‘Sweet Rose of Virtue’ by William Dunbar is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines or quintains. It should be noted that this poem was translated from an original archaic Scots dialect. The translation from Dunbar’s dialect used in this analysis was completed by Michael R. Burch.
Each of these quintains follows a consistent rhyming pattern of aabba ccddc eefff, dependent on the particular pronunciation of the lines. A reader should also take note of the meter Dunbar selected for this piece. It is structured around iambic pentameter.
Iambic pentameter is one of the most popular patterns of meter in poetry. It is defined by lines composed of five metrical feet, or iambs. These iambs contain two syllables, the first short, or unstressed, and the second long, or stressed.
Sweet Rose of Virtue William Dunbar Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness, delightful lily of youthful wantonness, richest in bounty and in beauty clear and in every virtue that is held most dear― except only that you are merciless. Into your garden, today, I followed you; there I saw flowers of freshest hue, both white and red, delightful to see, and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently― yet nowhere, one leaf or flower of rue. I fear that March with his last arctic blast has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast, whose piteous death does my heart such pain that, if I could, I would compose her roots again― so comforting her bowering leaves have been.
Summary of Sweet Rose of Virtue
The poem begins with the speaker professing his love for the listener by listing off her attributes. He has, in the past, seen her as being virtuous, gentle, and sweet. She was full of life and beauty that he loved and appreciated. Something has happened now though and she has become “merciless.”
In the next section of the poem, the speaker describes following her into her garden and seeing her beautiful flowers. On top of the beauty is something poor-smelling, rue. The poem concludes with the speaker declaring the woman dead. It is unclear if she has in fact died or if he is so upset by the change in her that he has decided she is dead.
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Analysis of Sweet Rose of Virtue
Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by using the phrase which would become the title of the poem, “Sweet rose of virtue and gentleness.” Due to the fact that he is describing the “rose” with human character traits, it is immediately clear he is talking about a woman. This person is someone he cares about deeply, mostly for the features he mentions in the first lines. She is “sweet” to him, but also shows “virtue” in her everyday life and “gentleness” towards others. He admires her character and her appearance.
In the second line, he brags about her beauty using another flower, a lily. She is “delightful” like a “lily” and full of “youthful wantonness.” The woman has a great deal of life in her. She might be flirtatious or self-indulgent, or even lascivious. The compliments continue to build in the next line with the listener being referred to as being the richest among women in ”bounty and in beauty clear.” She is more beautiful than any other he knows. She also has more “bounty.” This could refer to all the character traits she possesses or her actual wealth.
These lines conclude with the speaker attributing every “virtue” that is “held most dear” to her. She exhibits them all. The last line reveals something less attractive to the speaker. She is also “merciless.” This word comes as a surprise considering the lines that came before it. One is now aware that there is something wrong with this woman, at least in the speaker’s mind. The following stanzas are going to try to contend with his mixed feelings about this person.
Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but bitter rue.
In the second stanza, he goes on to describe a moment of his contemporary life. Only “today” he saw this woman. He “followed” her into her garden. It is fitting that a “garden” is introduced into the narrative as the speaker utilized two different flower metaphors in the first stanza to refer to the woman. It is somewhere he sees as being a proper home for a “delightful lily.”
While sneaking around in the woman’s garden he saw “flowers of the freshest hue.” This falls in line with his preconceived notion of what this woman should be. There were “white and red” plants that were all “delightful to see.” So far, the venture is going well. Everything is as he thinks it should be.
In addition to the flowers, there were more mundane plants that reference home and food. There are “wholesome herbs” that wave in the wind. These words the speaker uses to refer to the plants, “delightful,” “wholesome,” “fresh,” are all attributes he wants the listener to have.
The final line of this section once again changes the narrative. Everything in the garden is not pristine. There are flowers everywhere, but no pleasant odor. The only smell he can detect is that of “bitter rue.” Rue is a strong-smelling plant that is cultivated as a medical herb. It does not have the surface beauty the other plants do.
I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.
In the final stanza, the speaker concludes by turning to the larger setting. He speaks of “March” and the weather that “he” has brought. The winter season is not quite over, there has been one final “arctic blast” of cold. It is this weather the speaker uses as the metaphorical reasoning behind why the listener is acting the way she is.
He states that the cold has “slain [his] fair rose.” She is now “pallid” or pale and of poor health. The listener does not have the life she used to, or so the speaker thinks. The changes which have come over the woman the speaker professes to love are so dramatic that it is as if she has died. Her previous iteration has suffered a “piteous death” that causes him “such pain.”
In the last lines, he states that if it were in his power he would “compose her roots again.” The speaker would put her back together, although not for her own sake. This task would be completed so that he once more could find “comfort” in her “bowering” or enclosure-creating, “leaves.” She used to surround him with peace, happiness, and warmth but now she is “merciless.”