Musk-rose: Lycidas

“The Musk-rose, and the well attir’d Woodbine” – John Milton, Lycidas. Ln. 146.

Rosa arvensis

Redoute, Pierre-Joseph. Rosa arvensis. 1817-1824.

On first finding the musk-rose among the funereal flowers of “Lycidas”, I was ready to object: How is it that the poet would imagine the musk-rose (an autumn flower) in bloom simultaneously with the spring and early summer primroses and pansies? Certainly, I thought, the great poet has succumbed to mere poetic convention. Turning to McHenry’s “A Milton herbal”, I found similar doubts about the poet’s botanical accuracy. While not mentioning the blooming season, McHenry wonders why Milton would think of the musk-rose as a wild plant, native to England. Rosa moschata, he notes, would only have been observed in gardens. Tended with care, the plant would have been unlikely to appear in even the semi-wild hedgerows of southern England. McHenry writes:

The allusion to Orpheus and the mention of the dale in [“Comus”, ln 495], as well Milton’s putting the musk rose and woodbine (honeysuckle, a wild vine) together in [“Lycidas”, ln 146], confirm that Milton thought of the musk rose as a wild plant. (McHenry, 96)

As it turns out, objections of this sort to “Lycidas” are unfair–at least most of the time. (I have a hard time following–or caring for–the critical debate about the poem’s place in pagan-Christian-pastoral cultural transitions. I do not know when Milton fails in that regard, or at least, I do not see it as others have.) In my case, Milton was not his wrong and not my right. The musk-rose in this poem might not have been what we know as the “musk-rose” today, nor even what the botanists knew as R. moschata in Milton’s century … but would that make Milton wrong? A common name is not wrong if it is common, but common to whom?

In this case, we are not reading about Milton’s roses, nor even about Milton’s neighbors’ roses. The musk-rose, like many of the flowers in the catalogue, was borrowed from another poet. Not, this time, from Spenser’s “April Eclogue” (Spenser includes a damask rose, but not a musk), nor from Perdita’s speech in The Winter’s Tale, but from Oberon’s instructions to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here Oberon describes the bower where Titania sleeps:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine (Act II, Scene 1. Ln. 628-31)

These are Shakespeare’s musk-roses, not Milton’s. The question, then, is not “Did Milton think of these roses as wild?” nor is it “Did Milton choose the wrong rose for the season?”; but rather, it is: “What did Shakespeare have in mind when he included the musk-rose in Titania’s canopy?” The answer, of course, is: “Who will ever know the mind of Shakespeare? No one.” However, the rose-sleuth and garden writer Graham Stuart Thomas looks at the text, compares Shakespeare’s usage with that of his contemporaries, and identifies a likely species for the Elizabethan common-named “musk-rose”; not R. moschata, but Rosa arvensis (221). The “field rose”, or an “Ayrshire rose”, grows wildly (as does “woodbine”, usually called “honeysuckle” these days) and would easily make a suitable, musky, scraggly canopy for Titania; it also blooms throughout the summer. Thomas even argues that the rose bears a scent closer to the true “musk”–derived from the scent glands of a small, male Musk deer (224).

If Thomas is right (given his reputation, I think he has been and will be “right”), Shakespeare did not mis-imagine a garden rose for his scene in the forests of fairy-land … but what did Milton imagine? Perhaps Milton did not recall a sight (nor even an odor, as Sims suggests–the Musk-rose does have a sweet, funereal scent), but rather the echo of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although Milton probably saw R. arvensis in hedgerows, it may be the case that he knows the Musk-rose only by second hand. We all write from what we know and what do poets know, if not poetry.


McHenry, James Patrick. 1996. A Milton herbal. Milton Quarterly 30, no. 2: 45-110.
Sims, James H. 1971. Perdita’s “Flowers O’ Th’ Spring” and “Vernal Flowers” in Lycidas. Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter): 87-90.
Thomas, Graham Stuart. 1994. The Graham Stuart Thomas rose book. Sagapress, Inc./Timber Press, Inc.

[Note: This is the eighth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas and The Glowing Violet: Lycidas.]


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