"For the roses, life with the gardener is a constant.
They emerge in the spring, thrive in the summer, and go dormant as fall changes to winter - all under the care of Fontenelle."
October 24, 1885
On this day, a little poem about a rose by the English poet Henry Austin Dobson appeared in the Leicester Chronicle in England.
Henry's poem, A Fancy from Fontenelle, has a long French subtitle: "As far as any rose could remember, no gardener had ever died."
The poem was an instant hit and was picked up by newspapers worldwide.
I spent some time piecing together various remnants of the poem online and cobbled together a little analysis of this charming piece to help you understand it.
The French philosopher and writer Diderot inspired Henry, and it's helpful to know a bit about Diderot to understand the poem.
In 1769, Diderot wrote a story with a main character named Fontenelle, whom the garden roses believe is immortal.
In his story, Diderot introduced the Fallacy of the Ephemeral, which is the false belief in immortality exemplified by the notion that beauty lasts forever.
Through every season, the roses see Fontenelle working in the garden.
For the roses, life with the gardener is a constant. They emerge in the spring, thrive in the summer, and go dormant as fall changes to winter - all under the care of Fontenelle.
Naturally, the roses assume the gardener is always there - will always be there - tending to them.
But this cannot be so, even though, to paraphrase Diderot, no rose has lived long enough to remember the gardener's death.
Henry's poem is beautifully told from the perspective of a vain and self-assured rose.
She incorrectly assumes that she will outlive the old gardener who tends her and that her beauty will surely outlast him.
She is over-confident that she is right that she boasts:
He is old — so old! And he soon must die!
Henry's poem embraces Diderot's Fallacy of the Ephemeral when the inevitable truth is revealed at the poem's end: beauty fades, but time carries on.
THE ROSE in the garden slipped her bud,
And she laughed in the pride of her youthful blood,
As she thought of the Gardener standing by —
“He is old — so old! And he soon must die!”
The full Rose waxed in the warm June air,
And she spread and spread till her heart lay bare;
And she laughed once more as she heard his tread —
“He is older now! He will soon be dead!”
But the breeze of the morning blew and found
That the leaves of the blown Rose strewed the ground;
And he came at noon, that Gardener old,
And he raked them gently under the mold.
And I wove the thing to a random rhyme:
For the Rose is Beauty; the Gardener, Time.