To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time Essay.
The rose as a symbol had mytho-historical and personal overtones for Yeats, and this poem is the opening song of his early collection of poems entitled “The Rose”. As a symbol for Ireland it represents both the Romantic movement and the Irish Revival centering around Lady Gregory and the Abbey Theatre, and the rose atop the cross in particular evokes the Christian conversion of the indigenous Celtic people between the fifth and seventh centuries.
As part of the part aesthetic, part political effort to forge the Irish character through literature, Yeats and his peers drew material directly from the ancient myth cycles of the pre-Christian Celts, and infused their poetry and drama with the heroic characters and ethos, and sometimes the language, of the time before the British invasion and occupation of Ireland.
Hence, Yeats’ invocation of the Rose in a manner reminiscent of the ancient Greek and Roman poets’ invocation of the muses to aid in the composition of the epics of their race.
So Yeats asks the rose to be near “while I sing the ancient ways”, and as he recalls the mythic figures in the reconstitution of his race.
The Druid stands as a general symbol of the Celtic world ethic before the Christian missionizing; Cuchulain is an Achilles-like hero who single handedly defeats many of the enemies of his people before succumbing to his own weaknesses battling against the sea; Fergus is a mythic king of Ulster and symbol of the golden age of Gaelic civilization.
Personally, the rose symbolizes the figure of, and his undying — though unrequited — love for Maud Gonne, at once a personal love and a realization of his vision of Romantic Irish womanhood. It is therefore fitting to learn that “the conjoined rose and cross” (“the rose upon the rood of time”) also “symbolised a mystic marriage”, according to A. Norman Jeffares, in his edition of Yeats’ selected poems.
In all this, Yeats wants to discover behind the edifice of all the “poor foolish things that live a day”, and hidden in the pastoral simplicity of the folk tales and livelihoods of rural Ireland that are the source for much of the mytho-poetic material he uses, “Eternal beauty wandering on her way”.
So he sings, “Come near, come near, come near”.
But “Ah”, he exclaims after the verse break, not too near, but “leave me still / A little space for the rose-breath to fill”. Yeats here acknowledges the danger of losing the idea behind the symbol; the objects of his effort behind their abstraction. Like Stephen Dedalus, who acknowledges the importance of experience to forging “in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”, Yeats guards against over reification at the expense of the material reality.
Lest he adopt the patriarchal tone against the poor and under-educated he was trying to influence that many of his contemporaries were guilty of, and “seek alone to hear the strange things said” and “chaunt in a tongue men do not know”, he would allow a little space for the material and sensuous “rose-breath” to remind him of the realities of Irish life in his own time.
Thus his almost Burnsian concern for “the field mouse” and “the weak worm”, and the reality of “heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass”. Though somewhat a product of the sentimental Romanticism of his youth, this very accomplished and important poem is a premonition of the hard and by turns cynical lyrics of his later career, where we will see the Romantic rose of Ireland transformed into the rape of a Swan, and, in some ways too, the rough beast “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born”.
For now, he will sing with innocent hope of the utility of “the ancient ways” for moulding the cultural and political identity of his people, some twenty years before the events which will make him proclaim “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone”. In 1893, if nothing else, the uncreated conscience of a race seems secure in the symbolic weight of the “Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days”.