Poetry: Spectre of the Rose | clivejames.com
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Spectre of the Rose

‘Goethe and Ulrike von Levetzow in Marienbad’ *

You see this rose? This rose is not just you,
Crisp in the softness it makes visible,
With all its petals nourished by the dew
That wet its leaves last night and pumped it full
Of crimson lake before the rising sun
Reached down and opened it to be as one
Slow-motion cyclone of sheer loveliness,
Lush yet precise, contained in its excess,
A sumptuous promise to be always new,
Superbly poised as you when you undress:

This rose is also me, condemned to die.
The laws by which its nest of shells will fade
From the circumference inwards, it lives by
And follows to the end. So deep a grade
Of red is bought with borrowed time. The power
Of photosynthesis in plant or flower
That wrecks what has been built works even here,
Captured in such a jewel that it comes near
To matching you. You put it in the shade
I feel advancing with each precious hour.

Below it on the stem, regard the thorns
Meant to protect its frailty while it grew.
Doomed from the moment when the thoughtless dawn’s
Fatal initiative brought it to view,
It came here to this vase, and here it glows
For us, and it is yours and mine, this rose,
But it is also you and I. Two lives
United only for a time, it thrives –
Spreading its perfumed beauty as you do –
For just a while, and while it stays it goes:

Perfect too late for me, too soon for you.

— TLS, June 19, 2009

[ * A version of the above image was included in this page on the original clivejames.com website, and shows Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, alongside an image not of Ulrike von Levetzow as named in the caption, but instead Maria Agata Szymanowska. Goethe met the seventeen-year-old Ulrike at Marienbad in 1821 when he was 73, and whilst he was also very close to pianist and composer Szymanowska around this time, it was the seventeen-year-old Ulrike who became his great infatuation and inspired the Marienbad Elegy, the second part of his Trilogie der Leidenschaft (the third part of the trilogy was dedicated to Maria). The image below might be a more fitting choice to accompany this poem — Archive editor (SJB). ]

Note (from Collected Poems)

Young Ulrike lived to be an old lady and was many times pestered by arts-page gossip-writers (the breed was already in existence) to reveal whether she and her grand old man had ever been lovers in the technical sense. She did him the honour of playing it vague, instead of issuing a downright denial. The ageing Goethe, by his proposal of marriage, had made a tremendous fool of himself over her, but he had also written one of the great lyric poems in the German language, the Marienbad Elegy: a tribute she was perfectly capable of appreciating.