Figure 1. Above, Narcissus at the fountain; Amant with Oiseuse at the gate. Below, the Dreamer in bed. Printed by kind permission of the British Library (London, British Library, MS Egerton 1069, fol. 1r)
By Teresa Pilgrim, Birkbeck, University of London
As an undergraduate, I was first drawn to Roman de la Rose (1225-1278) and Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose (1923-25) by Marjorie Perloff’s essay ‘English as a second language: Mina Loy’s “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” (1998), in which she suggested an intertextual link between the two poems. My undergraduate thesis argued against Perloff’s reductive analysis of this intertextuality, which, I suggested, favoured Loy’s innovative modernist poem at the expense of Guillaume de Lorris’s initial Roman (approx.1200-1238) and Jean de Meun’s continuation (approx.1240-1305), and their extraordinary medieval dream vision. Moreover, my thesis not only asserted that such analysis denied recognition of each skilfully wrought narrative, by failing to account for nuanced subtleties exemplified by each poem through their engagement with the figure of their titular rose and authorial persona, but also demonstrated a rose figure which had been destabilised by authors since it was first deployed.
The rose motif has been evoked as a figure of female exemplarity since its inception in the lyrics of Middle English Marian discourse. In the famous medieval carol The Nativity or ‘There Is No Rose’, authorial elision of the rose figure with the Blessed Virgin Mary presents a reading, both allegorical and literal, of divine fecundity and mortal reproduction: ‘Ther is no rose of swych vertu| as is the rose that bare Jesu’ (ll.1-2). Thus the rose motif allegorises the Virgin mother as the figure of the rose which exemplifies the productive condition of being female, and sanctifies reproduction in all its fleshly acts. Authors can inverse the polarity of each rose figure evoked, to subvert or queer readerly interpretations of their individuated rose motif. Furthermore, authors may produce alternative or competing versions of their rose figure, with which to implicate an audience through the conclusions they draw or decline. This position can be further complicated when an author enters the liminal queer spaces they have created, in the guise of authorial persona, to interact with their own textual creations. While Freudian analysis of these authorial persona may offer insight into why these acts or re-enactments were fictionalised, it is not without limitation, in that these authors did not necessarily need a textual dream space in which to enact their wish-fulfillments as personas.
In both medieval and modernist poetic works, Guillaume de Lorris, Jean de Meun, and Mina Loy (1882-1966) manipulate the amorphous capacity of the rose to denote and transmit different meanings in relation to desire. What differs, however, are the objects of desire being projected by their rose motif, and the direction of narratorial gaze articulated in relation to the gender of the rose. Loy’s rose refers to her mother in the first instance. She sets her mother at the heart of its signification only for her to be dissipated or drowned out amongst the universal concept of motherhood in the most abstract sense. In contrast to the exemplified rose desired by a male lover narrator, to whom de Lorris dedicates his Roman, or the male rose figure of de Meun’s conquest, Loy’s rose is predatory and draws attention to the power, historically, of the male gaze upon the feminine rose image in order to inverse its signification. Loy’s subverted rose highlights, not the patriarchal subjugation and control of female image and behaviour, but the repressive matriarchal constraints placed upon women while seeming, outwardly, to exemplify them:
drooping her lid
and pouting her breast
In the month of May
culled by Cupid on a thorn
of the rose (389-398)
The highly compressed modernist poem is written in English, and consists of almost eighteen hundred lines where gaps serve to isolate or intensify the meanings of words, and the narrative tone is charged with sarcasm and accusations of hypocrisy.
By comparison, the Roman extends to almost twenty-two thousand lines of octosyllabic rhyming couplets in Middle French, with the first four thousand lines written by de Lorris and, it is claimed translated into Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer:
It is the Romance of the Rose,
In which al the art of love I close.
The mater fayre is fayre of to make;
God graunt me in gree that she it take
For whom that it begonnen is!
And that is she that hath, ywis,
So mochel pris, and therto she
So worthy is biloved to be,
That she wel ought, of pris and ryght,
Be cleped Rose of every wight.
(The Romaunt of the Rose, Fragment A, 39-48).
It is worth noting that of the three fragments of Roman translation attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer in the Riverside Chaucer, none are attributed with complete certainty, and only de Lorris’s segment above, is thought likely to be truly Chaucerian. This could, therefore, be interpreted as a reluctance on Chaucer’s part to transmit a rose of such instability in de Meun’s volatile continuation. As the Riverside Chaucer points out, de Meun’s Roman drew increasing disapproval from egalitarian Christine de Pizan (1365-1430), for instance, for its lechery and unsavoury depiction of women. Crucially it is narratorial control by each author over the portrayal of desire and women (and/or men) that lies at the heart of how authorial persona functions in these two texts.
The impact of authorial persona upon the extent to which the rose is bounded by its own signification, fluctuates dramatically in terms of authorial intention. The Roman oscillates between female exemplarity and homoeroticism and yet concludes with impregnation of the rose. Frances Horgan’s highly accessible modern prose translation of Romance of the Rose (1994) is based upon Felix Lecoy’s verse translation (1965-70) which retains the original line numbering, and warrants quoting at length:
I can tell you that at last, when I had shaken the bud, I scattered a little seed there. This was when I had ———touched the rose-bud and explored all its little leaves, for I longed, and it seemed good to me, to probe its very –depths. I thus mingled the seeds in such a way that it would have been hard to disentangle them, with the result –that all the rose-bud swelled and expanded. I did nothing worse than that. But I was certain of this, that gentle —Fair Welcome saw nothing wrong in it and bore me no ill will: instead he submitted and allowed me to do ——-whatever would please me. Of course, he reminded me of my promise, and told me that my behaviour was ——outrageously improper. But he did nothing to oppose my taking and caressing and plucking the rose-bush, — –with all its branches, flowers, and leaves (21689-21712).
The points at which signification of the rose are put into flux is where liminal spaces are exposed by slippage of its allegorical meaning, above and beyond a literal reading of the text. Simon Gaunt’s important study Bel Acueil and the improper allegory of Roman de la Rose (1998) explores the richness of language portrayed between the layers of literal and allegorical signification in each author’s treatment of the rose motif. Gaunt’s vital discourse with a strong focus on Modern Gender and Medieval Studies, explores the rose’s propensity to signify (allegorically and metonymically) as both vulvic and phallic, and responds directly to C. S. Lewis’s comments in The Allegory of Love (1958). Lewis asserted that de Meun had mistakenly identified the male figure of Bel Acueil from de Lorris’s text as the rose. Contrary to narratological evidence, for which Gaunt so convincingly argues, Lewis does not conclude a paradigmatic shift of gender boundaries.
Significantly, Loy’s authorial persona challenges the exemplified female of the rose motif evoked, to highlight the repression of women’s behaviour through maternal, and not misogynistic, representation. The rose had become for Loy, a destabilising and negative image for women that over-invests in the value of female virtue:
by the divine right of self-assertion
virginity of Nature
wiping its pink paralysis
across the dawn of reason
a never-setting-sun (328-336)
What emerges from Loy’s persona, when read in light of supplementary biographical material in Carolyn Burke’s Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (1996), is a stifling sense of proprietorial maternal constraint exerted over Loy with specific concern for her chaste female body. ‘Glowing’ in the rose’s stultifying gaze, Loy’s persona embodies her mother’s shame on account of her pre-marital pregnancy. Consequently, Loy draws attention to her mother’s predatory gaze upon the male, and her subjugation and control over other females. Encapsulated in her rose motif Loy situates replication and regeneration of the matriarchal female as a force used retrospectively by her mother to absolve her guilt. While resisting the pitfalls of biographical fallacy, I should like, nevertheless, to suggest that the perverse irony articulated by Loy’s rose, not only draws attention to absurd societal values invested in women’s chaste bodies, but does so while vilifying her mother as a hypocritical predator.
I am grateful to Perloff’s suggestion of intertextuality which enabled my analysis of these innovative and extraordinary, medieval and modernist, allegories enlivened with authorial persona fictionalised by each respective author. What caught my attention as an undergraduate, and continues to invite critical scholarship today, are the complexity and strangeness of these texts. See, for instance, Johnathon Morton: The Roman de la Rose in its Philosophical Context: Art, Nature, and Ethics (2018); Sandeep Parmar: Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman (2013), and Sara Crangle: Mina Loy (forthcoming).What broader conclusions can be drawn from the slippage of language and significations bound into the narratorial device of each rose, and pitched in constant tension with the authorial persona who inhibit or queer the ability of the rose to signify? I would like to suggest authors of both past and present rose narratives, carve out textual liminal spaces in order to reflect personal and wider social concerns, and ultimately to circumvent constraints placed upon freedom of the female body to control expressions of sexuality, and/or gender.