Love and Friendship
Love is like the wild rose-briar,
Friendship like the holly-tree—
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms
But which will bloom most constantly?
The wild rose-briar is sweet in spring,
Its summer blossoms scent the air;
Yet wait till winter comes again
And who will call the wild-briar fair?
Then scorn the silly rose-wreath now
And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,
That when December blights thy brow
He still may leave thy garland green.
If you get to studying A Level English, then there is a chance that you may come across the Bronte sisters and their writing. Wuthering Heights has always been a favourite A Level text in English Literature, the epic story of love and passion for one person to another. Likewise, the story of Jane Eyre from one of the sisters [look it up] is equally compelling. These were sisters who knew something about love in its requited and unrequited state.
And so, we have here, a typical love poem of the time, but the title gives us more information. Sometimes, what I do is give a class a poem title and ask them to tell me what they think the poem will be about. For some, like Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est, that would get some very interesting answers. For others, like this, the entire class would be in the know straight away. But then I might ask, from which perspective would you expect it to be written? Love that is pure, or the loss of love? After all, most good love songs in the charts are usually about someone breaking up with someone else. The song usually goes something like Don’t Go Breaking My Heart or offers some other comment.
So what is Bronte trying to evoke here? Well, she is comparing one with the other, so what is the difference between the two? Have you heard of a ‘platonic’ friendship, where one person is so close to another but they are not in love? Modern parlance calls such folk BFFs [whatever that stands for]. Friendship, she is saying, is something that is better than love, which can be hurt in much more powerful ways.
Consider for example, the first line where she says that “love is like the wild rose briar.” An excellent example of a simile, it shares the belief that love is thorny, it can prick at the heart, it can sting when abused. But, says the poet, “friendship is like the Holly tree” in that it is not as dangerous as it appears, so is she saying that it is best to be a friend rather than in love? Possible! Probable!
She sets this up by adding that the “holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms but which will bloom most constantly?” There is a sweetness to the rose briar in spring, a sense of real beauty and when it comes to the summer, the “summer blossoms scent the air” sharing the beauty of Creation with the rest of the world. But like most things, when the bad weather comes, with the pang of winter cold, she asks “who will call the wild-briar fair?” Now what does she mean by “fair?” Does she mean fair as in being equal, or is it more likely that she means the word as in the “fairest of them all” as the saying goes? The rhyme scheme helps the poem deliver the words evenly throughout the poem, bringing an equal sense of movement, just as the briar goes through the seasons.
If love is like the rose briar, all prickly and thorny, able to hurt if not handled correctly, is she writing this from the point of view that she has been hurt in love before now and does not trust it any more? If so, and it can be read that way, then we see someone who is thinking that friendship is more inclined to not be as harsh, but is she correct in her assumption. If love is the briar [now we are into metaphor] then she is saying we should all treat it with contempt and “scorn the silly rose-wreath now.” By doing so, we are then able to lead a life that is not racked with pain and heartache. When you consider the lamentations of some of the Bronte characters, it is easy to think she may be writing it as a polemic [Google this word] and is stressing her belief that friendship is better than love every time. Here is someone who has tasted the bitter end of love and all that that can bring and she is reeling from its sting.
But notice in the last verse that there suddenly seems to be a Christmassy feel to this with mention of the “holly” and the word “deck” reminding us of the song “The Holly And The Ivy.” She says we should “deck thee with the holly’s sheen,” or lustre [shining glory] so that when we feel the coldness of the winter nights in December, we can still be left with a sensation and feeling of everything still being hopeful in the world. “When December blights thy brow,” she says, the one who is loved “may leave [our] garland green.” The use of the colour green signifies new growth, beauty, life springing forth from something that was dead [from winter to spring, the cycle continues] and is symbolic of the fact that if we get the balance right between love and friendship then we can have a relationship that is not only grounded in love, but one that is also full of real friendship; fair, equal minded and able to withstand the pressures life inevitably brings.
Now that is love personified!