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On "One Perfect Rose"

By Rhonda Pettit

Recent editions of Introduction to Poetry textbooks have included "One Perfect Rose" in their discussions of voice, rhythm, and symbol, suggesting that contemporary anthologists and scholars are finally appreciating the art of Parker's "accessible" poetry. "One Perfect Rose" is one of many poems by Parker worthy of this appreciation.

The three quatrains of this 1923 poem employ a variation of the "bait-and-switch" strategy, highly appropriate in the Roaring Twenties era of aggressive advertising and the commodification of femininity. The first two stanzas lull us with their quiet tone and six lines of significantly "perfect" iambic pentameter, presenting the rose in its conventional (or "perfect") symbolic form as an "amulet" for love. The closing line of each stanza -- "One perfect rose" -- has three heavy stresses and one light stress, or a central trochee bordered by two heavy stresses; in either case we have a disruption of sound that not only draws our attention to the symbolic rose, but suggests that the rose's conventional symbolism might at some point be disrupted. This disruption occurs in the third stanza, where the quiet tone is maintained and "One perfect limousine" becomes preferable to the rose. In other words, an object suggesting money replaces the rose as a symbol of love.

Is the speaker of this poem simply a materialistic "gold-digger" of the 1920s? Perhaps she can be reduced to that unless we consider other contextual matters. Despite the gains made during this decade, women had no hope of earning as much money as men; they had to be born into and inherit financial security, or "marry it." Parker alludes to financial tensions in poems like "The Far-Sighted Muse" and "Christmas 1921;" in several stories, among them "Big Blonde," "The Standard of Living" and "Clothe the Naked;" and in her play, The Ladies of the Corridor. Furthermore, much of the poetry written by Parker and other women in this era documents the collision of conventional romance with so-called modern love. As Parker's "Unfortunate Coincidence" (see above) makes clear, love in the form of absolute devotion was hard to come by. If conventional romantic love and the financial security that marriage offered were unattainable or unreliable, then more practical, if cynical, responses -- and symbols -- were called for. Unlike some of Parker's poetic speakers, this one is no victim. The poem's cynicism implies that the speaker would reject romantic love in favor of something more practical. In the process of replacing, rather than redefining, the symbolic rose, Parker's poem de-romanticizes romantic love. This is typical of modernism's radical nature.

Parker's poetic modernism, however, comes in the form of conventional metrics published in mass circulation magazines and newspapers rather than in the experimental free verse found in the "little magazines," and thus has been overlooked as a key to this period. It is nevertheless useful to speculate the source or inspiration for the form of "One Perfect Rose." Nineteenth-century post-romantic and sentimental poetries -- the poetries to which Parker, as well as other writers considered by some to be more radical, responded -- were still in circulation while Parker was writing. She makes numerous references in her essays, poems, and stories to nineteenth-century writers she has read. In particular, her allusion to "Rose Aylmer" in her story "The Little Hours" suggests she knew the work of Walter Savage Landor. I consider the following poem by Landor to be a model Parker could have used for "One Perfect Rose."

ONE YEAR AGO (Walter Savage Landor, 1846)

One year ago my path was green,
My footstep light, my brow serene;
Alas! and could it have been so
        One year ago?

There is a love that is to last
When the hot days of youth are past:
Such love did a sweet maid bestow
        One year ago.

I took a leaflet from her braid
And gave it to another maid,
Love! broken should have been thy bow
        One year ago.

Of course, Landor's AABB rhyme scheme contrasts with Parker's ABAB; his iambic lines are tetrameters, not Parker's pentameters. But both poems contain the same number of stanzas and lines; both use the title as the closing line for each stanza; and in terms of syllable count and stress pattern, "One year ago" matches "One Perfect Rose." Even their themes -- the inconstancy of romantic love -- are similar, though Parker's approach uses symbol and cynicism to give the lyric voice a sharper, hence modern, edge. Parker alters the type of conclusion we have come to expect from the lyric mode -- "the moments of resonant insight or contemplative peace" as Charles Altieri defines it1 --by closing with a satiric reversal. She has not only de-romanticized romantic love, but the romantic lyric as well.

Parker thus adopts and adapts a sentimental form for her modernist project. Another way of putting it: Parker's radical modernism is nested within conventional form. This strategy was used by a number of Harlem Renaissance poets as well. Like so much of her work, "One Perfect Rose" illustrates the collision of sentimental and modernist literary and cultural values.


1Charles Altieri, "Contemporary American Poetry and Its Public Worlds," presented at Poetry and the Public Sphere: The Conference on Contemporary Poetry, Rutgers University, April 24-27, 1997. Available online at

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