About Roses


By Marielle Tawil

       Marianne Moore made me think about the predatory hand of violence that is guarding my mind. In her poem “Roses Only,” she points to the beauty, spirit, and brilliance that work in conjunction with our metaphorical and physical hands; as well as our attempts to what, and observations, of which, minute details may have a volatile potentiality. By making the form of the rose, that of a woman, Moore’s poem is a meditation on how to look beyond the surface level of people. Beyond that, she calls for an assertiveness and confidence that should come along with one’s own knowledge. H.D, another 20th century poet, regards her rose, as weak and disfigured, yet as an embodiment of power, and an exudation of a different type of strength. In her poem “Sea Rose,” she points to the subjectivity and a transience in the rose’s feminine beauty, that is exacerbated by the unpredictability of her surroundings. The rose is something seemingly so beautiful and perfect, but she- the symbol of the feminine- is struggling with a sense of self-hatred, a common proclivity of women. These poems work together, using the rose as their medium of conveyance, to send a message about femininity and self image, all while probing into the conventions that make women self-conscious.

You do not seem to realize that beauty is a liability rather than an asset

(Roses Only)

      Within the subject matters of defense, guard, and armor, this illuminates an idea beyond the notion of beautiful things having a “tougher time” than visible to the human eye. Beauty is a spirit, is a brilliance, is a brain. Liabilities lie in form, in attempts and observations. Liabilities also lie in hands, sometimes predatory ones, and in coordination. Beauty is a liability, not an asset. Liabilities lie in observations because of a slippery slope that can morph them into violence.

In view of the fact that spirit creates form we are

Justified in supposing

That you must have brains.

(Roses Only)

     In view of the fact that spirit creates form, that beauty and brilliance create observations, attempts, and predatory hands- we can assume that from the rose’s beauty she can and does create a particular type of form- one that is unequivocal yet perplexing at the same time.

For you, a symbol of the unit, stiff

And sharp

(Roses Only)

     She is thought to be beautiful, and enticing- by her lustrous petals, yet dangerous and stingy by – her thorns. The symbol of the unit, on a surface level, alludes to the rose’s thorns- “stiff and sharp.” Delving deeper, the symbol of the unit here, is the symbol of the rose’s brilliance and brains.

     In Maureen Mclane’s book, My Poets, she says that “Moore’s discursive, intricately intellected address,” reveals “ a supremely ironic yet sensitive intelligence: all bear down on the rose, that fated emblem of the feminine.” (Mclane, 76). Mclane goes on to say “This presumes that women have minds – which has long been doubtful.” (Mclane, 91).  To others, her thorns are dangerous, and in turn the rose is embarrassed of a part of herself. Since humankind has long doubted that women have minds-for her stiff and sharp “symbol of the unit,”–representative of her brains and brilliance–give her a self consciousness about her mind. Her thorns are guarding the infinitesimal pieces of her mind. The rose is watching, observing, but with caution, for the predatory hand of observation can easily morph into one of violence. The predatory hand, lies in her own mind; it is the harboring of her own thoughts and feelings that are deemed invalid by those around her. The rose is defensive, she’s guarding every minute, free floating aspect of her mind, because she does have a brain. Her thoughts can be volatile, and she doesn’t want you to know. She has intelligence, and she’s capable of;

surpassing by dint of native superiority and liking

     for everything

(Roses Only)

     Her “stiff and sharp” brain is conscious of transcending, by means of “native superiority.” This superiority Moore is talking about, is her beauty- which lie in her brains, and her spirit- which creates her form. Her disjointed, yet obvious form complicate her existence. Her form is that of the woman’s, made by the poet. As the symbol of the unit, she speaks volumes to the predicament of women in society; a tendency to second guess our brilliance and our minds. An inclination to dip into self-loathing, and a need to second guess our thoughts before we voice them.

For you, unaided, to attempt through sheer reserve to confute presumptions resulting from observations is idle

(Roses Only)

     When is it that observations and attempts turn into predatory hands of violence?  What are brains without attempt? Can brilliance exist without observation? If so, then can brilliance exist without violence? Equating observation as violence here is a very provocative notion. Simply by exercising her brain, watching, can she somehow induce some type of violence? Her “unaided,” “surpassing,” “form,” and “observation,” all contribute to her brilliance, but Moore says that her attempts to confute this is pointless:

You cannot make us think you a delightful happen-so

(Roses Only)

     Your brilliance, isn’t just a lovely, coincidental, occurrence, rose. Your thorns- or brains- are the essence of your brilliance.

     Associating observations with violence speaks volumes to what and how we choose to voice ourselves. Why are the thoughts of this gendered flower thought to be violent? Is that why we’re always morphing her into something against her will?

    Don’t despise your thorns, dearest rose, for they are apart of you, and contribute to your brains and brilliance. As the symbol of the feminine, the rose holds a self-consciousness about her appearance, her thorns.

You would look, minus

thorns – like a what-is-this, a mere


(Roses Only)


     Her thorns, however, are her brilliance. In turn, her self-consciousness, and maybe self-loathing, resonate in the power of her mind too.  

They {thorns} are not proof against a storm, the elements, or Mildew

But what about the predatory hand?

(Roses Only)

     Dear rose, your thorns aren’t going to protect you from these obvious elements, the worms or mildew. This line is uttering out at you over and over; the thorn is not a defense. But, what about the predatory hand? The hand, associated with brilliance, and brains, can it protect you?

What is brilliance without


(Roses Only)

     Suddenly the poet isn’t talking to the rose anymore. Somehow, the defensive element of the thorn protrudes into the spheres of “brilliance,” and “coordination.” Moore is asking us, what brilliance is without coordination. She is alluding to the free flowing connection of brilliance to brain and spirit, as well as coordination to form, the “predatory hand,” and observation. What is a brain without a hand? As in, the hand, to perform the act, be it predatory or not.

     The predatory hand may lie within her own self, within her thorns. For she is;

Guarding the

infinitesimal pieces of your mind, compelling audience to

The remark that it is better to be forgotten than to be

Remembered too violently,

(Roses Only)

     Instead of the rose showing her whole beauty, proud of her thorns alongside petals, she guards the “infinitesimal pieces of her mind.” Instead of speaking up, women are taught to shrink themselves. To have opinions, but not to be too loud about them. To have an appearance that is more beautiful and louder than her mind. There is a tension between the rose being overtly beautiful yet wanting to hide her beauty. It may be that she doesn’t know, as Moore does, that her thorns and her brain, are actually beautiful.

     According to Marianne Moore, the rose is brilliant, by means of her thorns; her defense, and her guards.

Your thorns are the best part of you

(Roses Only)

     There is a tension between the common misconception of the thorn as acting a guard, and the thorn as being a pointless aspect to the rose, and then it being the best part of her. Against her will, the rose is constantly being morphed into something new, by the poet. Her thorns are harsh- no, they are brilliant (per Marianne Moore), actually they are guarding her- against what? They are guarding her from the predatory hand of violence. As the “fated emblem of the feminine” (Mclane, 76), she is constantly reminded of the fact that she is deemed harsh, marred and stinted.

Rose, harsh rose,

(Sea Rose)


     “Helplessly feminized, the rose stands in English lyric as the most overburdened of flowers, always already written, but ready to be rewritten, reimagined as the “harsh rose,” the “stunted” rose, the “marred rose, the “sparse rose,” and not (for example) Burn’s fresh flower “newly sprung in June.” (Mclane, 74). Helplessly feminized, we think of her as precious, yet sparse. Her petals are gentle and elegant, yet her thorns exude sensations of violence. If she is brilliant and beautiful, though, she owes it to her predatory hand of violence. The rose becomes this incapable, and vulnerable symbol for gender. Embodying the physical form of the feminine, there is a skepticism in the fact that she has a mind. If she does have a mind, she has to prove it, and even then we are still doubtful. The evolution of the rose, transgresses evolution of knowledge, of femininity, of independence, and of brilliance. This gendered rose, represents strength and a probing into conventions.

The sea rose, according to H.D, is marred and with stint of petals,

A meagre flower, thin,

Sparse of leaf,

(Sea Rose)

Yet, H.D regards the sea rose as an elegant rarity;

More precious

Than a wet rose

(Sea Rose)

     The parched, miserly, and dessicated rose, is more precious than the traditional and cherished rose. Her shriveled form hints at a preservation of the past, of previous memories, previous forms of the rose-ness of a rose. Her fleeting beauty, that which makes this rose a rose, isn’t transparent anymore.

Single on a stem-

You are caught in the drift.

(Sea Rose)

      She is beautiful, and precious but she is caught in the drift. She is incapable of changing her environment, and her location is unstable. She has this potential- for beauty, and maybe brilliance- but she is stuck in this liminal space; fixed between the water and sand. She continues to get pushed around by that which is bigger than her;

You are flung on the sand,

You are lifted

In the crisp sand

That drives in the wind

(Sea Rose)

      The boundary of the water is constantly changing, with the ebb and flow of the tide. The standards a woman is held up to is constantly changing. Her beauty is held up to a certain standard, and if she doesn’t hold up to that standard, she is expected to change and move with the tide. Trying to find her place, she is deemed “harsh,” and “stunted,” and along the way she gets damaged. She cannot keep up with the change, as fast as humankind wants her to.

     She is lifted- levitated and suspended, yet again in another transitional space. She is thrown back into ground “In the crisp sand,” and yet that flooring underneath her isn’t even stable, for it is “driving in the wind.” The granular sand glides easily through our fingers, making it effortless to pull the sea rose out from her foundation.

Can the spice-rose

Drip such acrid fragrance

Hardened in a leaf?

(Sea Rose)

     The sea rose may be cracked, but her “acrid fragrance” is all the more powerful than that of the traditional “spice rose.” A woman’s mind is all the more powerful. The ranking of appearance is subjective, and ephemeral. The rose is beautiful- but that’s a liability for her, the rose has spirit, brains and brilliance, but that can easily morph into surpassing attempts and observations, which can turn into predatory hands of violence. Her thorns, she doesn’t like, but they are the best part of her. Until she lets her guard down, and reveals her thorns as proudly as her petals, we won’t know about her brilliance. Until brilliance is held up to as high a standard as beauty, we won’t know about your acrid fragrance.

     H.D’s rose is threatened by its own roots, and Moore’s rose is threatened by a predatory hand. What exactly is the predatory hand? How does this defense element enter into the spheres of brilliance and coordination? Can the brilliant hand protect you or will it rip you right out of the ground? The sand, the foundation that you trust so dearly, rose, will it fly up in the wind, leaving you defenseless to the elements of nature? The rose, symbolizing effervescent beauty, is always subject to an expiration date. Her petals will fade, and become cracked. Her thorns will protrude more harshly. Humankind is attracted to the feminine that is considered beautiful, and that which has an expiration date. But beauty is subjective, and beauty is a liability, and beauty doesn’t last forever. Her existence is constantly changing, and the part of her deemed beautiful can’t stay stagnant forever. Her thorns are actually tougher than her petals, and bound to last longer. Her mind is tougher than her beauty, her mind is her beauty. Themes of violence, predation, and defense emanate from this protective element of her thorns; but they are what mark the crux of her existence. The predatory hand, lies within her own self. The predatory hand- is her own brain, her own brilliance. The female conscious is beautiful, and if we let her show us, we may understand why her thorns are the best part of her.

Works Cited

D., H. “Sea Rose by H. D.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48188/sea-rose.

McLane, Maureen N. My Poets . Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

Moore, Marianne. “Roses Only.” PoemHunter.com, 15 Apr. 2010, www.poemhunter.com/poem/roses-only/.

Contact the author: Mt3306@nyu.edu