Monday, December 6, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Katherine Mansfield - Study: The Death of a Rose


It is a sensation that can never be forgotten, to sit in solitude, in semi-darkness, and to watch the slow, sweet, shadowful death of a Rose.

Oh, to see the perfection of the perfumed petals being changed ever so slightly, as though a thin flame had kissed each with hot breath, and where the wounds bled the colour is savagely intense . . . I have before me such a Rose, in a thin, clear glass, and behind it a little spray of scarlet leaves. Yesterday it was beautiful with a certain serene, tearful, virginal beautv, it was strong and wholesome, and the scent was fresh and invigorating.

To-day it is heavy and languid with the loves of a thousand strange Things, who, lured by the gold of my candlelight, came in the Purple Hours, and kissed it hotly on the mouth, and sucked it into their beautiful lips with tearing, passionate desire.

. . . So now it dies . . . And I listen . . . for under each petal fold there lies the ghost of a dead melody, as frail and as full a as a ray of light upon a shadowed pool. Oh divine sweet Rose. Oh, exotic and elusive and deliciously vague Death.

From the tedious sobbing and gasping, and hoarse guttural screaming, and uncouth repulsive movements of the body of dying Man, I draw apart, and, smiling, I lean over you, and watch your dainty, delicate Death.


During Katherine Mansfield’s return visit to New Zealand in the early 20th century she wrote a number of experimental prose poems influenced by the Decadent movement in London. Vincent O’Sullivan in his 1988 foreword to her poems notes the ‘emphasis upon atmosphere and mood rather than sustained sincerity or event.’ He describes them as ‘excursions into that dimly defined territory between the expectations of prose and the freer emotional contours of verse.’ He talks of Mansfield’s ‘adjectivial assault’.

This poem was published in Triad, a Dunedin based magazine, in July 1908. It was a magazine renowned for its avant-garde views.

When I compiled my anthology of New Zealand 19th century verse – my cut-off point was the outbreak of the First World War – I put in two of Mansfield’s vignettes as she called them. I toyed with several others, including this one, but eventually left it out.

I found its strange, Gothic, almost sadistic sense of decay repellant, yet at the same time weirdly appealing. Part of Mansfield’s power, even at this early stage was this double-edged capacity. Futher, it revealed an unusual perception into the nature of the human psyche.

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