By utilizing different types of flowers, ‘Envy’ by Mary Lamb showcases a core belief that the existence of the title characteristic, ‘Envy’ is not only an unnecessary quality to possess, but it is actually nonsensical. This argument is presented in three stanzas, each with an AABCCB rhyme scheme, where a series of flowers and plants are referenced in comparison to the “rose-tree.” According to Lamb, the “rose-tree” would have no reason to be jealous of the other noted flowers because it itself comes bearing its own beauty and potential. This idea, in the third stanza, is shifted to represent people who feel such jealousy of one another. To Lamb, that jealousy has no rational place in one’s mind because each person could have their own beauty and positive attributes that shine.
This rose-tree is not made to bear
The violet blue, nor lily fair,
Nor the sweet mignionet:
And if this tree were discontent,
Or wished to change its natural bent,
It all in vain would fret.
From the beginning of this stanza of ‘Envy’, Lamb takes a very specific approach by choosing to say “This rose-tree” rather than “A rose-tree.” That simple word choice connects the reader to one concrete idea, as if the “rose-tree” in question has been the center of discussion even before the stanza began. This tactic accomplishes two things. One, the reader feels like progress has already been made on the topic, giving a sensation that there is ground already covered that supports the ideas being brought to the table. While nothing was actually stated before the stanza, this impression can create an established quality by acting as though the subject has previous support.
The second thing this tactic accomplishes is to root the reader into a state of exactness. Lamb is not referring to just any “rose-tree.” She is referring to “this” one. By giving the reader that specificity in detail, vagueness is immediately exchanged for certainness that will do Lamb’s argument a great favor as it continues since that certainness means she is sure of what she says and is not afraid to tackle the core elements of her argument.
Beyond this word choice, this stanza brings a series of flowers into the discussion to compare to the “rose-tree,” but the interesting detail of the strategy is that no flower is referenced as a lacking option. The “lily [is] fair,” for instance, and the “mignionet” is “sweet.” That tactic highlights Lamb’s primary theme for this work—that to her mind, all people have their own beauty, so comparing one another in a fault-based way does not make sense to her.
Possibly the most effective lines for bringing this prospect to life under the metaphor of the plants is when Lamb states that if the “tree were discontent [o]r wished to change its natural bent,” that the prospect would be useless. This statement highlights what the “rose-tree” could assume were its own flaws, but to Lamb, wanting “to change” even those faults is the wrong mentality. As people can have a tendency to focus on their own shortcomings by comparing themselves to someone else, Lamb insists the “rose-tree” should not do this, despite a comparison being made. Rather, Lamb’s opinion seems to be that all of the flowers listed have positives on which to focus.
This concept is strengthened by the incorrect use of “bent” where “bend” should grammatically be. The wording is off, but it unapologetically remains to solidify Lamb’s argument in a perfect rhyme. The wording itself is imperfect, but still effective and eloquent, just as humans (and flowers) can be.
And should it fret, you would suppose
It ne’er had seen its own red rose,
Nor after gentle shower
Had ever smelled its rose’s scent,
Or it could ne’er be discontent
With its own pretty flower.
This stanza of ‘Envy’ strengthens the ending resolve of the first stanza by pushing things farther than the aforementioned reference of faults. Whereas the first stanza only says what the “rose-tree” should not focus on, this stanza mentions positive details, ones the “rose-tree” can look to in order to find reasons to have heightened self-esteem. Lamb does this is a way that makes these concepts sound like they are obvious to the point that no other thought process is sensible, stating that “you would suppose” these would be the factors worth consideration. Basically, the world choice reads like she believes her given ideas, and she is so sure about them that she is willing to include the reader—“you”—in her reasoning, like the both of “you” are in on the same joke about obvious reasoning.
That reasoning is that a “rose” would only feel logical jealousy toward another flower if “[i]t ne’er had seen its own red rose” or “smelled its rose’s scent.” There is too much good going on for the “red rose” “[w]ith its own pretty flower” to lose its self-esteem by any comparison to a “lily” or “violet.” Their beauty and worth can never take away from the “rose[‘s],” and that beauty is adequate enough that the “rose-tree” should “ne’er be discontent.”
Again, applied to people, this reinforces the concept that no person, to Lamb, should lose confidence or self-esteem by noting another person’s worth.
Like such a blind and senseless tree
As I’ve imagined this to be,
All envious persons are:
With care and culture all may find
Some pretty flower in their own mind,
Some talent that is rare.
In this concluding stanza of ‘Envy’, the theme wraps up by turning the focus to people as a spoken simile. “All envious persons are” jealous, “[l]ike such a blind and senseless tree” to Lamb, and this dictated notion removes any doubt as to what the poem’s main idea is. All along, as was already inferred, she has been using these flowers as a method of commenting on human nature and their potential in her eyes, and now she has blatantly stated it.
With that comparison expressly noted, Lamb is free to turn the conversation directly to people in place of hiding behind the flower metaphor, but she still employs the use of simile to address how she thinks people should live. Specifically, she utilizes the notion of “care and culture,” like tending to a garden, and a “pretty flower” to express the “talent” that a person has that shows a part of their worth. This specificity complements the earlier mentioned certainness referenced in the discussion of the first stanza, and by the ending line of ‘Envy’, Lamb states she is referring to a “talent that is rare” within the person, which is a detail that shifts the meaning away from only aesthetic factors.
The flowers are noted for their sight and scent, and that aspect could leave the reader feeling as though only the physical elements of appearance and presentation are what Lamb is commenting on in the human condition. Since she labels the “flower” of humans as “talent” though, it opens the door to other qualities in which a person could find pride and confidence. This is not to say that physical attractiveness is not a place for pride and confidence—if Lamb believed that, the physical beauties of flowers would likely not have been the method of comparison—but other topics can be included under the umbrella of things that are worthy of confidence.
From beginning to end, ‘Envy’ discusses the futility of human jealousy by employing the varying beauty of flowers as a comparative tool. But just as the “rose-tree” does not need to doubt its own worth because other flowers are “fair,” to Lamb, humans do not need to lose sight of their own value by being “envious” of other’s qualities.
About Mary Lamb
Mary Lamb, poet, and scholar, was born in 1764 and lived until 1847. In that life, she tried her hand at a number of artistic pursuits, such as her endeavors as a writer and a seamstress, and her struggles with mental illness did not prevent her from leaving her mark on the world of poetry. Specifically, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her mental illness was linked to the unfortunate death of her mother. This illness led to her living with her brother, Charles, who became her writing partner. Her life no doubt included sad moments, but her writing lives on nonetheless.