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The Flowers’ Easter Debate

Palm Sunday is the Flowers’ Easter, the day when they honored Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem. As they did not need Good Friday’s bloody atonement for sin, the flowers were ready to crown Him.

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The Rose

Our good Master
Comes as Pastor;
Our good Master comes in spring,
And He deserves a lovely crown,
Since He is heaven’s King.
For Him who robed me in this queenly gown,
A crown of thornless roses I will bring.

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The Tulip

Dare you propose,
You paltry Rose,
Dare you propose to steal my honor?
The pride with which you intervene
And your usurping vigor
Cannot deprive me of my rank as Queen;
I am, therefore, the one to crown the Savior.

.

The Carnation

What you express
Shows foolishness!
What you express is scornful rigor!
My varied colors captivating
And cinnamon-sweet odor
Make me above all flowers fascinating;
I am, therefore, the one to crown the Savior.

.

The Crown Imperial

Variegation,
Spiced Carnation,
Variegation is your honor,
But majesty material
Yields to my sovereign splendor
Because I am the crown imperial,
And it is I who ought to crown the Savior.

.

The Violet

Please do recall,
Though I am small,
Please do recall my prior claim.
The world sees in my little stature
How the Savior came,
An Infant weak who felt the chills of Nature
That He might earn the meek Redeemer’s Name.

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The Tuberose

Let me instead
Surround His head.
Let me, for similarity
To Him in luminescent whiteness
So like His purity,
In fragrance strong as His divine uprightness,
Whose virtues call forth godly charity.

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The Jasmine

I could dispute
In ways astute;
I could dispute, but wish to quell
This sharp debate undutiful.
Together we excel
Ourselves, and make the crown more beautiful;
Let us unite, and Easter joys foretell.

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French original

La Grande Bible des Noels, Anciens et Nouveaux (Nancy, 1813), 40–42

Débat des Fleurs qui veulent couronner Jesus-Christ

La Rose

Notre bon Maître
Vient de paraître,
Notre bon Maître vient en ces lieux;
Je veux lui donner une couronne,
Puisqu’il est le Roi des cieux:
La qualité de Reine qu’on me donne:
Veut que je sois la couronne d’un Dieu.

La Tulippe

Comment tu oses,
Petite Rose,
Comment tu oses m’ôter l’honneur:
Cette autorité souveraine
Que tu prends sur chaque fleur
N’empêche pas que je n’en sois la Reine;
Ainsi je dois couronner le Sauveur.

L’Oeillet

Tu nous méprises,
Quelle sottise!
Tu nous méprises par ta hauteur:
On sait que ma couleur aimable,
Jointe avec ma douce odeur,
Sur toutes les Fleurs me rendent agréable,
Ainsi je dois couronner le Sauveur.

La Couronne Impériale

Ta bigarrure
Fait ta parure,
Ta bigarrure fait ton honneur,
Mais toute puissance royale
Doit céder à ma splendeur:
Puisque je suis Couronne Impériale,
C’est moi qui doit couronner le Sauveur.

La Violette

Je le mérite,
Quoique petite,
Je le mérite ce grand honneur:
On voit dans ma petite figure
Comme ce divin Sauveur
S’est fait Enfant, a souffert la froidure,
Puis des mortels être le Redempteur.

La Tubéruse

Que l’on me mette
Dessus sa tête,
Que l’on me mette pour ma beauté,
Que d’un côté ma couleur blanche
Vous fait voir sa pureté,
Et mon odeur montre comme l’épanche
De ses vertus la divine clarté.

Le Jasmin

Quoique je puisse
Avec justice,
Quoique je puisse le disputer,
Pour éviter toute querelle,
Il nous faudra toutes mêler:
La couronne en sera beaucoup plus belle;
Unissons-nous, c’est assez disputer.

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Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others. 


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28 Responses

  1. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, what a beautiful bouquet of flowers you have brought us as we enter Holy Week! There is enormous charm in imagining the raised voices of each of these debating blooms as they debate who is to crown Jesus Christ. Each rich flower has a good argument for its selection but it seems a proper and joyous thing that the jasmine prevail with its suggestion of “all of us.” Now, some deeper questions. Is there any particular symbolism associated with these individual flowers? The rose is certainly associated with Mary (is that what is meant by “queenly gown”?) but its thorns make it reasonable to here associate it with Jesus and His crown of thorns. My other question: is this debate of variously hued and endowed flowers a metaphor for the many different nationalities, races and other groups who come to worship Jesus? It seems rather probable to me that this is precisely so. Why else why would the flowers be personified as bickering humans? May we assume that the flowers do indeed follow the jasmine’s advice and come together harmoniously in worship? I certainly hope so! Thank you again for translating this garden of delights for Holy Week and especially for Easter!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for your comment, Brian. Having found my “language of flowers” book, I see so much associated symbolism, specifying even the variety and color of each flower, that we should simply take what we find in the poem. Each flower as speaker creates a character for itself. I would say they all exhibit human pride that considers itself best in the area where it excels. Even the Jasmine takes pride in its diplomatic skills!

      As for national associations, it’s easy to recognize the Tulip as Dutch. We don’t know when this little lyric was written; the 1813 book title says it contains new and old pieces. Noticing the Tulip’s arrogance, I suspect we can date the Debate to a time when the Tulip Mania of the 1630s was not forgotten. The Rose is a symbol of England and the Carnation of Spain; the Crown Imperial could be the Holy Roman Empire (dissolved in 1806). Looks like we might be able to see the poem, on one level, as flowers representing Europe. Interesting that France with its Lily is not represented; maybe the French win this debate next week when the Easter lilies come out. I hadn’t thought of warring Europe in the background, but if so, maybe we should add a verse for the Pussy Willow. That is the special flower for Palm Sunday in many countries of northeast Europe where they cannot get palms or olives.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      It’s anonymous. The only name on the title page of the 66-page booklet of song lyrics (many with tune name) is that of Madame Leseure-Gervois, widow who had a bookshop in the city of Nancy. Perhaps the book collects religious songs of the Lorraine region (annexed by France in 1766). Three later editions were published, without Madame’s name, and streamlined to omit some material including the above lyric. It may have been judged unsuitable for a volume of “noels” meant for sale at Christmas.

      Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    I don’t quite know where you find such gems to translate, Margaret, but it’s clear that they come from your ability to read French in the original. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the translations, but for sure every section (in English) is what I would call a perfect poem — with nothing necessary left out and nothing unnecessary added. For me, it was a thrill to see species of flowers squabbling with each other. As a gardener, I attempt to create euphonious color harmonies at all times, which, I think, is the message in the concluding section. Really good stuff.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Trust a gardener to come up with a brilliant interpretation of a flower poem! I like it. I found the book because the search function at the Bibliotheque Nationale Francaise works in an eccentric way, always throwing up many items the searcher did not ask for. “Big Bible of Noels” was an intriguing title, so I flipped through it and found this little song of incredibly complex lyric form. For pure fun, I had to see whether I could put it into English.

      Reply
  3. Laura Deagon

    This was delightful. I cannot understand how anyone can question God’s creation when one observes the beauty of flowers.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Laura! When I was working on the poem, I had to look up the tuberose, as I had no idea what it looked like. But in the array of God’s bright beauties illustrating this post, I believe the white flowers are tuberoses.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        If you like the way they look, just wait until you smell them.

      • Margaret Coats

        I’m sniffing forward to it! Planning to re-do the back garden this summer, and try some new-to-me items. Information I have seen says that tuberose bulbs (or rather, tubers) can be planted in summertime.

      • R M Moore

        FYI
        Family: Agavaceae | Genus: POLIANTHES tuberosa
        Native to Mexico; longtime favorite in Southern gardens. Noted for powerful, heady fragrance. Blooms in late summer or fall, with glistening white, tubular, 2 inches-long flowers loosely arranged in spikelike clusters on stems to 3 feet tall. Long, narrow, grasslike basal leaves. Double-flowered selection ‘The Pearl’ is most widely available; it’s a good garden plant but not as long lasting a cut flower as the single type. ‘Mexican Single’ is a more dependable bloomer in the Lower, Coastal, and Tropical South. ‘Marginata’ has white-edged leaves.

        P. howardii, another Mexican native, grows in alkaline soil and has red-and-green blooms that attract hummingbirds. Hybrids between it and other species are good choices for the Southwest. They include P. x bundrantii ‘Opal Eyes’, which has 2 feet-high spikes of violet flowers in midsummer.

        To bloom year after year, tuberoses require a warm season of at least four months before flowering. Start indoors, or plant outside after soil is warm. Set rhizomes 2 inches deep, 46 inches apart. If soil or water is alkaline, apply acid fertilizer when growth begins. Where winter temperatures remain above 20°F, rhizomes may stay in ground all year; divide clumps about every four years. Even in those mild areas, however, most gardeners dig and store them over winter. Dig plants in fall after leaves have yellowed; cut off dead foliage. Allow rhizomes to dry for two weeks, then store them in a cool (40-50°F), dry place. Tuberoses can also be grown in pots and moved to a protected area during cold weather.

      • Margaret Coats

        I’m very grateful for all this research! Had planned to order ‘The Pearl’ because I like the name, but now there is much more to consider. Maybe I will order more than one variety! Thanks for the information.

  4. Yael

    Wow Margaret, you’ve done it again! Flowers contending among each other for the highest rank is reminiscent of the bitter strife between Christ’s apostles over who would get to sit on His right and left hand in His kingdom. You found a perfectly obscure and delightful old French poem, which most people would never discover unless it were on their TV screen. Then you turned it into a perfectly splendid English poem, which I would have considered impossible after reading the original French. I have no idea how you do it, but I really like it, thank you.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      The flowers’ debate is a unique song that deserved to be brought to light again! This was an especially challenging translation. The repeated half-line had to make sense in two different contexts, and four different lengths of line had to be preserved in the original arrangement. The rhyme scheme was the easy part in this poem. I’m glad the result pleased you!

      Reply
  5. David Watt

    Margaret, your translated posy of poems is delightful. How fitting that the
    elegant and pure jasmine has the final say.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      It is interesting that the last two flowers (tuberose and jasmine) are both white flowers known for fragrance–and that a small distinction between the two serves to end the poem. The Jasmine’s gift of good counsel completes the Rose’s initial suggestion, with its own unique touch of elegance and purity, as you say. Thanks!

      Reply
  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, I have returned to this magnificent and accomplished translation many times. It reminds me of Hamlet’s Ophelia in the voices of the floral sphere. Your work is breathtakingly beautiful… for me, it melds the wonder of nature with the sacrifice of Jesus for eternal life. My Ode to Spring whispers of such wonder.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you for commenting, Susan. I had not thought of Ophelia’s flowers in relation to this poem, but that’s how language works to tie seemingly disparate things together. Ophelia’s flowers symbolize all the things her life was or could have been. Here we have mostly different flowers, but they recall to you her wish for life to be other than her tragic situation made it. The language of my poem sings to you, as reader, the possibility of the salutary rebirth Ophelia wanted but did not find.

      As I said in explanation of my first comment on your Ode to Spring, the poet’s intent does not matter. Words are larger than what a poet may intend to say with them. Thus readers can find meaning that was not in the poet’s mind as the poem was composed–although it must be based on the words she chose. You say your ode whispers of the wonder of nature and the sacrifice of Jesus for eternal life. What a fine way of acknowledging that its springtime words may carry that wonder to a reader attuned to it! And aren’t we all thrilled with certain poems that seem to speak directly to our own lives? The poet was not concerned with us, and maybe not even with what we have experienced. But we can find ourselves and our concerns in poems because of the mystery of language and its multifarious effects on the human psyche.

      I am very happy that my flowers’ debate, taken from an unknown composer in Lorraine, and perhaps 300 years apart from us in time, can bring to you the beauty of Easter. Have a glorious paschal holiday!

      Reply
  7. Clare Tierney

    Beauty and rank and charm and splendor and humility and purity and congeniality make a magnificent crown. Or a bouquet that anyone could carry ~ trying to improve in each. I’m happy to figure out how to make a serious comment in the right place. Sorry for my little disruption above. I love the song even more and thanks a lot for translating it.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Clare, for persisting in finding out how to use the Comment/Reply option. It does mean a great deal to us poets that readers take the time to respond. I’m very glad to have your special views on this poem. It was enjoyable to translate.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Fox. I’m glad your kind is not known for destructively digging up gardens. In fact, your special area is now pleasantly overgrown!

      Reply

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