Sometimes the greatest thing about a person isn’t her beauty and grace. It isn’t her sweetness and softness. Sometimes a person’s strength is in the parts of her that are the sharpest. In her poem “Roses Only”, Marianne Moore captures that idea perfectly.
Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was an American poet who explored the human experience with wit, irony, and flawless language. Born in Missouri before the start of the twentieth century, Moore eventually made her way to Bryn Mawr College where she studied history, economics, and political science. She began to publish poetry shortly after that and quickly became a respected literary icon. During her career, Moore received the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, Bollingen Prize, and National Medal for Literature among other awards.
“Roses Only” is perhaps my favorite of Moore’s works. In it, Moore speaks to a physically lovely person symbolized by a rose. She describes the innate “liability” of beauty and argues that loveliness causes people to overlook the true nature of an individual: her strengths and her weaknesses. Moore ends her poem by asserting that it is not beauty that makes a person brilliant. It is the steel at the core, the “coordination”, the “thorns”.
In addition to the video above, you can read the full text of the poem here. Many thanks to The Poetry Hour for supplying it.
Roses Only by Marianne Moore You do not seem to realize that beauty is a liability rather than an asset - that in view of the fact that spirit creates form we are justified in supposing that you must have brains. For you, a symbol of the unit, stiff and sharp, conscious of surpassing by dint of native superiority and liking for everything self-dependent, anything an ambitious civilization might produce: for you, unaided, to attempt through sheer reserve to confute presumptions resulting from observation is idle. You cannot make us think you a delightful happen-so. But rose, if you are brilliant, it is not because your petals are the without-which-nothing of pre- eminence. You would look, minus thorns - like a what-is-this, a mere peculiarity. They are not proof against a storm, the elements, or mildew but what about the predatory hand? What is brilliance without coordination? Guarding the infinitesimal pieces of your mind, compelling audience to the remark that it is better to be forgotten than to be remembered too violently, your thorns are the best part of you.
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This poem was originally published in Marianne Moore, Observations (1924): 39. There is an excellent edition of the book that was published in 2016.