Oh, no man knows Through what wild centuries Roves back the rose.

The words are Walter de la Mare's, catching in poetry not (for once) the sorrowful rose, the last rose of summer, the rose that fades all too soon, but the tough beauty of the ''Queen of Flowers'' - as Sappho called it - surviving aeons. Its cultivation was begun so long ago that when Gerard wrote about it in his Herbal at the end of the sixteenth century, he scarcely mentioned the wild rose: all his praises were for the garden rose, which ''doth deserve the chiefest and most principall place among all flowers whatsoever.''

Most of the rest of the world would seem to agree with him. It is a blissful flower for all seasons, its unassuming appeal and genuine attractions overriding its status as the very alpha and omega of cliches. It serves with persistent freshness as metaphor, as stand-in, for ''girl,'' for ''beauty,'' for ''romance.'' The inexhaustible love affair between mankind and rose pervades all cultures, defies cynical notions of familiarity breeding contempt, and lifts itself even into the lofty realms of High Art.

This paragon and ideal is not just ''a flower'' - it is FLOWER itself. If all flowers had to be rolled into one, that one would inevitably be the rose. It is the flower that everyone knows. The most determined of horticultural ignoramuses , though unable to distinguish a daisy from a daffodil, recognizes roses. . . .

It is, however, an odd thing that, although the mere word ''rose'' immediately conjures up in the mind a certain typical, classical picture of the flower (''at once,'' as Herrick wrote, ''a bud, and yet a rose full-blown''), the cultivation of roses has been a continual and fascinated attempt to alter and vary its form, increase its lastingness, multiply its petals, weatherproof its blooms, make it resistant to mildew, whatever. The subtlety of its colour range is still being widened, though a genuine blue rose, thank goodness, has still not been achieved. The effort, in short, has been to make the rose everything that the enchantingly simple wild version of the hedgerows, with its single, brief blossoms of pink or white, is not.

The rose has become a thing of fashion, like clothes, and when an ''old fashioned'' rose is mentioned (today, with affection) it is seen as the symbol of a past age or custom no less than the bustle or the crinoline. Modern roses are many and varied indeed, but a period air is breathed unmistakably by the ''Bourbons'' and ''Damasks,'' the ''Musks'' and ''Moss Roses,'' the ''Gallicas'' and ''Cabbages.'' When Shelley described a rose (''like a nymph'') unveiling the ''soul of her beauty fold after fold,'' he was visualizing a typical rose of his time, which to twentieth-century eyes would seem an anachronism. His lark is the same lark we hear and see above our heads in an open field in 1982, but his rose is not at all a common sight today.

The same can be said of Fantin-Latour's vased bunch of crimped and frizzly roses, massed with ''fold after fold'' of petals bursting out of themselves as if reacting with overstated enthusiasm against their earlier tight confinement in the bud. This nineteenth-century French artist understood the lavish structure of rose blooms so sensitively, and translated them into a rich painterly exuberance so tellingly, that he has even been joined to the ranks of such notables as ''La Reine Victoria'' and ''Cardinal Richelieu'' and the ''Duc de Guiche'' by having a rose named after him. ''Fantin-Latour'' is a Bourbon rose with ''cup-shaped, warm pink, double flowers'' which ''appear over a short period in mid-summer.''

Summer is brought indoors with a bunch of roses, and it is the smell and feel of June and July which Fantin catches in all his flower paintings. He rarely, if ever, pictures the rose growing: to him it is - typically enough - a cut flower. Emil Blanche wrote that ''Fantin studied each flower, its grain, its tissue, as if it were a human face.'' Unlike some of his Impressionist contemporaries he had quite a horror of movement and of glancing, changeable sunlight. So his indoor pictures of roses grasp their mass and stability, and his comprehension of their complex design is not momentary or suggestive. He even makes their sculptured generosity impressively evident in his only lithograph of flowers: a black and white depiction of roses in a tall vase, amalgamating delicacy and permanence.

In oil paint he explored the embedded colours of these roses picked from a cottage garden, colours that deepen exquisitely in petalled recesses - the cream , the pink blush, the white, the contained yellow - seemingly simple enough and yet suggesting nuances of shade simultaneously intense and pale. Marcel Proust puts it this way: ''. . . the painter looks and at the same time seems to look deep inside himself and inside the bouquet of flowers, where the delicately scented roses multiply in a thousand other colours, a thousand other perfumes.''

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