OH how much more doth beautie beautious ſeeme,
By that ſweet ornament which truth doth giue,
The Roſe lookes faire, but fairer we it deeme
For that ſweet odor, which doth in it liue:
The Canker bloomes haue full as deepe a die,
As the perfumed tincture of the Roſes,
Hang on ſuch thornes, and play as wantonly,
When ſommers breath their masked buds diſcloſes:
But for their virtue only is their ſhow,
They liue vnwoo’d, and vnreſpected fade,
Die to themſelues. Sweet Roſes doe not ſo,
Of their ſweet deathes, are ſweeteſt odors made:
And ſo of you, beautious and louely youth,
When that ſhall vade, by verse diſtils your truth.
Sonnet 54 uses the difference between the domestic and the wild rose to illustrate how the poet’s verse might distil the young man’s truth. The “Rose” that “lookes faire” and has a “sweet odor” is the redolent and sweet-smelling domestic rose. The identity of Shakespeare’s “Canker bloomes” is less clear. The Canker Rose is the dog-rose, a rose of lesser quality and so common that Gerard declines to describe it, while Shakespeare rates it lowly in Ado 1.3.27-28, “I had rather be a canker in a hedge, then a rose in his grace.” 1 It grows on hedgerows where its trailing branches can be seen swaying above them. It comes in two varieties and Shakespeare has either confused or conflated the two: the rosa canina has pale-red flowers, but is sweetly scented, unlike Shakespeare’s canker bloom which has no “sweet odor.” The other variety of dog-rose is the rosa arvensis or white dog-rose, which has no scent, but is totally white. It cannot then be said to have “full as deepe a die” as other roses. Both varieties are thorny with large hooks on the main stem and close to the flowers. The white rose has single flowers, “borne solitary;” the ovaries are masked in the calyx that change later into “hips,” which give the dog-rose its name, “Hep Tree,” according to Gerard, who also gives instructions on distilling rose water and its purpose, “The distilled water of Roses is good for the strengthening of the hart, and refreshing of the spirits.” 2 If Shakespeare has conflated the two kinds of dog-rose, the red and the white, then “masked” in line 8 can also be read as an aphetic ‘damasked,’ where red and white are mixed to yield a “pale red colour” as in the damask rose (see Sonnet 130.4, “I haue seene Roses damaskt, red and white”).
The sonnet opens with an axiom: beauty is made to appear (“seeme”) more beautiful by the “sweet ornament” or lustre that truth adds to it. The poet gives the example of the rose (“The Rose lookes faire”), which unlike Sonnet 109.14, “thou my Rose,” is here not identified as the youth. When the perfume that comes from within the rose is added to its appearance, its beauty is the more esteemed. “Canker bloomes” have the same deep colouring (“as deepe a die”) as the roses’ “perfumed tincture;” “perfumed” intends fragrant, but its etymology (per + fumare = through + to burn) points to the result of a distillation. Likewise “tincture” is a dye, even one used in cosmetics, but was used specifically in distilling where it is the colour transferred in the distillation; Gerard writes of rose-water, “though the Roses haue lost their colour, the water hath gotten the tincture thereof.” 3 The thorns of “Canker bloomes” are the equal of thorns on domestic roses and “play as wantonly,” as their stems dance above the hedgerows, moved by the breezes of summer (“sommers breath;” compare Sonnet 65.5, “summers hunny breath”), which cause them to open (“discloses”). To ‘disclose’ is the technical term for the opening of a bud, which “discloseth it selfe and spreadeth abrode,” 4 while “masked” buds are those still hidden in the calyx, with a hint of ‘damasked’ (compare LLL 5.2.295-97, “Faire Ladies maskt, are Roses in their bud: / Dismaskt, their damaske sweet commixture showne, / Are Angels vailing clouds, or Roses blowne”).
All plants have “vertues” or powers that affect human health, which Gerard and his fellow herbalists list in detail. The canker-rose, however, has little virtue and less than that of standard roses which means that it should “not [be] vsed in Physicke where the other may be had.” 5 With no medicinal virtue its only worth is its appearance. It lives solitarily and singly (“vnwoo’d;” see above) and its display fades (“vnrespected fade”), either because it is not esteemed since it is common or because it is not noticed (re + spicere = to look on). In their singleness canker roses die alone (“Die to themselues”). By contrast “Sweet Roses doe not so.” Roses that are sweet-smelling and valued do not die without issue, because “Of their sweet deathes, are sweetest odors made.” The distilled solution of the rose continues on after its death as an essence or as rose-water, whose medicinal virtues were manifold. Rose leaves were “put .. to boyle in faire water,” which yielded a “sirupe of Roses solutiue, which must be made of the infusion, in which a great number of the leaues of these fresh Roses are diuers and sundrie times steeped.” 6
Only in the couplet is the youth addressed. He is “beautious and louely,” beautiful and loving like the true not the canker rose. His outward form will “vade,” either ‘fade’ or ‘disappear.’ 7 The poet’s creative effort (“verse”) will distil the youth’s essence or inner truth, so that it will outlast death, a conclusion different from those of Sonnets 5 and 6, where “flowers distil’d” may lose their “show,” but “their substance still liues sweet,” as the youth is urged to procreate or “make sweet some vial,” some woman’s womb.
54.1. Gerard, Herball (1597) 1087-88, “The Brier Bush or Hep tree, is also called Rosa Canina, which is a plant so common and well knowne, that it were to small purpose to vse many words in the description thereof.”
54.2. Gerard, Herball (1597) 1082.
54.3. Gerard, Herball (1597) 1083.
54.4. Conrad Heresbach, Foure Bookes of Husbandry, collected by M. Conradus Heresbachius . . Newely Englished, and increased, by Barnabe Googe (London: Richard Watkins, 1577) 66v.
54.5. Gerard, Herball (1597) 1089.
54.6. Gerard, Herball (1597) 1082.
54.7. ‘Vade’ is from vadere = depart; see Ps. 109.23, “passe away like a vading shadowe” (BB), which Coverdale rendered as “like the shadow that departeth” (BCP).