The speaker of "Women and Roses" introduces a dream vision in three neat lines. He dreams, he says, of a "red-rose tree," a bush that grows just three red roses. This vision, with matter-of-fact dream logic, presents him with a choice or a puzzle: which of those roses, he asks, is the "dearest" to him? Which would he pick?
This simple scenario blossoms into something more complicated in the poem's second stanza. The speaker isn't just seeing a red-rose tree. He's watching the "guardians" of its roses dancing around them:
Round and round, like a dance of snow
In a dazzling drift, as its guardians, go
Floating the women [...]
These ethereal, fairy-like guardians, it transpires, are the women of the past, the present, and the future:
- First come women long dead—beauties immortalized "in stone" or "on the poet's pages." "Faded for ages," these women nonetheless have a lasting power. Think Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and whoever modeled for the Venus de Milo: women whose legendary loveliness has considerably outlived their mortal bodies.
- Next come the women who are "living and loving and loved to-day"—the women of the present, "fresh and gay," lively and beautiful.
- Finally come the "multitude of maidens" who are "yet unborn," "beauties" who haven't even appeared on the planet yet.
The poem is deep in dreamland, here. Try to envision all those ladies dancing around a single rosebush and you'll end up with something as dizzyingly infinite as Dore's Dante or Blake's Jacob: already, this strange vision is laden with impossibilities and symbolic depths.
The poem's very title, "Women and Roses," might summon up all the countless works of art that relate ladies to flowers. Gorgeous, scented, thorny, and short-lived, roses are a common image of the delights, dangers, and tragedies of love and female beauty.
Here, though, the impossible multitudes of maidens doing their endless, circling dance suggest something a little unusual. Rather than sadly gesturing to the impermanence of love and beauty—roses, famously, fade—this rose tree and the circle-dance around it seems to suggest that love and beauty are perpetual. The lovely ladies of the past are still here, immortalized in art; the ladies of the present are, well, present; the ladies of the future are endlessly multitudinous. And all of them go "round and round" in a ceaseless circle that suggests infinity.
The speaker, then, is dreaming of a glorious rosy abundance of female loveliness, an embarrassment of riches. Notice, too, that all these ladies are circling his rose tree: they seem, in some way, to have come for him. But as the reader and the speaker alike will soon find, this won't be a dream of abundant romantic gratification. The circling ladies will frustrate this speaker's desires in more ways than one.