Decay in nature can be seen from different points of view. On the one hand, to decay just means to die or more literally to rot. This is not a pleasant process, but a process that cannot be stopped and must take place according to the natural way of life/the laws of nature. On the other hand, decay does not only have this negative connotation because to decay in nature also means that something new is developing out of the dead material. Only when something, like an apple for example, dies, a new generation of apples can arise.
These two different points of view are shown in the poems “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and “On Observing a Large Red-streak Apple” by Philip Freneau (1752-1832).
In his poem “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer” Thomas Moore writes about the last rose still flowering in the garden. This leads to the conclusion that the time of the poem is set in late autumn, a period when gay colours fade and days become shorter and colder. The rose represents a last memory of summer before winter comes. The use of the definite article makes it a pars pro toto for all the lovely things nearing their end. Throughout the text the author makes ample use of imagery. Two examples for this can already be found in the title: the rose is a symbol for love and summer, whereas summer usually stands for the peak of life. Just like summer, all the seasons have been assigned to different stages of human life in literature. Autumn designates old age, and the loss of vitality, winter refers to death. That is probably why Moore has chosen the transitional period between the seasons for the setting of his poem, although not expressively naming them. Another stylistic device which is used throughout the poem can be found in the title, too: the positive connotation of words – here “rose” and “summer” – is changed by the addition of a negative expression – here “last”.
The poem is divided into three eight-line stanzas. On scanning the poem in order to determine the metrical scheme, one finds that there is a system of seven syllables to each line alternating with five per line. Only the lines 13, 17, 21, and 23 form an exemption. There are six instead of seven syllables. Perhaps these lines are supposed to be expressly stressed because all of them point to the end and illustrate the expression “bleak world”. The poem has a flowing rhythm, stressed syllables being followed by one or two unstressed ones. Just as the metrical pattern is not rigidly applied, neither is the rhyme scheme. A rhyme is to be found at the end of the second and fourth lines of each stanza, respectively the sixth and eighth line of each stanza, while the other endings do not correspond. Every second line ends on a stressed syllable. There is an eye-rhyme at the end of lines two and four. By these poetic means as well as by the stylistic figures Moore introduces into the poem, the overall impression is graceful and elegant.
In the first stanza the singleness of the last rose is described, but the image of a young girl, rather than of a flower, is provoked in the reader’s mind. Moore achieves this by using personification: the rose is referred to as “her” (l. 3,5,7), the other roses are called “companions” (l. 3), and the behaviour of young girls is attributed to them with “blushes” (l.7), “give sigh for sigh” (l.8).
As has already been mentioned in connection with the title, here again a number of expressions are introduced which evoke pleasant images, but whose effect is turned into the opposite by negative phrases assigned to them: “rose of summer” – “last” (l.1); “blooming” – “all alone” (l.2); “lovely companions” – “faded and gone” (ll.3-4); “flower” – “no” (l.5); “rosebud” – “no” (l.6). The anaphorical use of the word “no” at the beginning of lines five and six even more pointedly underlines the fact that all beauty and loveliness is dying. In accordance with this, most vowels in the first stanza are dark. All these poetical devices act together to create an overall melancholic mood which is upheld throughout the poem.
At the beginning of the second stanza the perspective changes. The lyrical I, who has been observing the rose up to now, starts to speak, addressing the rose as a person with intuitive understanding, and promising to help her out of her loneliness. It takes pity on her sad situation and wants to help her. That is why it arranges a kind of funeral for her, scattering her leaves over the bed and thus joining her with her companions. It goes about the act, however, in a gentle way: it does not pluck the leaves, but “kindly” (l.139 scatters them, nor does it dig a grave, but spreads the leaves “o’er the bed” (l.14). The lyrical I is deeply touched, and tries to make everything as nice and comfortable as possible for the rose. It does not destroy the rose, as one might surmise, but aids it to find peace of body and mind.
There are two stylistic devices in this part of the poem which catch the eye. Firstly, Moore employs euphemisms when he says “pine on the stem” (l.10) for dying, “sleep” (l.12) for die, “bed” (l.14) for grave. Only in the last line does the lyrical I gather up its courage and bluntly says what it means: “dead” (l.16). This word, positioned at the very end of this stanza, sums up everything the lyrical I has been hinting at up to here, and is introduced as a climax after “scentless” (l.16), yet another euphemism. Secondly, Moore resorts to pseudoarchaic language when the rose is addressed by “thee” (l.9), “thou” (l.9,12) and “thy” (l.14,15).
A few further stylistic devices in this stanza attract attention. As already observed above, a positively connoted expression, “mates” (l.15), is reversed into the negative by the addition of “lie scentless and dead” (l.16). There are alliterations in line nine, “thee”, “thou”, and at the beginning of line five and six, which emphasize the importance of these phrases. The word “bed” (l.14) is not only a euphemism for grave, it is also a pun signifying the place where humans sleep, on the one hand, and where flowers are planted, on the other hand. A polyptoton “Since the lovely are sleeping,/Go, sleep thou with them” (ll.12-13), placed almost in the middle of the poem, stresses the importance of this euphemism. Death is what the lyrical I aspires to as an attractive possibility of alluding the vicissitudes of life, as a final haven.
 Brendan Clifford, The Life and Poems of Thomas Moore – Ireland’s National Poet (Belfast: Athol Books, 1993), p. 62.
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- Kathrin Ehlen (Author), 2006, Decay in Nature - Seen from Two Different Points of View, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/173793