To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time: Allusions to the Past, a Message for the Present
In “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” the speaker asks the Rose to come near him while he sings of old Irish tales, such as Cuchulain’s fighting the sea, the Druid and Fergus, and the Rose’s own sadness. He again invites the Rose close to him but asks it to keep a certain distance so as to avoid losing sight of the real world. Intending to sing of times past, he addresses the Rose again in the final line. In this poem, William Butler Yeats asserts the importance of finding beauty without deluding oneself; his message is backwards-looking in some of its references and allusions, but is also informed by a timeless yet tempered optimism.
Through the symbol of the Rose, Yeats conveys the beauty of ancient Ireland. He begins the poem proclaiming, “Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!” (Yeats 1). As a traditional symbol of love and beauty, the Rose evokes Yeats’ nationalistic view of Ireland’s past to associate with his homeland that same beauty that the flower represents. The Roses’ red and proud qualities also express the pride Yeats’ himself carries for Ireland’s history. However, in describing it as “sad,” Yeats also raises the idea of the duality of the rose’s beauty: the flower represents eternal beauty with its symbolic meaning remaining constant and unwavering, yet it also hints at the fleeting nature of its beauty due to the short lives of individual roses. Because of this, the rose thus represents both constancy and impermanence. This conveys Yeats’ view of Irish culture, with its beauty transcending time while its physical existence comes to an end. He therefore celebrates Ireland’s history yet also mourns its passing, speaking of the sadness of ancient Ireland’s ending. The pessimistic view of the present thus displays his disdain for Ireland’s current state in contrast to the perfection of the past.
Yeats links the Rose to Irish mythology to emphasize the role of the symbol in embodying Ireland’s past. He references the legends of the mythological hero Cuchulain, the Druid, and Fergus. The mythological figures allude to Ireland’s history and culture that the speaker wishes to recall. In developing the symbol of the Rose with these allusions, Yeats creates a clear association of ancient Ireland with eternal beauty. This connection demonstrates the power and strength characteristic of Cuchulain and Fergus that Yeats finds in Ireland, but it also recalls their tragic ends that mirror Ireland’s own. Cuchulain accidentally kills his son and, distraught from learning of his mistake, tries in vain to fight the sea; Fergus, having made a deal with his brother’s widow permitting her son to rule for one year in exchange for her hand in marriage, finds himself betrayed and eventually exiled. A reminder of not only the greatness of these figures but also of their demise, the allusions develop a similar duality as that of the Rose: Yeats perceives the greatness of Ireland’s past as well as the tragic state of its present.
Euphony in the phrases associated with the Rose creates a pleasant, lyrical feeling surrounding the Rose. The first line of the poem contains almost entirely soft sounds, particularly with the repeated euphonic consonant r. The only hard consonant comes from “proud,” and still an r immediately follows the p to soften it. This establishes from the beginning the harmonious sounds associated with the Rose. The alliteration in the first stanza further creates euphony, as Yeats describes the “stars… dancing silver-sandalled on the sea” (6-7). Not only are all the words in this phrase euphonious, but the repeated s sound also contributes the overall pleasant sound of the poem. The first stanza also ends with the Rose “wandering on her way” (12). The alliteration in “wandering” and “way” creates euphony through both the consonant w and the vowel sounds in the phrase, thus developing the beauty of the Rose and of ancient Ireland to convey Yeats’ loving tone toward Ireland’s history. Additionally, the structure of the poem, written in heroic couplets with exact rhymes, also creates euphony. The rhythm and rhyme of this structure offer a pleasant regularity that remains consistent throughout the poem. Through euphony, Yeats continues to create a pleasing, even nostalgic, effect in relation to the Rose and Ireland’s past.
Yeats also establishes a level of intimacy with the Rose through personification of the symbol. He continually asks the Rose to approach him, and he describes it “wandering” (12). In ascribing human qualities to the flower, Yeats highlights the realness of its beauty. In this way, he connects the speaker of the poem with the Rose, bringing them closer to reveal the strength of the Rose’s beauty. Personification therefore emphasizes Yeats’ nationalistic perception of the beautiful past of Ireland. Through the motif of time, Yeats creates a prideful yet melancholy tone toward the past. He declares the Rose lasts through “all my days” and that he finds “in all poor foolish things that live a day / Eternal beauty” (1, 11-12). This indicates the enduring significance of the Rose, which serves as a perpetual symbol throughout his life that will continue to hold meaning until the end of his days. These references to such length of time reflect the lasting meaning of the rose as a symbol of beauty to demonstrate Yeats’ constant love for ancient Ireland. The optimistic tone in speaking of the ability to find this type of “eternal beauty” also conveys Yeats’ hopeful tone with regards to the attempt to manifest the past in the present Ireland. He continues to outline Ireland’s “ancient ways,” with the colon pointing to Cuchulain, Fergus, and the Druid (2). This modifies “ancient ways” to denote Ireland’s mythological heroic tradition, which Yeats views with pride, but also with despondency, knowing that he cannot recreate Ireland’s past as he wishes.
The repetition of the phrase “Come here” expresses the speaker’s desire to be close to the Rose. He states it twice in the first stanza, and repetition emphasizes his earlier sentiment to affirm his desire for the Rose’s proximity. In the opening of the second stanza though, he repeats the phrase three times in succession, contrasting to the other repetitions of “come near” that occur in isolation. In this line, the phrase signifies a significant shift in the poem that directly follows, and the repetition of it creates a buildup of intensity in his desire for the Rose, until the dash and the exclamation “Ah” counters the original request, causing that passion to rapidly dissipate. The speaker realizes that he cannot allow such close proximity to the Rose, that he can no longer delude himself with such an idealistic wish of fully immersing himself in the past. This development within the single line reflects the shift in the whole poem from the previous stanza exploring the beauty of the past to the second one examining human mortality. Yeats transitions from a joyful attitude to a more solemn one as he understands that the Rose cannot come too close to him.
Following the realization that the speaker must maintain a distance from the Rose, the motif of time evolves into one of mortality, a reminder of an eventual ending. Yeats offers details of the “weak worm” and “field-mouse,” which represent common, mortal beings, as well as the “heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass” that directly addresses the bleak mortality of human existence that dashes man’s wishes (16-18). All three represent characteristics of the mortal life. In contrast to the triplet to which “ancient ways” refers in the first stanza, they provide only disappointing signs of the mortal reality in contrast to the speaker’s mythological ideals about the past. This creates a disenchanting effect, confronting the speaker with the reality that prevents him from reaching the past.
As the poem ends in a manner nearly identical to its first lines in reverse order, this repetition mirrors the movement to the past the speaker desires to demonstrate the ultimate inability to return to the past. The speaker once again asks the Rose to “come near” (22). This time, however, with the prospect of returning to the past already established as an impossibility, the invitation to approach reflects the importance of appreciating the eternal idea of beauty in the temporarily beautiful. While these last lines continue to celebrate the past, they do so not because of the disheartening appearance of the present, but because of the need to find beauty in the present. The “sad Rose” now expresses the perpetual conflict between yearning for the Rose and the need to relinquish it. Due to the discussion on mortality, “all my days” now evokes the inevitable end to the human life whereas in the first line, it offers a more cheerful outlook on the longevity of human existence. The change in punctuation also furthers this shift, as the first line ends with an exclamation mark while the last line finishes with a period, displaying the contrast between earlier joy and later pensiveness as the speaker accepts that he can never relive the past.
The final line of the poem, as an exact replication of the first excluding punctuation, also demonstrates the speaker’s inability to truly reach his goal, as at the end of the poem, he arrives at the same place he began, only more solemn in his wishes. However, the repetition nevertheless conveys the same love for the Rose present from the beginning. Accepting the limits of reality, the speaker still continues to see the eternal beauty of the Rose. Thus, William Butler Yeats asserts the importance of finding beauty without deluding oneself in “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time.” The poem expresses the need to appreciate the past without seeking to recreate it, to appreciate immortal beauty in the mortal. Warning against the dangers of delusion, Yeats urges one to discover the greatness of all that exists in the world, in spite of what does exist.
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