Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XXXV

The Conventional Symbolism of Flowers…

The Book of Wisdom and the Playboy Philosophy…

Cupid’s Arrows, “Fairness to the Eyes”, and the First Stage of the Fall…

The Second Stage:  “Pleasurable Thought”…

Cupid’s Laws of Love and the Lover’s Malady...

     The dreamer then explains why he is tempted above all by the bush’s tender buds, not yet unfolded into bloom:

Who could hate
Such folded buds! For roses spreading wide
Within one day will surely all be gone;
But fresh the buds will still remain at least
Two days or three; so they allured me most.

Two days or three!  Hardly objects of eternal and immutable beauty, but then that is the poet’s joke.

Flowers in general, and roses in particular, are conventional symbols of the transience of earthly goods and pleasures, especially the fading beauty of the flesh.  This tradition derives in part from the well-known opening verses of the book of Wisdom, often quoted out of context as though it were an early statement of the Playboy Philosophy:

But ungodly men by their acts and words have summoned Hades…
For they did not reason soundly, but said to themselves:
“Our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
And be scattered like mist…
So come, let us enjoy the good things that exist…
Let us have our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
And let us not miss the spring flowers,
Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither…”

In his commentary on Wisdom, Thomas Ringstede, a fourteenth-century English friar and bishop, associates these seizers-of-the-day, who crown themselves with rosebuds, with the servants of Venus.  And since in ancient mythography, the fading rose was an attribute of the vulgar Venus, it became, in turn, an attribute of the Christian vice of luxuria.

To recall a passage from the Third Vatican Mythographer to which I referred earlier:

Roses are ascribed to Venus, for roses redden and prick just as lust causes redness through the opprobrium of shame, and the dart of sin pricks.  Moreover, just as roses delight for a short while but are destroyed by the quick passage of time, so it is with lust.

This, then, is the rosebud, enduring for as long as two or three days, that the dreamer in the Romanyearns to pluck.


At this point Cupid, who like everyone else in the Roman is not so much a character as a personification of  “cupidity” or desire, springs into action.  He unleashes his five arrows, the most important of which is the first, called “Biaute”, which enters, says the poet, through the dreamer’s eye.  It is this same beauty that enters the garden of the soul by way of the outer, sensible garden or the “Woman” in John the Scot’s psychological allegory of the Fall, and it is its “fairness to the eye” that in the forbidden fruit first deceived Eve.

The next stage of the Fall is “pleasurable thought”, a point on which the God of Love gives the dreamer explicit instruction:

Next I enjoin as penance, night and day,
Without repentance, that you think on love,
Forever keeping ceaselessly in mind
The happy hour which has such joy in store…

Cupid’s proclamation of the laws of love center on this obsession, but they include all of the other absurd behavioral tics and symptoms of the lover’s malady as we have already noted in Ovid and Andreas Capellanus, and observed in Arcite, Nicholas, and Absolon in Chaucer’s Tales:  the primping and combing of one’s hair; the attention to the tailoring of one’s coat; the stylish lacing of one’s boots; the proper fabric of one’s gloves and purse; the sort of flowers to carry in one’s coronet; the way to cut an impressive figure on horseback; the songs to sing and dances to learn; how to secure a reputation as a big-spending host—how, that is, to appear in order to advance one’s cause with one’s lady.

At the same time, the lover must prove the worthiness and authenticity of his passion by suffering a never-ending cycle of torment followed by joy:  weeping one hour, singing the next,

For everyone should do in every place
That which he knows will advantageous be,
Because by this he gets thanks, grace, and praise.

When reminded of your love, you must depart from company and in secret succumb to

Sighs and complaints, tremors and other ills.
Tormented will you be in many ways:
One hour you will be hot, another cold;
One hour you will be flushed, another pale;
No quartan fever that you ever had—
No quotidian either—could be worse.

Sometimes you will

               half forget yourself, bemused,
And long time stand like graven image mute
Which never budges, stirs, or even moves
Its foot, its hand its finger, or its lips,

until you finally recover from your lover’s reverie.

You will always complain bitterly that you cannot feast your eyes upon your sweetheart, and periodically set out to find her; but your search will usually be in vain.

Then will you be anew in sad estate,
To you will come cold shivering and sighs,
And pains that prick more sharp than hedgehog’s quills.

So you will always be alert to the opportunity to catch a glimpse of your beloved, but what if you succeed?  For then

Her beauty with great joy will fill your soul;
But sight of her your heart will broil and fry.
The glowing coals of love will burst ablaze.
The more you gaze upon her whom you love,
The hotter will the fire engage your heart.
Sight is the grease that swells the amorous flame.
Each lover customarily pursues
The burning conflagration.  Although scorched,
He hugs it closer; for its nature’s such
As makes him contemplate his lady love
Although at sight of her he suffers pain.

After you have been roasted by her flame, you will then accost yourself for not having had the courage to speak, but only

               to have boobied by her side,
Awkward and dumb, and let the chance escape.

And so, bewailing your fate, you will seek a new opportunity to wander into the street where you last saw her but remained mute, and inevitably you will stroll back and forth on the road across from her home, trying meanwhile to explain yourself to the neighbours.  If she does come out,

Then you will feel your color change; a chill
Will run through all your veins; and when you try
To hold converse, your thoughts and words will fail.
Or, if you do succeed to start a speech,
Of every three words you’ll say scarcely two,
So shameful your embarrassment will be.

Once again, you will upbraid yourself for your stammering inarticulateness.

Then will your martyrdom begin again.
This is the struggle, this the sorry strife.
This is the battle that forever lasts.
Lovers will never gain what they seek;
Always it fails them; never have they peace.


In the panoply of his sufferings, the lover’s nocturnal torments are the most grievous, when the image of the beloved so burns in his imagination that it banishes sleep, or fecundates an erotic dream (of which, as Guillaume well knows, the entire Roman is an example).

A thousand more annoyances at night
You’ll have, and in your bed but small repose;
For, when you wish to sleep, there will commence
Tremblings, agitations, shivers, chills.
From one side to the other you will toss—
Lie on your stomach first, then on your back—
Like one with toothache seeking ease in vain.
Then will return the memory of her
Whose shape and semblance never had a peer.
I’ll state a miracle that may occur:
Sometimes you’ll dream that your beloved one,
Fair-eyed and naked quite, lies in your arms,
And yields herself companion to your love.
Then castles in the land of Spain you’ll build,
And naught will please you but to fool yourself
With pleasant thoughts whose basis is a lie.

As we will see, the “pensee delitable” of the dreamer remains a figment even in the last part of the poem, with the implication that the pleasure of carnal love that the dreamer so ardently pursues is, like the dream itself, a fleeting fancy.