buds while ye may, / Old Time is still a flying: / And this same flower that

smiles today, / To morrow will be dying’’ (‘‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of

Time’’). In a poem addressed to a lady, Perswasions to Love, Carew offers a

variant where the rose is a rose-tree: ‘‘The faded Rose each spring, receives / A

fresh red tincture on her leaves: / But if your beauties once decay, / You never

know a second May’’ (75--78). In another famous example, Miltons Comus fails

to persuade the Lady despite his rosy simile: ‘‘If you let slip time, like a

neglected rose / It withers on the stalk with languisht head’’ (Comus 743--44).

Lamartine revives the motif in his ‘‘Elegie’’: ‘‘Let us gather the rose in the

morning of life.’’ And so it goes into at least Victorian times, as we see in

William Henleys ‘‘O, gather me the rose, the rose, / While yet in flower we

find it, / For summer smiles, but summer goes, / And winter waits behind it!’’

There have been attempts to Christianize the carpe diem theme, whereby

time is to be put to good spiritual uses, but many devout Christians have

scorned it, taking the rose to be an emblem of the false and fleeting pleasures

of this world, especially those of lust. Herbert, however, in ‘‘The Rose,’’ offers

the flower as an antidote to worldly joys, and in doing so implicitly appeals

to the medieval tradition that Christ is the Mystic Rose. In another tradition it

is the Virgin Mary who is the Mystic Rose, sometimes a white rose, a rose

without thorns. Both associations are derived in part from the ‘‘Rose of

Sharon’’ in the Song of Solomon 2.1. The Hebrew word habasselet, which is

found only there and at Isaiah 35.1 (‘‘the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as

the rose’’ in the AV), is an uncertain flower, probably not a rose, more likely a

crocus or daffodil; but the rose was established early as the official translation.

Thanks in part to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the rose (alongside the lily)

became Marys symbolic flower. Mary is ‘‘the rose in which the divine word

became flesh,’’ as Dante puts it in Paradiso 23.73--74. In the fifteenth-century

English carol ‘‘There is no rose of swich vertu’’ presses the image: ‘‘For in this

rose conteined was / Hevene and erthe in litel space.’’

If red and white roses are distinguished, the red stands for charity or

Christian love, the white for virginity. The red rose can also represent

Christian martyrdom, red for the love martyrs showed and for the blood they

shed. Shelley, writing of atheist martyrs to Christian bigotry, nonetheless

preserves the image: ‘‘earth has seen / Loves brightest roses on the scaffold

bloom’’ (Queen Mab 9.176--77).

The rose had been the flower of Aphrodite (Venus) and Dionysus (Bacchus).

The Anacreontic Ode 44 begins, ‘‘Let us mix the rose of the Loves [plural of

Eros] with Dionysus [wine],’’ and a connection between wine and roses was

established that has lasted in common phrases to this day. Horace describes

rose petals scattered about in a scene of love-making (1.5.1), and Propertius

writes, ‘‘I am glad that plenteous Bacchus enchains my mind, / And that I

always keep my head in vernal roses’’ (3.5.21--22). The statue of Venus in

Chaucers Knight’s Tale wore ‘‘A rose gerland, fressh and wel smellynge’’ on her

head (1961). The rose garden, or ‘‘bed of roses,’’ is the traditional place of love,

as in the medieval French allegorical Romance of the Rose (where the lovers goal

is to pluck the rosebud), in Walther von der Vogelweides medieval German

poem ‘‘Under der Linden,’’ or in Tennysons Maud 1.22. So the transformation

of the rose into a symbol of Christian charity or chastity is a good example of

the cultural expropriation of pagan culture by the church. As Spenser tells it,

God planted the rose in Paradise and then replanted it in earthly stock so

women may wear it as a symbol ‘‘Of chastity and vertue virginall’’ (FQ

3.5.52--53; cf. ‘‘fresh flowring Maidenhead’’ in the next stanza). While Adam

and Eve slept (before the Fall), according to Milton, ‘‘the flowry roof / Showrd

Roses, which the Morn repaird’’ (PL 4.772--73).

The penultimate vision of Dantes Paradiso is the gathering of all the

redeemed souls into a formation like an ‘‘eternal rose’’ (30.124), white with

the light of Gods love (31.1).

A familiar proverb, repeated in many poems, is ‘‘Roses have thorns’’

(Shakespeare, Sonnets 35) or ‘‘neer the rose without the thorn’’ (Herrick, ‘‘The

Rose’’). If you go about plucking roses, gentlemen, you may get pricked. In his

famous ‘‘Heidenroslein,’’ Goethe presents a dialogue between a boy and a rose:

‘‘The boy said, I shall pick you, / Little rose on the heath. / The little rose said,

I shall prick you / So youll always think of me.’’’ Ovid combines the carpe diem

theme with a reminder of thorns: ‘‘While it flowers, use your life; / the thorn

is scorned when the rose has fallen’’ (Fasti 5.353--54). Shakespeares Diana alters

the image nicely when she tells Bertram, ‘‘when you have our roses, / You

barely leave our thorns to prick ourselves’’ (AWEW 4.2.17--18). Blakes ‘‘My Pretty

Rose Tree’’ tells how he foreswears a beautiful flower to remain loyal to his

rose tree, but nonetheless ‘‘my Rose turnd away with jealousy: / And her

thorns were my only delight.’’ Thomas Moores ‘‘The Pretty Rose-Tree’’ is also

about promised faithfulness, for ‘‘the thorns of thy stem / Are not like them /

With which men wound each other.’’ In the Christian transfiguration of the

rose, of course, the thorns were omitted: Mary, according to St. Ambrose, is a

rose without thorns, as Herricks ‘‘The Rose’’ tells us. In Paradise, according to

Milton, was every sort of flower ‘‘and without Thorn the Rose’’ (PL 4.256).

The rose is also renowned for its perfume -- ‘‘And the rose herself has got /

Perfume which on earth is not,’’ as Keats says (‘‘Bards of Passion’’) -- which

lingers on after the flower has blown and fallen; perhaps that underlies its

use as a symbol of martyrdom. As Shakespeare puts it in Sonnet 54, which is

an extended rose simile, ‘‘Sweet roses do not so [die to themselves]; / Of their

sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.’’ Another form of rose immortality is

oil or attar of rose, known to the Greeks and Persians and probably earlier.

The rose has two traditional enemies, both of which are common in poetry:

worms and winds. Shakespeares Sonnet 95 begins, ‘‘How sweet and lovely dost

thou make the shame / Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose, / Dost spot

the beauty of thy budding name!’’ (‘‘Canker’’ means ‘‘cankerworm’’; see also

Sonnets 35 and 70.) The loss of Lycidas, Milton writes, is ‘‘As killing as Canker

to the Rose’’ (Lycidas 45). Herbert likens the Church to a rose, made red by the

blood of Christ, and disputes within the Church to a worm (‘‘Church-Rents

and Schisms’’). Perhaps the most resonant use of the canker image is Blakes

‘‘The Sick Rose’’: ‘‘O Rose thou art sick. / The invisible worm, / That flies

through the night / In the howling storm: // Has found out thy bed / Of

crimson joy: / And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.’’ As for howling

storms, Keats writes, ‘‘love doth scathe / The gentle heart, as northern blasts

do roses’’ (Endymion 1.734--35).

In the late nineteenth century was founded the mystical cult of

Rosicrucianism, whose central symbols were the rose of perfection or eternity

and the cross of time; we may gain the ‘‘inconsolable rose,’’ in Villiers de

lIsle-Adams phrase (in Axel), through suffering and renunciation in this

world. Yeats adopts this symbolism in the poems in The Rose and the stories in

The Secret Rose: the first poem is addressed ‘‘To the Rose upon the Rood [Cross]

of Time.’’

The rose is often associated with the lily, both to express a contrast in colors

and to symbolize two usually complementary virtues, love and purity (or

virginity): both flowers, of course, are emblems of the Virgin Mary. Tennyson

has ‘‘My rose of love for ever gone, / My lily of truth and trust’’ (‘‘The Ancient

Sage’’ 159--60). Roses and violets are often joined as two flowers of love, both

rich in aroma; Keats strikingly assigns the rose to Madeline and the violet to

her lover Porphyro (whose name means ‘‘purple’’): ‘‘Into her dream he melted,

as the rose / Blendeth its odour with the violet’’ (Eve of St. Agnes 320--21).

The phrase ‘‘under the rose,’’ more often used in the Latin sub rosa, means

‘‘in secret’’ or ‘‘silently.’’ It was supposed to be a practice in ancient Greece and

Rome to swear a council to secrecy by placing a rose overhead during its

deliberations. Many council chambers in Europe for that reason have roses

sculpted into their ceilings.

The Wars of the Roses (1455--85) were fought between the Houses of

Lancaster and York. Shakespeare presents Henry VI (of Lancaster) putting on a

red rose (1H6 4.1.152) and Richard Duke of York announcing he will ‘‘raise

aloft the milk-white rose’’ (2H6 1.1.252).