First, the piano plays. It’s a simple, delicate tune, with a touch of fancy added by one or two grace notes and a warbling little trill. The listener is given a taste of the melody to come, and then a woman’s deep, deep voice begins. Sings she:
I’ve heard of all those sad, sad songs where he and she are parted
And she dies for the love of him and he dies broken-hearted.
He lies in St. Mary’s kirk and she lies in the choir
And out of her grave grows a rose and out of his a briar.
So at last their souls entwine and now as one are climbing…
This, the final song on June Tabor’s album Rosa Mundi, a collection of songs concerning the titular flower, is called “Maybe Then I’ll Be a Rose.” A violin will join the melody a little later, but overall, the orchestration stays simple and true. After all, what older, more classic trope than this, the two lovers that die for want of each other? And that final rosy touch (pun quite intended) of the blossoming briars tangling together? Why, I can think of two other ballads off the top of my head that use such a motif: “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” – depending on which version you’re listening to – and the penultimate track of Rosa Mundi itself, “Barbry Ellen.” In both, circumstances and not a little pride keep two lovers apart, but only until death. Now that’s love, no?
But then, in that last song, “Maybe Then I’ll Be a Rose,” as the melody soars with the climbing souls, Tabor sings:
Ten out of ten for true, true love, naught out of ten for timing.
And with that, we wryly land back on earth.
It’s true, you know. We idolize the Romeos and Juliets of the world, forgetting that if the hero had just delayed his death by a few minutes – perhaps given another sobbing soliloquy – his lady would have awoken and all might have been well. Truly, 0/10 for timing. Tabor, or rather, the original poet, Les Barker, wants a different fate:
I don’t want that kind of love that grows so high on sorrow,
I want you today my love and I want you tomorrow.
A quick Google search for “famous lovers of literature” reveals lists of well-known couples, a good chunk of whom suffered unpleasant fates, often torn asunder and dying in fits of passion. We read of them and sigh over them (well, some of us do, at least, and then only over some of them; others deserved their fates, in my opinion), but perhaps, as Tabor reminds us, there is nothing wrong with true love being happy. I’m reminded of another tongue-in-cheek passage from the short story “The Stolen Princess,” by Robin McKinley, a favorite author of mine: “…they became the sort of lovers that minstrels make ballads about (although it was certainly unpoetic of them to be married to each other)…and the court became a more joyful place than it had been for many a long royal generation. And minstrels did make ballads about them, even though they were married to each other.”
There is a time and place for roses, and many consider that time to be St. Valentine’s Day. But I, the Realist, charge you, oh Romantic, to not idolize new roses growing from young graves; there will be time enough for them to blossom on old graves later on.
Here and now let’s drink the wine of life while life is ours.
Here and now my love entwine; it’s not just for the flowers.
And when time takes all away and death snuffs out this fire
Maybe then I’ll be a rose and you, my love, a briar.