Explication by Stephen Pain

Mr. Beattie's poem takes as its subject the symbolism of the rose. The rose has been used universally to symbolise many qualities. It is in Christianity the symbol of charity, forgiveness and divine love, while in the secular world it is a word that equates with the God of love, Eros. The notion of entwining the religious with the erotic is not new, it has a very long history. One can see examples in the writings of the 17th Century poet John Donne who used in his later dialogues with God similar rhetoric to that which he used in his love poetry. Centuries before Donne, in the Middle Ages, there was the French Romance, "Roman de la Rose" that manipulated the sacred and profound, using the personification of the rose and the garden as a complicated allegory. The form of this particular poem is very simple, deceptively so, with a simple rhyme scheme and bare diction, yet it manages in a very short compass on the other hand to deal with the central tenets of the Christian liturgical tradition.

May I speak
of roses
of having lips

The poem reverses the normative and traditional symbolism so that we see its original referent, the woman, Mary, mother of Jesus. The images are sensual and provocative. The narrator's relationship with the "rose" is suffused with erotic undertones. But the rose also has maternal and domestic elements that counter the eroticism. The petals like the arms of a mother embrace the narrator.

The petals
with me inside

Death has so often in Renaissance art been equated with a sexual climax --in this poem the Blue Lord, the Father in the Christian Trinity, dies like the fading phallus after love making. The poem ends with the moral:

Man reaps
the seeds
he sows.

which again has numerous allusions and possible interpretations. One might read it as a warning to lovers, or as a celebration of the procreative act --whatever the interpretation the poem has over all a potential to disturb and unsettle the reader, demanding us to ask profound questions about our spirituality and our sexuality.

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust
Niemandes Sclaf zu sein unter soviel

Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being No-one's sleep, under so
many lids.


in the SELECTED POETRY OF RAINER MARIA RILKE edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, (London: Pan Books, 1987). p. 279.