I bought a Queen Elizabeth rosebush, tall and spiky, and it will arrive tomorrow. Is the imagined rose better than the real one will be? Is the object of desire more beautiful than the object at hand?
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
That’s T.S. Eliot in his poem, “Burnt Norton,” set in the ruined estate of that name in Gloucestershire, England. Poets are forever desiring and regretting and elegizing. Tugged back and forth in time, they are, a tormented lot. As for me, I like to stop and smell a rose.
In grad school my friends made fun of me for writing poems that blithered over objects. “Oh, here’s an ode to a bottlecap,” they said. “This little bottlecap in the roadway all glittering! Let’s chat all about it, and praise its dirt, its shine, its indentations!” They were so right. I’m still mad at them. (Worse, here I am twenty years later still exclaiming over objects! What about progress, or maturity?) I thought my poem was about danger and sexuality and transgression and unconciousness. Oh, well. It was about a bottlecap…that I can still see on that dirt road in Jamaica where I wandered drunken as a cloud. Do you know how brutal graduate poetry workshop can be?
My rose will arrive. I will have to fertilize, and spray to kill Japanese beetles. The Queen Elizabeth is unlike the hardy Knockout roses that I have tended solely by filling in the dirt when the dog has laid their roots bare. “Knockouts can survive anything,” the nurseryman said, steering me toward them. I told him I wanted something different, and and we walked together through a long greenhouse. “These are more beautiful,” he said quietly. I chose the Queen Elizabeth, a Double Delight, and a Mr. Lincoln (the name struck me funny), all lovely and romantic. I will grow roses, like my grandfather, like Italian monks, like the botanists of San Francisco and Pasadena. Why not step into the rose-garden?
Wonder did not depend on the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way he thought we should live—not in fear of the gods but in pursuit of pleasure, in avoidance of pain.
(Stephen Greenblatt, “The Answer Man,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2011)
Or, to put it more simply, as David St. John does in his poem, “No Heaven”:
That we’re to be given no heaven
No heaven but this