Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Dead Rose: A Prophetic Environmental Warning

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is perhaps best known for ‘Sonnet 43’, which opens with the infamously sappy line: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”  Spoiler alert: there are ten ways.  Though celebrated for ‘Sonnet 43’, which cold-hearted cynics like myself see as trite and kitschy, her poem ‘The Dead Rose’ is perhaps more indicative of the talent that made Browning famous.  The poem, though conventional in its metre and rhyme scheme, and though it makes excessive use of the word ‘thee’ (it appears 21 times in the poem, making up 8.4% of the words in the poem and appearing an average of 2.6 times per quatrain), offers a multiplicity of readings to a contemporary audience.  While many have seen the poem as an analogy for aging, or perhaps for illness (Browning herself was extremely ill in her later years), its most insightful contemporary reading is perhaps an ecocritical or ecofeminist one.  In addressing the poem to a rose, Browning makes the natural realm the subject of the love poem, replacing the traditional human subject of a love poem with one of nature’s denizens, and by contrasting the nurturing environment of nature with humanity’s fatal disregard of nature, the poem ultimately highlights the faults of humanity’s anthropocentric views.  In working as an analogy for aging or disability, it also presents nature as a mentor and exploits the pedagogical benefits of ecological metaphors.  In this way, the poem challenges humanity’s anthropocentric paradigm, providing a prophetic encapsulation of flaws that define humanity’s current relationships with nature.

 

Image borrowed from here.

Image borrowed from here.

In making the poem about a representative of the natural realm, Browning shifts the more conventional subject of the poem from the human realm to the natural realm, thereby encouraging a shift away from humanity’s anthropocentric views.  This approach is made overtly obvious with the poem’s first two words: “O Rose!”  Browning’s use of capitalization and punctuation draws the reader’s attention to her emphasis, as she both capitalized the word ‘Rose’, making it a proper name and not simply a noun/subject, and then places an emphatic exclamation mark where a comma would have typically been used.  In this way she emphasizes the poem’s subject before the reader has even reached the third word.  Likewise, by addressing the poem to a rose, Browning employs an apostrophe and thus frames nature, not as an inanimate object, but as a sentient being capable of listening and understanding.  Critic Helena Feder (2002) notes that the apostrophe, which has been used by titans like Wordsworth and Coleridge (as well as Blake), highlights and “is an expression of an interconnectedness with” nature.  Having nature as the subject also makes nature the central figure, and therefore the priority, rather than a figure from the human realm.  The anthropomorphic implications of the apostrophe are perpetuated by poet’s employment of personification, as Browning also describes the sun as a ‘he’, writing that he mixed “his glory in [the rose’s] glorious urn” (10).  The pairing of apostrophe and personification disputes the typically anthropocentric approach for poetry, romantic poetry in particular.  In this way Browning makes it clear that she is elevating nature above humanity.

 

 

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu

Browning further challenges the anthropocentric view by questioning humanity’s right to name the components of nature through a rhetorical question that carries ecofeminist elements.  In the poem’s first line, the poetic voice asks “who dares to name” the rose (1), suggesting that whoever thus named it had no claim to name it. Since it is humanity that named it, Browning suggests that it is humanity who had no authority to do so, and in this way challenges the anthropocentric notion that the human sphere has dominion of the natural realm.  This is an echo of Lao Tzu’s poem ‘Taoing’, which likewise notes that “the name you say isn’t the real name” (3), and challenges the authenticity of human language, likewise suggesting that it does not signify the authentic meaning of the signified.  In this way, Browning’s poem is situated in the tradition of poetry that challenges the authority that human language attempts to assert over the natural realm.  The ecofeminist elements come when Browning’s rhetorical question is answered.  Given that Browning was writing in a culture steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the obvious answer to “who dares to name thee?” is Adam, who “gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals” (Genesis 2:20), and one would fairly assume the plants as well.  This takes place before God takes a rib from Ada to create Eve (Genesis 2:21-25), and so women are excluded from any element of the naming process.  This rhetorical question not only challenges humanity’s anthropocentric view, but also patriarchy’s androcentric view, and infers that women might perhaps have greater claim to naming the elements of the natural realm.  Regardless which reading one takes, it is clear is that Browning’s rhetorical question challenges the notion that humans are the centre of the world.

 

The Silent Highwayman (1858), a cartoon from Punch magazine depicting 'The Great Stink'.

The Silent Highwayman (1858), a cartoon from Punch magazine depicting ‘The Great Stink’.

The flaws of the anthropocentric view are further highlighted when Browning’s poetic voice catalogs the ravages endured by the rose at the hands of the human realm.  After having been imprisoned in a drawer for seven years (4), the rose is “pale, and hard, and dry, as stubble-wheat” (3).  The stark and bleak description of the rose’s condition calls to mind the ways in which the human realm has negatively impacted nature, both in Browning’s own time, and from a contemporary perspective.  The Thames River, for instance, was filled with human waste during the Victorian era, making it unlivable for any fish, and even leading to what is infamously known as ‘The Great Stink’, when rising temperatures exacerbated the smell of the excrement and urine that polluted the Thames River and led to the spread of diseases.  The once beautiful river was made into a waste bucket under the rule of humanity.  From a contemporary perspective, the deforestation of rain forests have left the ground “pale, and hard, and dry”, as the land in this region quickly becomes nutrient deficient and has acidic soil, while global warming has led to the loss of a third of the planet’s arable land.  These ravages seem to be a hyperbolic incarnation of the ravages endured by the rose.  The final stanza reinforces this as the poetic voice describes the rose as ‘dead’ and states that the human “heart doth owe” the rose “More love” (29-30).  This suggests that the human sphere needs to do more to protect and preserve the natural sphere, rather than exploiting it to the point of a very literal death.

 

Image borrowed from here.

Image borrowed from here.

The poem also alludes to the impact the destruction of certain elements within the natural realm would have on the broader ecosystem.  In the poem’s fifth stanza, for example, Browning’s poetic voice notes that the fly, that would have previously landed upon the rose “To stretch the tendrils of its tiny feet… would coldly overrun” the rose in its present state (17-20).  In this respect, the human realm has tampered with a delicate ecosystem, and in destroying one flower, has ruined a place of rest and reprieve for a fly.  While some might be content to think that one less fly might have a home, the sixth stanza notes how “The bee that once did suck” the rose to “build… perfume ambers up his hive” would now “blindly overlook” the rose (21-24).  Were bees to have no home, then the third of the world’s crops that are dependent on bees would be in peril and the planet’s ecosystem would effectively shut down.  Though the destruction of roses might not cause this on their own, pesticides, which kill bees, have led to a decrease in the bee population and have put the world’s ecosystem in danger.  Though it is doubtful that Browning would have understood the impact that the decimation of the bee population would have on the planet, the presence of bees in the poem proves to be a prophetic option.  Regardless of how well Browning understood the interdependence of elements within an ecosystem, it is certain that she saw how interrelated all elements of the natural realm are, and in this way highlights that when the human realm destroys one part of nature, they simultaneously destroy all those elements of nature that are interrelated with that component.

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

In contrast to the anthropocentric model, Browning illustrates how nature is far more capable of taking care of its own denizens than is the human realm.  Over the course of three stanzas, Browning writes about the “breeze that used to blow” (5), the “sun that use to” appear until the flower bloomed (9-11), and the “dew that used to wet” the rose (13).  Though Browning does use words like ‘smite’ and ‘burn’ when speaking of the sun, it is these elements of wind, sun, and water that provide the life sustaining elements of the flower and help to perpetuate the flower’s species.  The sun provides the energy that is transformed through photosynthesis, the water provides the hydration it needs, and the wind helps to spread the seeds of the flower.  These elements of nature collectively allow the flower to “bloom, and flower” (11), and bring out rich colour and hues, like crimson (15) that Browning describes.  These lively colours, blooms, and flowerings are far more vibrant than the death associated with the flower that had been stored in a drawer by humanity. In this way, Browning demonstrates how humanity has failed as a caretaker and underscores how nature does far better when given domain over itself than when humanity asserts control over it.

 

 

Guill de Lorris, author of Roman de la Rose.

Guillaume de Lorris, author of Roman de la Rose.

The poem also operates as an ecological metaphor, which in turn demonstrates the power of nature’s innate pedagogical abilities and language of nature.  As a metaphor, the poem can be seen to have a multiplicity of meanings, but two are more obvious than others.  The first is the romantic reading.  As a red rose has traditionally been associated with romantic love, dating at least as far back as Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose, Browning’s invocation of the rose can be seen as an intertextual framing that positions the poem as a romantic work.  In Roman de la Rose, the protagonist seeks to secure a rose, which is representative of love.  Browning’s work seems to look into the future of that narrative, and examines the fate of the rose once it’s been captured.  Since Lorris’s rose was a metaphor for the beloved, ‘The Dead Rose’ can be read to suggest that when a man ensnares a women, and limits her to the domestic sphere, he might suffocate her and deprive her of all that defined her.  This lends the work an ecofeminist reading.  Alternately, the poem has also been read as a metaphor for aging and the ravages of illness.  Browning, who herself took ill in her later years, was all too aware how one’s body would deteriorate.  Nature, then, offers lessons on the process of aging and the effects illness and disability.  In this way, the poem, aside from being very literal ecocritical piece, serves as an ecological metaphor that demonstrates the power of the language of nature.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Mist (1818), which many feels encapsulates themes associated with Romanticism.

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Mist (1818), which many feels encapsulates themes associated with Romanticism.

Though Browning’s ‘The Dead Rose’ may not have the spontaneity of free verse poetry like the British Romantics, or the American Transcendentalists, and though it’s rhyme scheme comes across as conventional, or even trite, and certainly held onto the artificial rules of classic poetry, the subject and spirit of the poem is very much aligned with the values of both Romanticism and Transcendentalism.  As such, it lends itself to an ecocritical reading given its praise of the natural realm and its critique of the human realm. Indeed, though Browning adheres to strict metre and rhyme, she challenges such constraints by noting how the rose, trapped within the borders of a drawer, was too constrained to survive, just as poetry was too restricted to grow within the boundaries of classic poetic forms. It is her spirit, though, not her from, that is most aligned with nature.  Browning speaks to nature, and challenges humanity’s anthropocentric view by speaking to the rose and making it the subject of the poem.  In cataloging the ways in which the human realm has destroyed the rose and contrasting them with the benefits that the natural realm brings to the rose, Browning further underscores the flaws of humanity’s anthropometric view, while framing the poem as an extended, ecological metaphor highlights the pedagogical value that is intrinsic within the natural sphere.  Though Browning was certainly not writing with an understanding of how the 21st century might read her poetry, her faithfulness to nature has helped her work transcend generational gaps and has ensured that new audiences will continue to find relevant meanings in it for generations to come. While not as iconic as her kitsch sonnets, Browning’s ‘The Dead Rose’ is certainly emblematic of the depth of talent she possessed.

 

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Works Cited

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. ‘The Dead Rose’.  Poem Hunter. Web. 1. Jan. 2016. <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-dead-rose/>

Feder Helena. “Ecocriticism, New Historicism, and Romantic Apostrophe.”  The Greening of Literary Scholarship: Literature, Theory, and the Environment.  Ed. Steven Rosendale.  Iowa: Univeristy of Iowa Press.  2002.  Print.

 

Lao Tzu.  Tao Te Ching.  Trans. Ursula K. LeGuin. Shambhala.  Boston. 1997.  Print.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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