Roses Are Red

“The rose is red
The violet blue
Carnations sweet
And so are you.”

Far from the Madding Crowd p. 85

We all know this little ditty, though with slightly different wording in the first two lines and ever changing wording in the last two lines to fit the occasion. I’ve never actually wondered where the rhyme came from until now. But as I read these lines, I began to wonder how far back the lines actually go, and now I am sure you want to know as well.

It’s possible it goes back to Spencer’s The Fairie Queen from 1590. In 3.6, Chrysogone conceives her twins through a ray of sunshine. In this narration, we read these lines:

But wondrously they were begot, and bred
Through influence of th’heauens fruitfull ray,
As it in antique bookes is mentioned.
It was vpon a Sommers shynie day,
When Titan faire his beames did display,
In a fresh fountaine, farre from all mens vew,
She bath’d her brest, the boyling heat t’allay;
She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.

(By the way, Rebecca Reynolds is currently working on a prose translation of The Fairie Queen.)

Next is the 1784 collection of nursery rhymes with the wonderful title Gammer Gurton’s Garland or The Nursery Parnassus: A Choice Collection of Pretty Songs and Verses for the Amusement of all Little Good Children who can neither read nor run, by Joseph Ritson.

This piece called “The Valentine” is much closer in words and in the sing-song quality of the poem as we say it today:

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love, and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast, and then I drew,
And fortune said it should be you.

In Les Miserables (1862), Fantine also sings some nonsense rhymes in her delirium (these lines are not included in the Norman Denny translation, which I have, but they are in the Willam Walton translation):

We will buy very pretty things
In walking through the faubourgs.
Violets are blue, roses are red, 
Violets are blue, I love my loves.

Finally, the source material would not be complete without this late addition (1980s) to the Roses-are-Red canon by yours truly. It is quite possible that this piece was composed in physics class:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Sour cream is white,
And comes in a tub.

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