Monday 18 May 2020

Approximate Botany

The dog roses are in flower again. This species (Rosa canina) is certainly Rupert Brooke's 'English unofficial rose' – but is it also 'mid-May's eldest child, The coming musk-rose', as described in Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale'? It seems that Keats's 'musk rose' is certainly not the flower generally known as a musk rose (Rosa moschata), which is purely a garden plant. In context, Keats is clearly describing a wild rose:

'I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets covered up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.'

Does he perhaps mean the sweet-briar (Rosa rubiginosa)? No, he can't, as that is the 'pastoral eglantine'.
There's at least one other wild 'musk-rose' in Keats's verse. Here is his sonnet 'To a Friend Who Sent Me some Roses' –

'As late I rambled in the happy fields,
What time the skylark shakes the tremulous dew
From his lush clover covert;—when anew
Adventurous knights take up their dinted shields;
I saw the sweetest flower wild nature yields,
A fresh-blown musk-rose; 'twas the first that threw
Its sweets upon the summer: graceful it grew
As is the wand that Queen Titania wields.
And, as I feasted on its fragrancy,
I thought the garden-rose it far excelled;
But when, O Wells! thy roses came to me,
My sense with their deliciousness was spelled:
Soft voices had they, that with tender plea
Whispered of peace, and truth, and friendliness unquelled.'

That's quite a thank-you letter. (Its recipient was Charles Wells, one of whose sons was to take up the career of professional gambler and fraudster and become famous as 'the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo'). Keats had a genius for friendship as well as for poetry (and letter writing), but in botany it seems he was – like most of us – what might be called an approximate botanist. He probably went for 'musk-rose' because it sounds so much better than the faintly derogatory 'dog-rose'.

Anyway, all this talk of roses calls for another Schubert song...


  1. Thanks for your post and your blog. I thought of these lines as I walked near Strath lane today. Jack Powys said "fast fading violets covered up in leaves" was his favourite line in poetry. of course it's all marvellous. "the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves" is hard to beat.

  2. sorry. first time I've posted. J C Powys. Strathblane.

  3. Thanks Arthur – it is indeed an extraordinarily beautiful ode, full of gorgeous lines. I've always loved 'Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget'...