A flower was offerd to me;
Such a flower as May never bore.
But I said I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree,
And passed the sweet flower o’er.
Then I went to my Pretty Rose-tree;
To tend her by day and by night.
But my Rose turnd away with jealousy:
And her thorns were my only delight.
Let’s see if we can learn anything from William Blake's "My Pretty Rose-Tree" by reading and interpreting it one line at a time as if we were looking at it through a narrow horizontal peephole.
This process may be as annoying as trying to determine why a joke is funny before getting to the punch line, but it’ll also slow us down and encourage us to linger on words and images and ponder them, instead of racing through it as if it were some sort of an assignment in an English class.
Let’s do it:
“A flower was offerd to me”
|Our poem along w/ its sister flowers|
In what voice is this line written? What is “voice” anyway? Has some smart-alecky English teacher ever said to you, “Passive voice is not to be used by you”? See, that’s funny, because she used passive voice to warn you against its use. Passive voice can take the doer out of the sentence. “Mistakes have been made” doesn’t tell us who made them. “There is much work to be done” doesn’t tell us who must do it.
Had Blake written his first line in active voice, we would at least know that someone offered him the flower, and preferably a name or title would be attached to that someone: “A friend offered me a flower” or “Hank offered me a flower.” But no. The giver will remain mysterious. We’ll see if that matters.
Why is “offerd” spelled that way? We’ve taken the poem from a text in which the editor has chosen to be faithful to Blake’s spelling. Probably this was Blake’s way of discouraging us from accenting the “-ed," which would've thrown off his meter.
What about the “flower”? It’s too early to say if it’s a literal or symbolic flower. Only if we knew for sure Blake was, say, a symbolic poet who loathed nature poetry could we speculate about what the flower stands for. What if he’s an imagist, and the flower is purely a flower for its own sake? Let’s hold off and see if we get help from the poem.
“Such a flower as May never bore”
Good. This line seems to have anticipated our question about the flower. The answer to “what kind of flower” is the kind “May never bore.” Why May?
Velma: Because flowers bloom in May?
Yes. Do you have a cliché to go with that observation?
Velma: April showers bring May flowers.
Good one. May is in what season? [Aside to readers, should there be any: Many high-school seniors do not know the answer to this question. Months and seasons are not part of state standards, apparently.]
If we use May to stand for all of spring, that’s called . . . ?
Myrtle: Isn’t that the one that means the part for a whole, synuh-something?
Synecdoche. You’re close, Myrtle. Someone give me a sample. Cecil?
Cecil: When someone likes your shirt and she says “Nice threads.” Or if they like your car, they’re all "Nice wheels." Also, "all hands on deck" or "forty head of cattle."
Yes, yes, that’s enough, Cecil. Good examples. So are we saying Blake uses May as a synecdoche for spring? Do flowers ever bloom in other seasons?
Yes. This is Florida, for godsake. Look out the window. Hibiscuses are blooming right now. So May must be a synecdoche for more than spring, perhaps extending to Nature’s flower-bearing capacity as a whole.
The flower offered to the narrator, then, is one that Nature never bears. Do you take that as a positive or a negative description? Voncile, go.
Voncile: Negative, because the flowers that nature bears are all good.
Eunice: But it could be positive, like, sure, all of nature’s flowers are good, but this one is even better than them.
Eustace: Maybe he's saying this flower doesn’t wilt and die.
I like it. If it’s not a flower from Nature, maybe we should start considering it a symbol. For beauty? Could be. Their beauty makes them apt tokens of affection or gratitude, and as gifts to commemorate special occasions, or to express remorse and ask forgiveness.
Did the narrator do something to deserve the flower? Graduate? Get married? Get a job? He must've been given the flower for a reason, but the narrator isn't saying.
At this point we agree that the flower’s nature is ambiguous. Could be a good thing, could be a bad thing. Later we’ll see if Blake makes us choose a side. How many of you think the narrator will accept the flower? Most of you? Sure, why wouldn’t he? Next line please!
“But I said I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree”
Looks like he’s not going to take it. Why not?
Merton: He already has a pretty rose-tree.
So there’s not room for both?
Merton: Apparently not. He seems to think he can’t keep both.
Is there something about the flower itself that would keep him from accepting it? No. What can be said so far about the rose tree?
Anabel: It’s pretty.
Is that good?
Anabel: Yes. Pretty. Of course it's good.
Couldn’t he be a bit more flattering? Think of some stronger adjectives for attractiveness.
Russell: Drop-dead gorgeous. Hot. Foxy. Beautiful. Stunning.
Great. So when we distinguish “pretty” from those other possibilities we are analyzing the poet’s diction or word choice – this word, and not that word. This is also called paradigmatical analysis in which we picture the artist with a toolbox full of options for a particular slot.
All the options will work without changing the meaning, but only one will add the precise shading or connotation she’s looking for.
So. The only other thing we know about the rose tree so far is “’ve.”
Choral response, conveying class's incredulousness tinged with benevolent outrage: What?!
“’ve,” as in “I’ve.” We know the narrator has a rose tree. The rose tree is pretty, and the narrator possesses it. Please note, by the way, that we’re not calling the speaker “Blake,” but “the narrator” For the most part, it’s safer to consider the narrator as a creation of the poet, and not the poet himself.
After three lines, how many of you think the poem is about flowers? No one? So you think it’s a symbolic poem with the flower and the rose tree standing for themselves but also something beyond themselves? Someone take a shot at it.
Wilborn: The flower’s a skank, and the rose tree is a wife.
A skank? That’s pretty harsh.
Wilborn: Well, the narrator’s married to a rose tree and the flower is trying to tempt him away.
You know, if someone walked in and heard us talking about flowers like this they’d think we were stark raving mad. But I know what you’re saying. Who else thinks the rose tree is the wife and why?
Alva: Because a tree has roots and is more permanent. Plus she can keep on making roses year after year, while the flower is a one-time deal.
Even a “flower as May never bore”?
Alva: Okay, maybe it’s more than a one-time deal, but it’s still only one flower and not a tree.
True. Many of you initially thought the flower was a good thing. Have you changed your mind? If so, why?
Bivwak: Yes, because the narrator’s obligation is to his wife.
So, again, it has nothing to do with the flower itself, just that the narrator has a previous commitment?
Because he possesses his pretty wife?
Are we all in agreement that this poem is actually about a married man tempted by a, uh, seductress?
Choral response, with only a whit of reservation: Yesss.
Well, we could be wrong. If Blake is a symbolic poet, and I’m beginning to think he is, maybe the apparent illicit relationship is itself a symbol for something else. This thing could ripple out from a couple of flower references to God knows what, so we better stay open to that. Who’s ready for the next line?
“And I passed the sweet flower o’er”
We had already guessed as much. Does this line add anything significant?
Praxiteles: He calls the flower "sweet," and that makes it seem like "as May never bore" is positive.
I agree, not that it matters if I agree or disagree. Does that one word – sweet – affect the tone of the stanza? It would be nice if poets and writers in general would come out and tell us what their tone is, but they don’t. They make us rub words together, so to speak, in order to figure out the attitude of the speaker. If the narrator had said “I passed the flower o’er,” his tone would be ________, but since he said “I passed the sweet flower o’er,” it’s _____. Someone fill in these blanks!
Cyparissus: Adding "sweet" makes it seem like he cares more. He’s more reluctant to pass it over.
Yes. We have a greater sense of loss and regret. Do you think this could grow into even stronger feelings for the narrator later on?
Cyparissus: Maybe he’ll be proud of himself for making a tough decision.
Praxiteles: Maybe he’ll regret it even more later and be thinking about what might’ve been.
Those both sound true to the poem so far, but maybe it’s too soon to tell. Maybe we’ll never find out. If it helps, I noticed that the first and third lines are more objective, while the second and fourth are more subjective and affective and include value judgments.
Before we go on, what’s the rhyme scheme of this poem?
Lilith: “Me" and "tree" rhyme and so do "bore" and "o’er.”
Right. That’s called ABAB. It’s simple and predictable. This scheme may not give us much to analyze unless he changes or abandons it. Then we have a story. I can’t help but wonder if a “simple and predictable” rhyme scheme would lead us to believe that the poem’s content will be forthright, direct, unequivocal. Maybe he’s lulling us into a false sense of complacency. I hope so. Anyway, so much for the first stanza. The second one begins . . .
[Here the manuscript becomes illegible, a dryer sheet fused to the pages by some alien substance. We at Starknotes will use infrared technology and homespun remedies such as vinegar mixed with decaf Pepsi in a effort to recover the remainder of this pedagogical gem.]