By Robert B. Martin, Jr.
Article from a 2004 issue of Rose Exhibitor’s Forum
Would you appoint some flower to reign
In matchless beauty on the plain,
The Rose (mankind will all agree),
The Rose the Queen of Flowers should be.
Although there are pretenders to the throne, the rose is undeniably the “Queen of Flowers.” But how came she to the throne? Who first named the rose the “Queen of Flowers”?
The conventional answer, repeated so many times as to make it almost beyond dispute, is that in 600 BC the Greek poetess Sappho declared the rose “The Queen of Flowers.” The evidence of this is the familiar poem quoted above. And, certainly the date works, as 600 BC is a very long time ago. But wait a moment. “The Queen of Flowers” is an expression in the English language and neither Sappho nor anyone else in antiquity was writing in English. Sappho wrote in ancient Greek and the term “The Queen of Flowers”, if we are to believe the poem above, is most certainly a translation of some Greek expression. So how good is the translation?
Pondering this question, I draw attention to another ostensible translation of the same poem, attributed to Sappho:
If Jove would give the leafy bowers
A queen for all their world of flowers,
The rose would be the choice of Jove,
And blush the queen of every grove.
Here we see the rose is still a queen for all the flowers, but the translation hardly seems to have been of the same poem.
Investigating this further, I thought it would be of interest to go to the source and to take a look at all of the poems of Sappho and to see what the scholars have said about the translations. But this, as will be seen, creates a mystery.
Sappho was one of the great Greek lyrists and few known female poets of the ancient world. She was born some time between 630 and 612 BC, an aristocrat who later married a prosperous merchant and had a child. She was called a lyrist because, as was the custom of the time, she wrote her poems to be performed with the accompaniment of a lyre. She composed her own music and refined the prevailing lyric meter to a point that it is now known as sapphic meter. She innovated lyric poetry both in technique and style, becoming part of a new wave of Greek lyrists who moved from writing poetry from the point of view of gods and muses to the personal vantage point of the individual. She is considered to have been one of the first poets to write from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally.
Sappho was greatly honored in ancient times and was called “The Poetess,” as Homer was called “The Poet.” Plato elevated her from the status of great lyric poet to one of the muses. Upon hearing one of her songs, Solon, an Athenian ruler, lawyer, and a poet himself, asked that he be taught the song “Because I want to learn it and die.”
Given the fame that her work enjoyed, it is surprising to learn that only one of Sappho’s poems is available in its entirety – all of the rest exist as fragments of her original work. There are in fact 122 poems and fragments, mostly the latter, written by Sappho, all of which can be accessed on the web:
So which of these poems and fragments correspond to the poem above? The answer is that none of them do. In fact, only one of the fragments even mention a rose, and that is
Fragment 62 which is rendered in English as
Come rosy-armed Graces, virgin daughters of Zeus.
Lucius Flavius Philostratus, one of the leading Greek sophists or orators of his day, writing in about AD 220, referred to this fragment saying: “Sappho loves the Rose, and always crowns it with some praise, likening beautiful maidens to it.”
This remark seems to have led some of the earlier collectors of Sappho’s fragments to include the “pleasing song in commendation of the Rose” quoted by Achilles Tatius in his love-story Clitophon and Leucippe which Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1809 - 1861)
translated in 1893 as follows:
SONG OF THE ROSE
IF Zeus chose us a King of the flowers in his mirth,
He would call to the rose, and would royally crown it;
For the rose, ho, the rose! is the grace of the earth,
Is the light of the plants that are growing upon it!
The same verse was translated in 1883 in the work Sappho and the Lyric Poets by British writer John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) to read:
THE PRAISE OF ROSES.
If Zeus had willed it so
That o’er the flowers one flower should reign a queen,
I know, ah well I know
The rose, the rose, that royal flower had been!
Now we see that the rose is maybe a King, or maybe a Queen, and both of these translations attribute the work to Sappho. But here’s another problem – there is no reason to do so since there is no evidence that the poem appearing in the book written by Achilles Tatius was written by Sappho, nor was it directly attributed to her by Achilles Tatius. So who in world was Achilles Tatius?
Achilles Tatius was a Greek from Alexandria in Egypt who is believed to have lived in the second century AD. Of his life nothing is known, however he is famous for his surviving novel in eight books (!), The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon, a steamy Greek love story in which Clitophon relates to a friend the various difficulties that he and Leucippe had to overcome before they are happily married. The story is full of improbable, and often indecent, events and there are many digressions giving scientific facts, myths, meditations, and so on, including the “pleasing song in commendation of the Rose” translated above.
So is Achiles Tatius, living in the second century AD, the one who declared the rose the Queen, or maybe the King of Flowers? Well there’s another Greek candidate.
Consider the following from the Irish poet, Thomas Moore (1779 - 1852):
Not more the rose, the queen of flowers,
Outblushes all the bloom of bower,
Than she unrivall’d grace discloses;
The sweetest rose, where all are roses.
This is said by Moore to be a translation of ode LXVI [Beauty] of the Odes of Anacreon. Anacreon was another Greek who probably lived from around 570 B.C. to 475 B.C. so maybe this quote pushes back the declaration of the rose as the Queen to a time more like that of Sappho,
Once again, however, the problem is that only fragments of the work of Anacreon still exist, all written of course in ancient Greek and none of which has much to do with the quotation of Thomas Moore. Thomas Moore is, however, recognized as perhaps the most meticulous of the interpreters of Anacreon, so where did this verse come from?
The answer appears to be that ancient Greek scholars in Alexandria had an edition of Anacreon’s work consisting of five books of verse, of which various fragments are extant. Anacreon’s poetic sentiments and style were widely imitated by Hellenistic and Byzantine Greek writers and there thus arose what is called the Anacreontea, a collection of about 60 short poems composed by postclassical Greek writers at various dates and first published by Henri Estienne as the work of Anacreon in 1554. Thomas Moore provided perhaps the finest translation of the Anacreontea in 1800 under the title Odes of Anacreon.
So who wrote the verse attributed to Anacreon by Moore? We don’t know. And once again we run into the fact that all the works being translated were written in ancient Greek and one web scholar, discussing Moore’s translations calls them “paraphrase” because “I don’t think that Greek poetry can really be translated.”
So maybe that’s the problem. We have been speaking of poetry in ancient Greek, which scholars do not think can really be translated, and the phrase “The Queen of Flowers” is an English rendering of some Greek symbols that could be translated any number of ways.
So let’s change the subject a little and probe further to see where else in English we can find the earliest literary declaration of the rose as the Queen of Flowers.
Writing on this subject in the 1925, Rose Annual of the National Rose Society of Great Britain, a Mrs. F. A. Simonds asks:
“When was the Queen given the dignity of a Palace of her very own? I can find no commentary that can throw light upon it, but that she has had the right to that title for many, many years we know, for Herrick, in his Flowers Parliament, tells us that ‘in that Party all the Powers voted the Rose the Queen of Flowers.’”
The reference here is to the verse of the English poet Robert Herrick (1591–1674) who wrote:
THE PARLIAMENT OF ROSES TO JULIA
I DREAMT the roses one time went
To meet and sit in parliament;
The place for these, and for the rest
Of flowers, was thy spotless breast,
Over the which a state was drawn
Of tiffanie or cobweb lawn.
Then in that parly all those powers
Voted the rose the queen of flowers;
But so as that herself should be
The maid of honour unto thee.
So here we have a very early usage in English of “the queen of flowers” (and indeed a poetic vote of some early judges) in reference to the rose. Herrick, it might also be added, also referred to his mistress as “the queen all flowers” in his poem “A Meditation for his Mistress” but we need not go there.
Robert Herrick also had a contemporary, William Browne of Tavistock (1590-1645), another English poet, lawyer, Oxford tutor and country squire who wrote “As I Have Seen Upon A Bridal Day” subtitled “The Birth of the River Tavis” (Yes a poem about the birth of a river) which contain the words:
AS I have seen upon a bridal day
Full many maids clad in their best array,
In honour of the bride come with their flaskets
Filled full with flowers: others in wicker baskets
* * *
Some running through the meadows, with them bring
Cowslip and mint; and ‘tis another’s lot
To light upon some gardener’s curious knot,
Whence she upon her breast, love’s sweet repose,
Doth bring the queen of flowers, the English Rose.
The poems of Robert Herrick and William Browne of Tavistock are the earliest two literary references in English I have been able to find which refers to the rose as the “Queen of Flowers.” And which of them said it first? Well we don’t know that either, since the poems are undated and the two were contemporaries.
So what do we know? We know the rose is The Queen of Flowers.