The Rose Family
“The Rose Family”
The rose is a rose
And was always a rose
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose
And the pear is and so’s
The plum I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You of course are a rose,
But were always a rose.
Frost collected “The Rose Family” first in his 1928 volume, West-Running Brook. The title of the poem tells us at once what it is to be about—affiliation, let’s say, in O.E.D. sense 2. d.: “Relationship, esp. as perceived within a group of similar things thought to have derived from a common source: AFFINITY. Chiefly Philol.” And likely also—though subsidiarily—in O.E.D. sense 3, chiefly in its figurative extension: “The fixing of the paternity of a child. Also fig. The fathering of a thing upon any one; and, the assignment of anything to its origin.”
These are all matters of concern to a poet for any number of reasons, all of which, as it so happens, are engaged in “The Rose Family”: prosody (affiliations derived from rhyme and meter); metaphor (similitude in dissimilitude: i.e., affiliation, or “family” resemblance); families and the making of them (this is a love poem, after all); allusion, i.e., the grafting of one text into another (at least, if the oft-made assumption that Frost alludes to Gertrude Stein in this poem is, in fact, true); and, yes, botany. I’ll address first “affiliations” prosodic and more or less poetical, and then get to the harder stuff—the botany.
It would be difficult to imagine a more closely “affiliated” set of lines than these: 10 lines, 1 rhyme sound. And of the rhymes, 6 are in fact repetends: “rose.” As for the meter, the lines fall neatly into a two-stress meter of some sort, though the syllables vary in number from 5 (lines one and six) to 6 (all the others). It is possible to read “dear” in line 7 as two syllables, in which case 8 of 10 lines would be 6-syllable, two-stress lines. We might as well call the meter a loose sort of “anapestic dimeter” and have done with it, allowing for our two 5-syllable lines to bear, with ease, their trochaic substitutions in the initial positions, and a few other such minor variations. So much for the jargon of prosody, then.
What, next, of the possibility that Frost wishes to call to mind, by allusion, Gertrude Stein’s most famous line in print? “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” Stein writes in “Sacred Emily,” a playfully experimental poem collected in Geography and Plays (1922). Here it is not clear, is not supposed to be clear, whether that initial “Rose” is a name or not. The Wikipedians—and here the sound of the entry suggests to my mind a genuine scholar of Stein—tell us this:
“Gertrude Stein’s repetitive language can be said to refer to the changing quality of language in time and history. She herself said to an audience at Oxford University that the statement referred to the fact that when the Romantics used the word ‘rose’ it had a direct relationship to an actual rose. For later periods in literature this would no longer be true. The eras following romanticism, notably the modern era, use the word rose to refer to the actual rose, yet they also imply, through the use of the word, the archetypal elements of the romantic era.” Frost may well have his wink at Stein in “The Rose Family.” But he does something with the old Romantic equations that the Romantics seldom (if ever) did: deal, and very strictly at that, as we shall see, in botany.
By which I mean he achieves (as does Stein in her different way) his escape velocity from whatever orbits the Romantic poets put the word “rose” into. A thing well worth the doing, I should add. So let us leave the question as to whether Frost “affiliates” his enterprise in “The Rose Family” with Stein’s in “Sacred Emily” unanswered. I am fairly sure he doesn’t have the poem proper in mind; I doubt he ever read it. But of Stein’s dictum he could hardly have been unaware. It was a shot heard round the world, such that she herself couldn’t achieve escape velocity from it (she would use it in a number of other texts, and speak of it often in public—precisely because people often asked her about it).
Now, Frost rarely writes in triplet meters (such as anapests), and when he does the result is striking: in this case striking for its whimsy. Because soon enough we find that he is messing with us again, “rumpling our brains,” as he liked to say in his later years.
I will put my finger on the real mischief: namely, the possibility that the two statements “The apple’s a rose” and “You, of course, are a rose” might differ much less in kind than we—or anyway, many non-pragmatic scientists—suppose. The first statement (“the apple’s a rose”) belongs to the discourse of botany, and we are not accustomed to thinking of it as, say, a “metaphor.” We rather think of it as a statement of “fact,” or something like that anyway. Whereas the second statement (“You, of course, are a rose / But were always a rose”) belongs to the discourse of love poetry, and carries us back to Robert Burns, with his love “like a red, red rose,” among many other places. It is probably beside the point—or is it?—in discussing this poem about loves like “roses” that Frost, of course, had “family” in Burns’ native land; his mother, Isabelle Moodie, was born in Alloa, Scotland, in 1844. In any case, we can without hesitation call that second statement—”You, of course, are a rose”—a “metaphor.” And equally without hesitation add that “love poetry” has everything to do with affiliation, with family, and with filial things generally. West-Running Brook was, of course, dedicated to the poet’s wife.
But then we must deal with lines 7 and 8: “The dear only knows / What will next prove a rose.” Here, all sorts of wonder follows. Here, our distinctions between statements “metaphorical” and statements of “fact” begin to blur. Here, all our taxonomies are thrown into disarray. For, yes, our taxonomies are mutable. From the pragmatists‘ point of view, a “taxonomy,” whether botanical or otherwise, is simply a scheme laid over, as William James would say in Pragmatism, the “the flux of our sensations” as the world delivers them up—and laid over it for essentially practical human purposes. The “flux” itself isn’t held firmly either by or in our taxonomies. Which takes us into the botany of “The Rose Family.”
Our Wikipedians explain the matter as follows (and here I highlight in bold red those qualifying, hedging terms that give sense to lines 7-8 of the poem: “The dear only knows / What will next prove a rose”):
“The Rosaceae or rose family is a large family of plants, with about 3000 species in 100 genera (according to the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens). The name is derived from the genus Rosa. The largest genera are Sorbus, Crataegus and Cotoneaster (more or less 260 species each). While the boundaries of Rosaceae are not disputed, there is not general agreement as to how many genera it should be divided into. Areas of divergent opinion include the treatment of Potentilla s.l. and Sorbus s.l. Apomixis is common in several genera, including Cotoneaster, Crataegus, Rubus and Sorbus. This results in an uncertainty in the number of species in the family, due to the difficulty of dividing apomictic complexes into species. Cotoneaster contains between 70 and 300 species, Crataegus between 200 and 1,000, Rubus hundreds, or possibly thousands, of species, and Sorbus 100 to 200 species. Alchemilla contains around 300, Potentilla around 500 species, and Rosa around 100, including the taxonomically complex dog roses.”
Leaving our Wikipedians behind, we read the following in the on-line Tree Encylopedia (again I highlight in bold red the hedging sorts of phrases pertinent to the poem we are reading here): “The Rosaceae or rose family is a large family of plants, with about 3,000-4,000 species in 100-160 genera. Traditionally it has been divided into four subfamilies: Rosoideae, Spiraeoideae, Maloideae, and Amygdaloideae. These subfamilies are primarily diagnosed by the structure of the fruits, although this approach is not followed universally. Recent work has identified that the traditional four subfamilies are not all monophyletic, but the structure of the family is still awaiting complete resolution“—which latter fact is, of course, what Frost makes mischief with in his little poem.
The “rose family” at present is said to include, among many other plants, the following, which I name here for sake of their naming: Adams Crabapple – Malus ‘Adams’, American Mountain-ash – Sorbus americana, American Plum – Prunus americana var. lanata, Amur Cherry – Prunus maackii, Amur Mountain-ash – Sorbus amurensis, Birch-leaved Pear Tree – Pyrus betulaefolia, Black Cherry – Prunus serotina, Burgundy Crabapple – Malus ‘Burgundy’, Callery Pear – Pyrus calleryana var. dimorphophylla, Cherry Trees, Chinese Mountain-ash – Sorbus pohaushanensis, Cockspur Hawthorn – Crataegus crus-galli, Crabapple – Malus flexilus, Crabapple, Adirondack – Malus ‘Adirondack’, Crabapple, American Masterpiece™ – Malus ‘Amaszam’ (the latter trademarked no less: an “American Masterpiece”), Crabapple, Bob White – Malus ‘Bob White’, Crabapple, Christmas Holly – Malus ‘Chrishozam’, Crabapple, Dolgo – Malus ‘Dolgo’, Crabapple, Henning – Malus ‘Henningi’, Crabapple, Japanese Flowering – Malus floribunda, Crabapple, Jewelberry – Malus ‘Jewelberry’, Crabapple, Klehm Prairie – Malus ioensis ‘Klehmii’, Crabapple, Liset – Malus ‘Liset’, Crabapple, Mary Potter – Malus ‘Mary Potter’, Crabapple, Ormiston Roy – Malus ‘Ormiston Roy’ , Crabapple, Perfect Purple™ – Malus ‘Coppurple’ (note the trademark, again: we are engendering ourselves into/onto the rose family, many members of which already bear the quaint human stain of both given and surnames), Crabapple, Pink Spires – Malus ‘Pink Spires’, Crabapple, Prairie Maid – Malus ‘Prairie Maid’, Crabapple, Professor Sprenger – Malus ‘Professor Sprenger’ (here, we have a surname + a title super-added, perhaps out of pedagogical homage), Crabapple, Purple Prince – Malus ‘Purple Prince’, Crabapple, Red Jewel – Malus ‘Red Jewel’, Crabapple, Strawberry Parfait – Malus ‘Strawberry Parfait’, and, well, many more than I wish or need to name here. Though I will list one more for the happy ordinariness of its given name, which I hereby set loose for any novelist under whose eyes this page may pass, to use for a protagonist: Donald Wyman Crabapple – Malus ‘Donald Wyman’.
Of course, the instability of our taxonomies is as old as our taxonomies, and Frost was hardly the first to point this out, as he well knew—nor the first to point it out with wit and good humor. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin writes as follows (and I highlight the more salient passages in blue):
In determining whether a form should be ranked as a species or a variety, the opinion of naturalists having sound judgment and wide experience seems the only guide to follow. We must, however, in many cases, decide by a majority of naturalists, for few well-marked and well-known varieties can be named which have not been ranked as species by at least some competent judges. That varieties of this doubtful nature are far from uncommon cannot be disputed. Compare the several floras of Great Britain, of France or of the United States, drawn up by different botanists, and see what a surprising number of forms have been ranked by one botanist as good species, and by another as mere varieties. Mr. H. C. Watson, to whom I lie under deep obligation for assistance of all kinds, has marked for me 182 British plants, which are generally considered as varieties, but which have all been ranked by botanists as species; and in making this list he has omitted many trifling varieties, but which nevertheless have been ranked by some botanists as species, and he has entirely omitted several highly polymorphic genera. Under genera, including the most polymorphic forms, Mr. Babington gives 251 species, whereas Mr. Bentham gives only 112,—a difference of 139 doubtful forms! Amongst animals which unite for each birth, and which are highly locomotive, doubtful forms, ranked by one zoologist as a species and by another as a variety, can rarely be found within the same country, but are common in separated areas.
How many of those birds and insects in North America and Europe, which differ very slightly from each other, have been ranked by one eminent naturalist as undoubted species, and by another as varieties, or, as they are often called, as geographical races! Many years ago, when comparing, and seeing others compare, the birds from the separate islands of the Galapagos Archipelago, both one with another, and with those from the American mainland, I was much struck by how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between species and varieties. On the islets of the little Madeira group there are many insects which are characterized as varieties in Mr. Wollaston’s admirable work, but which it cannot be doubted would be ranked as distinct species by many entomologists. Even Ireland has a few animals, now generally regarded as varieties, but which have been ranked as species by some zoologists. Several most experienced ornithologists consider our British red grouse as only a strongly-marked race of a Norwegian species, whereas the greater number rank it as an undoubted species peculiar to Great Britain. A wide distance between the homes of two doubtful forms leads many naturalists to rank both as distinct species; but what distance, it has been well asked, will suffice? if that between America and Europe is ample, will that between the Continent and the Azores, or Madeira, or the Canaries, or Ireland, be sufficient? It must be admitted that many forms, considered by highly-competent judges as varieties, have so perfectly the character of species that they are ranked by other highly-competent judges as good and true species. But to discuss whether they are rightly called species or varieties, before any definition of these terms has been generally accepted, is vainly to beat the air. Many of the cases of strongly-marked varieties or doubtful species well deserve consideration; for several interesting lines of argument, from geographical distribution, analogical variation, hybridism, etc., have been brought to bear on the attempt to determine their rank. I will here give only a single instance,—the well-known one of the primrose and cowslip, or Primula veris and elatior. These plants differ considerably in appearance; they have a different flavour and emit a different odour; they flower at slightly different periods; they grow in somewhat different stations; they ascend mountains to different heights; they have different geographical ranges; and lastly, according to very numerous experiments made during several years by that most careful observer Gartner, they can be crossed only with much difficulty. We could hardly wish for better evidence of the two forms being specifically distinct. On the other hand, they are united by many intermediate links, and it is very doubtful whether these links are hybrids; and there is, as it seems to me, an overwhelming amount of experimental evidence, showing that they descend from common parents, and consequently must be ranked as varieties. Close investigation, in most cases, will bring naturalists to an agreement how to rank doubtful forms. Yet it must be confessed, that it is in the best-known countries that we find the greatest number of forms of doubtful value. I have been struck with the fact, that if any animal or plant in a state of nature be highly useful to man, or from any cause closely attract his attention, varieties of it will almost universally be found recorded. These varieties, moreover, will be often ranked by some authors as species. Look at the common oak, how closely it has been studied; yet a German author makes more than a dozen species out of forms, which are very generally considered as varieties; and in this country the highest botanical authorities and practical men can be quoted to show that the sessile and pedunculated oaks are either good and distinct species or mere varieties. When a young naturalist commences the study of a group of organisms quite unknown to him, he is at first much perplexed to determine what differences to consider as specific, and what as varieties; for he knows nothing of the amount and kind of variation to which the group is subject; and this shows, at least, how very generally there is some variation. But if he confine his attention to one class within one country, he will soon make up his mind how to rank most of the doubtful forms. His general tendency will be to make many species, for he will become impressed, just like the pigeon or poultry-fancier before alluded to, with the amount of difference in the forms which he is continually studying; and he has little general knowledge of analogical variation in other groups and in other countries, by which to correct his first impressions. As he extends the range of his observations, he will meet with more cases of difficulty; for he will encounter a greater number of closely-allied forms. But if his observations be widely extended, he will in the end generally be enabled to make up his own mind which to call varieties and which species; but he will succeed in this at the expense of admitting much variation,—and the truth of this admission will often be disputed by other naturalists. When, moreover, he comes to study allied forms brought from countries not now continuous, in which case he can hardly hope to find the intermediate links between his doubtful forms, he will have to trust almost entirely to analogy, and his difficulties will rise to a climax. Certainly no clear line of demarcation has as yet been drawn between species and sub-species—that is, the forms which in the opinion of some naturalists come very near to, but do not quite arrive at the rank of species; or, again, between sub-species and well-marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage.
This is the sort of thing Frost had in view when he wrote “The Rose Family.” Just as likely he also had the following in mind from Pragmatism, by William James. Again, I highlight salient passages in blue:
Hence, even in the field of sensation, our minds exert a certain arbitrary choice. By our inclusions and omissions we trace the field’s extent; by our emphasis we mark its foreground and its background; by our order we read it in this direction or in that. We receive in short the block of marble, but we carve the statue ourselves. This applies to the ‘eternal’ parts of reality as well: we shuffle our perceptions of intrinsic relation and arrange them just as freely. We read them in one serial order or another, class them in this way or in that, treat one or the other as more fundamental, until our beliefs about them form those bodies of truth known as logics, geometries, or arithmetics, [or botany, we might well add,] in each and all of which the form and order in which the whole is cast is flagrantly man-made. Thus, to say nothing of the new FACTS which men add to the matter of reality by the acts of their own lives, they have already impressed their mental forms on that whole third of reality which I have called ‘previous truths.’ Every hour brings its new percepts, its own facts of sensation and relation, to be truly taken account of; but the whole of our PAST dealings with such facts is already funded in the previous truths. It is therefore only the smallest and recentest fraction of the first two parts of reality that comes to us without the human touch, and that fraction has immediately to become humanized in the sense of being squared, assimilated, or in some way adapted, to the humanized mass already there. As a matter of fact we can hardly take in an impression at all, in the absence of a pre-conception of what impressions there may possibly be. When we talk of reality ‘independent’ of human thinking, then, it seems a thing very hard to find. It reduces to the notion of what is just entering into experience, and yet to be named, or else to some imagined aboriginal presence in experience, before any belief about the presence had arisen, before any human conception had been applied. It is what is absolutely dumb and evanescent, the merely ideal limit of our minds. We may glimpse it, but we never grasp it; what we grasp is always some substitute for it which previous human thinking has peptonized and cooked for our consumption. If so vulgar an expression were allowed us, we might say that wherever we find it, it has been already FAKED. This is what Mr. Schiller has in mind when he calls independent reality a mere unresisting [u lambda nu, or Greek for ‘matter/material’], which IS only to be made over by us.
I freely admit to having brought to bear on Frost’s small poem a very great deal of data, and of text. But my point is that he brings them to bear on us—here, and any number of other poems one might name that have their grounds in pragmatism and in Darwin. “The dear only knows / What will next prove a rose,” Frost says, knowing full well not simply that the Jamesian “flux” admits of no final vocabularies, no final taxonomies, but knowing also that we have, as I said above in passing, engendered ourselves onto and into the “rose family.” Hence those trademarks for certain varieties of plants within the family “Rosaceae.” And any good Darwinist knows that varieties may become species and run—who knows?—clear out of the “families” into which we thought we had them fixed. And not by natural selection only. Also by artificial selection—as, again, those trademarks attest—of the kind we’ve been engaged in ever since we ceased “hunting and gathering” and made ourselves “agri-cultural” rather than merely natural.
I recur again to James, in Pragmatism: “The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything,” he writes. “Truth independent; truth that we FIND merely; truth no longer malleable to human need; truth incorrigible, in a word; such truth exists indeed superabundantly—or is supposed to exist by rationalistically minded thinkers; but then it means only the dead heart of the living tree, and its being there means only that truth also has its paleontology and its ‘prescription,’ and may grow stiff with years of veteran service and petrified in men’s regard by sheer antiquity. But how plastic even the oldest truths nevertheless really are has been vividly shown in our day by the transformation of logical and mathematical ideas, a transformation which seems even to be invading physics.” Let’s say that Frost’s little poem concerns how the “trail of the human serpent” marks even the “rose family.”
And I like to suppose—if only on a whim, so to speak—that Frost may as well have been thinking of Andrew Marvell‘s “The Mower Against Gardens,” as of any other text I’ve so far mentioned or quoted, though in truth I doubt he was:
LUXURIOUS man, to bring his vice in use,
Did after him the world seduce,
And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,
Where Nature was most plain and pure.
He first inclosed within the gardens square
A dead and standing pool of air,
And a more luscious earth for them did knead,
Which stupefied them while it fed.
The pink grew then as double as his mind;
The nutriment did change the kind.
With strange perfumes he did the roses taint;
And flowers themselves were taught to paint.
The tulip white did for complexion seek,
And learned to interline its cheek;
Its onion root they then so high did hold,
That one was for a meadow sold:
Another world was searched through oceans new,
To find the marvel of Peru;
And yet these rarities might be allowed
To man, that sovereign thing and proud,
Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,
Forbidden mixtures there to see.
Marvell’s “mower” takes special aim at the infamous obsession with the tulip in the 17th century. But Frost, who was something more than merely an amateur pomologist, knew what it meant to “deal between the bark and tree” to bring plants into “use”—again, into use for human purposes, for human interests, whether purposes and interests of profit or pleasure or of mere curiosity.
In any case, and to sum up: “The Rose Family” appears to have three purposes, or to be up to three kinds of mischief. The first is to put all our taxonomies, as Darwin and James do, into contingency, into time. The second is to put those taxonomies into a “humanistic” or “pragmatic” category—to show that everywhere they bear the “trail of the human serpent,” as James so memorably puts it. Our taxonomies do not “mirror” nature; they allow us to do things with it and to it. This brings science at least part way over into the humanities, if I may put it that way, and, again, makes statements such as “the apple’s a rose” rather more like the statement “you are a rose” than science might want or expect them to be. The poem unsettles our happy distinctions between, say, “metaphor” and “fact.” The poem simply is what Frost means, in his best known essay, an “education by metaphor”: “Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have,” Frost writes. And he continues:
Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections—whether from diffidence or some other instinct. I have wanted in late years to go further and further in making metaphor the whole of thinking. I find someone now and then to agree with me that all thinking, except mathematical thinking, is metaphorical, or all thinking except scientific thinking. The mathematical might be difficult for me to bring in, but the scientific is easy enough. Once on a time all the Greeks were busy telling each other what the All was—or was like unto. All was three elements, air, earth, and water (we once thought it was ninety elements; now we think it is only one). All was substance, said another. All was change, said a third. But best and most fruitful was Pythagoras‘ comparison of the universe with number. Number of what? Number of feet, pounds, and seconds was the answer, and we had science and all that has followed in science. The metaphor has held and held, breaking down only when it came to the spiritual and psychological or the out of the way places of the physical. The other day we had a visitor here, a noted scientist, whose latest word to the world has been that the more accurately you know where a thing is, the less accurately you are able to state how fast it is moving. You can see why that would be so, without going back to Zeno’s problem of the arrow’s flight. In carrying numbers into the realm of space and at the same time into the realm of time you are mixing metaphors, that is all, and you are in trouble. They won’t mix. The two don’t go together. Let’s take two or three more of the metaphors now in use to live by. I have just spoken of one of the new ones, a charming mixed metaphor right in the realm of higher mathematics and higher physics: that the more accurately you state where a thing is, the less accurately you will be able to tell how fast it is moving. And, of course, everything is moving. Everything is an event now. Another metaphor. A thing, they say, is an event. Do you believe it is? Not quite. I believe it is almost an event. But I like the comparison of a thing with an event. I notice another from the same quarter. “In the neighborhood of matter space is something like curved.” Isn’t that a good one! It seems to me that that is simply and utterly charming—to say that space is something like curved in the neighborhood of matter. “Something like.” Another amusing one is from—what is the book?—I can’t say it now; but here is the metaphor. Its aim is to restore you to your ideas of free will. It wants to give you back your freedom of will. All right, here it is on a platter. You know that you can’t tell by name what persons in a certain class will be dead ten years after graduation, but you can tell actuarially how many will be dead. Now, just so this scientist says of the particles of matter flying at a screen, striking a screen; you can’t tell what individual particles will come, but you can say in general that a certain number will strike in a given time. It shows, you see, that the individual particles can come freely.
I asked Bohr about that particularly, and he said, “Yes, it is so. It can come when it wills and as it wills; and the action of the individual particle is unpredictable. But it is not so of the action of the mass. There you can predict.” He says, “That gives the individual atom its freedom, but the mass its necessity.” Another metaphor that has interested us in our time and has done all our thinking for us is the metaphor of evolution. Never mind going into the Latin word. The metaphor is simply the metaphor of the growing plant or of the growing thing. And somebody very brilliantly, quite a while ago, said that the whole universe, the whole of everything, was like unto a growing thing. That is all. I know the metaphor will break down at some point, but it has not failed everywhere. It is a very brilliant metaphor, I acknowledge, though I myself get too tired of the kind of essay that talks about the evolution of candy, we will say, or the evolution of elevators—the evolution of this, that, and the other. Everything is evolution. I emancipate myself by simply saying that I didn’t get up the metaphor and so am not much interested in it.
“What I am pointing out,” Frost says by way of summing up, “is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.” And so it is—for a good Darwinian pragmatist.
But finally, “The Rose Family” charms us (or charms me anyway) for how it works as a love poem: “You, of course, are a rose,” we read at the end. The person addressed, here, is the poet’s lover, of course. And what follows upon love in Frost’s poetry are, as often as not, families.