Tag Archives: Poems about flowers

Where the wild thyme blows…

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Heath-Robinson’s illustration for a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Via Wikipedia

I have not often succeeded in being topical here on Sweettenorbull, but with 2016 having marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I thought it appropriate to include at least one post on the Bard this year. So, here is my belatedly topical, and very unseasonal, take on one of my favourite passages in Shakespeare. A mid-winter day’s take on some lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in

That’s Oberon, the king of the fairies, or faeries, explaining where he will find his wife, Titania, the queen of the fairies, on whom he is going to play a rather mean trick. The soliloquy of which this is the beginning sets the scene for this trick and the action that follows. It is light-hearted stuff compared to many of Shakespeare’s other famous soliloquies: it is fair to say it worries at none of the great themes – life and death, love and hate, truth and falsehood, justice, fate, none of that. It is a bit of atmospherics, a means of setting the scene for a play that is essentially a bit of enjoyable nonsense.The purpose of the passage is to enchant the listener, and, for me at least, it does so every time.

It is a little fey, I know. We are talking about a passage full of flowers spoken by a great big fairy: not altogether manly that.I’m more into the flowers than the fairies, but I suppose that in itself is something of an admission. A few years ago that great journal of earthy British humour, the Viz, ran a memorable cartoon where Biffa Bacon is chastised (that is, beaten to a pulp) by his parents for reading the Guardian newspaper instead of the Sun. He has just about managed to persuade them that the Guardian isn’t just for ‘snurbs and short-liftaz’ when a free supplement falls out of the paper, ‘Fifty Poems about Flowers’. Biffa’s parents are enraged by this basic affront to decent Geordie reverse-snobbery and duly pummel the poor lad senseless.

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From the Viz comic, via The Guardian

Actually, I understand where they are coming from (Newcastle, of course, which is also where I come from). For a long time, I would hazard from the early 19th century all the way through to the late 20th century, flower imagery was the standby of mediocre poets and poetasters, which may have fixed in the public’s mind, even those, like the Bacons, who would never read poetry, the idea of poetry as something blandly decorative, stuffily middle class and rather effeminate. But this view and all that bad poetry were merely unfortunate by-products of what is actually a great tradition in English poetry of poems about flowers, running from early poetry to the modern day.

(but if you’re not convinced, my site has plenty of posts on poems of a more masculine nature… tools! drinking!)

I would argue that at least a passing acquaintance with the English countryside and its flowers heightens ones appreciation of this poetry; at the same time, reading the poetry improves one’s enjoyment of the countryside. Well, this is true for me, at least. About seven years ago, I lived for a couple of years in Durham, and at about that time, after years of serious novel reading, I was getting very into English poetry. Three poets who I read a lot at that time were William Wordsworth, Edward Thomas and the American William Carlos Williams, in all of whose poems flowers feature prominently, usually with the flower named. Partly to know the flowers in their poems better, and partly because I lived near a rather nice meadow park (like many parks and meadows along the Tyne or the Wear, actually a reclaimed coal mine), and had started to notice flowers whose names I didn’t know, I bought an old Reader’s Digest guide to wild flowers at a car boot sale, and started to casually familiarise myself with the names of those I most often saw. After a couple of years I could identify most of the common flowers I’d come across, and recognise them when they came up in the poetry I was reading, and just walking the countryside I would notice and appreciate flowers much more whether I knew their names or not.

That first line of Oberon’s captures he very real wonder one feels when one comes upon a bank of wild flowers while wandering the woods or countryside. Myself, I know a hillock in Durham where cowslips sprout some years, and, mysteriously, some years they don’t. I know a wooded roadside bank that is carpeted with violets a couple of weeks each spring. In the nearby Finchale Priory there is a reliable bank of anemones on the north bank of the river. When we moved a little north to Prudhoe in Northumberland, my wife and I gradually found comparable scenes – another bank of anemones, a patch of teasels, a riverside outcrop of reeking ramsons, a field of mixed white and red clover. Finding such scenes and remembering them became one of the pleasures of walking.

Paul Auster the novelist and and sometime critic wrote of an interesting difference between English and French poetry. In French poetry, he claims, flowers tend to be described simply by the word flower – fleur, while in English poetry they are given specific names. I can’t quite remember where he went with that (I read it a long time ago and do not have it to hand), but I think he went on to generalise from this that the French think in the abstract, while the English-speaking peoples favour the specific and concrete, perhaps that the English like to categorise while the French philosophise. And maybe there is something in that. The English value the poetic power of particular names. Look at the first four lines of Oberon’s speech: it contains the names of six different flowers. Just the names of those flowers take up thirteen of the lines’ forty syllables. The last two plants take up six of the last lines’ ten. A great deal of the lines’ beauty inheres in the sound of those names alone. I wonder if Shakespeare, if indeed most people of his time, could reel off the names of plants like that, when plant lore was still a living tradition. Perhaps he asked around his fellow playwrights and actors at the Angel.

We tend to imagine A Midsummer-night’s dream taking place in an English woods – it certainly sounds like one and it has a couple of bona fide English myths wandering around in Puck and Robin Goodfellow. But of course the play is set in a wood outside Athens – it seems the characters wander into the wooded paradise of Arcadia – since that place was mythical I suppose Shakespeare was quite at liberty to model it after the woods of his homeland. Poets in the sixteenth century tended to use a classical setting for their pastoral poetry, as well as their love poems, which is why shepherds and maidens alike had names like Lycidas, Cynthia and Clarissa, rather than Roger, Mary and Lisa. This was a matter of convention, but it also gave them a bit of liberty from the rigid social mores of the sixteenth century. Titania is acting in a way that might have had a contemporary Englishwoman up before the church courts, ‘lulled ‘by ‘dance and delight’, sleeping in the open air in the most sensuous of settings.

There is a faint echo of Middle English poems in these lines, where ‘blow’ retains its Middle English meaning of ‘bloom’, and might remind some readers of the line ‘bloweth mead’ in ‘Sumer is ycumen in’. Eglantine is another word with a medieval ring to it, carrying the scent of Norman French: the Prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was called Madame Eglentine, and gently mocked by the narrator for her old-fashioned Norman French pronunciation. Critics have commented much on Shakespeare’s propensity to use earthy Anglo-Saxon words in conjunction with Latin derived words (examples here would be nodding violet, enamelled skin and, arguably, luscious woodbine), but there is there is also here the mingling of modern and archaic English words. It all adds to the sense in the play of the past and present mingling with the eternal, of the familiar morphing into the strange and foreign, and of reality blending with fantasy.

As a reader who has read more than his fair share of poems aboot floo-ahs, as the Bacons would style them, I can’t help but sense a foreshadow of much later English poetry in Shakespeare’s lines. I have already mentioned those other serial flower name droppers Wordsworth, Thomas and Williams. Titania perhaps provided some inspiration for that equally fickle (though nastier) lady of the woods, Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot. And the alliteration and unusual syntax of the phrase ‘weed wide’ puts me in mind of Hopkins, who claimed to be reclaiming the old alliterative tradition of Old English. I could go on a lot longer about the richness of Shakespeare’s language and its influence, but a post, like a garden (though unlike a mythical wood) has got to end somewhere…

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Daffodils

It’s daffodil season out there, in case you hadn’t noticed. Parks, gardens and banks on the sides of motorways sport these yellow flowers rocking and nodding in the breeze (or ‘fluttering and dancing’, if you like). And those of us of a poetical bent can’t help but think of Wordsworth and his most famous poem.

I have to admit though that I’ve never much liked daffodils. I’m not talking about the poem, but the flowers themselves. They are a little gaudy, for one thing, or even a bit plasticky, and somehow look like they don’t belong to the English countryside, as if they’ve been brought in from warmer climes. This is an impression I’ve had as long as I can remember, and one I’ve carried into adulthood. Perhaps it has something to do with that scene in the Disney cartoon of Alice in Wonderland where they turn nasty. But I’ve read elsewhere that daffodils areunique in their anatomy, so maybe my feeling that they are somehow alien is perfectly natural. Anyway, I don’t like them. Give me forget-me-nots or anemones any day.

A lot of people don’t much care for this poem, and it’s worth pondering why. In some ways, it’s a bit of a victim of its own fame: a certain generation of British school children had to learn it by heart, and perhaps didn’t much enjoy doing so. Certainly the experience that Wordsworth describes in the poem isn’t one that your average twelve year old can relate too. If children do like the countryside, it’s to frolic and gambol in, not to walk around appreciating nature’s aesthetic beauty and spiritually regenerative powers. It’s associated in a lot of people’s minds with the idea of poetry as something essentially pastoral, comforting and safe, and poets as people with their heads in the clouds. The first time I read a line of the poem, it was coming from the lips of Walter the Softy, the simpering, swotty enemy of Dennis the Menace in the Beano. I don’t think it’s Wordsworth’s best poem, by a long way, and it does have its shortcomings; nevertheless, it comes unbidden to my mind at this time of year, and it does, I think, have its merits…

 

Daffodils

 

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

 

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed–and gazed–but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

 

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

 

William Wordsworth

 

Shall we get the shortcomings out of the way first? The simile sounds a little hackneyed these days. Maybe it sounded fresher two hundred years ago, but it hasn’t aged well. The blogger John Stevens   commented here recently that the ending seems inauthentic, and I agree with him there to an extent. For me, Wordsworth is a little too eager to portray nature as something elevating, and himself as a sensitive receptor to nature’s bounty. The syntax sounds rather forced to modern ears, and the tone is rather grand for what we might think of as a modest subject.

But I like the idea at the centre of this poem – the idea that a place, especially somewhere natural can stay with you, and that the memory of it nourishes you in some way. Put that way, it sounds cheesy, and yet Wordworth captures something essential of his experience, and from my own experience I believe this is a genuine phenomenon. There are a dozen places or so, perhaps more, the memory of which endure in my mind; when I think of these places I draw something more than solace or comfort, but a kind of strength: the moon making a path of light on the calm Yellow Sea at night; the tall reeds at Caerlaverock nature reserve, and the view of the Solway and the Lake District beyond – and a skylark lifting into the air as I stood up on a mound of grass to see this; or Holy Island on a changeable spring day and the sight of a colony of seals on the island opposite, their backs catching the light of the sun, their cries crossing the water…

So, though I’m not keen on daffodils, I have some regard for Daffodils.

Wordsworth's School

Wordsworth’s School, where he almost certainly didn’t have the idea for ‘Daffodils’

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To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

This is the fourth and last poem in a series of poems on Sweettenorbull that use flower imagery and deal with the theme of mortality. It is another by cavalier poet, Robert Herrick, and is, on balance, my favourite of the four – the most musical, the most generous and most human poem. The poet is not trying to get anyone to bed here, but is addressing the young, encouraging them to make the most of their lives and enjoy their youth while they can. Many of you will recognise the poem from the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’. If not, then I strongly suggest you go and watch it. But do read the poem first:

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,

The higher he’s a-getting,

The sooner will his race be run,

And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,

When youth and blood are warmer;

But being spent, the worse, and worst

Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,

And while ye may, go marry;

For having lost but once your prime,

You may forever tarry.

Granted, there’s not much comfort for the older here – the facts of life are ruthless: you really are young only once, and only get the one chance to make the best of your life (older readers of the blog can take heart from the fact that old age was sooner in coming and not as ameliorated by medicine as today!) This is part of the warm-hearted charm of the poem though: Herrick is not a young man extolling the virtues, in the old sense of the word, of youth; rather, he takes the role of an older figure who wants the younger generation to make the most of their lives. As does Robin Williams’ John Keating in this wonderful scene from the film.

It was conspicuous by its absence, by the way, from the collection of poems ‘Poetry by Heart’ that the UK Department of Education has published to encourage schools to have pupils memorise and recite poems. It’s just the kind of simple, musical poem that is so natural to commit to memory, and so pleasurable to recite. No A.E. Houseman, either. Hardy and Blake have many poems that are easy to remember and worth remembering, but two of their more abstruse poems have been selected here. There are maby good poems there, however, and I understand the inclination to include more than just the obvious. It’s well worth a look – whatever one thinks of the government initiative. Good luck memorising Porphyria’s Lover!

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The Sick Rose

 

A conventional poem about flowers and mortality would say much what Waller did in the subject of my last post, Song: “Look, see that flower? Look how beautiful it is. Just like you’re beautiful, right?… There’s no use hiding your beauty away – it’s there to be admired, like the flower. And beauty, doesn’t last forever, now does it? You have to enjoy it – and let it be enjoyed – when it lasts.”

William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’, is not such a conventional poem.

 

The Sick Rose

 

O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:

 

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

 

The Rose is not suffering from the ravages of time exactly, but from the attentions of the ‘invisible worm’, who is besotted with her. There are echoes of Genesis here – the serpent that brought sin into paradise, thus begot corruption and death. There is a distinct sexual overtone to the imagery too, with the worm having sought the rose’s bed; and he hardly sounds like a gentle lover, the ‘crimson joy’ making the relationship sound like one of feeding and bloodletting – the worm a parasite, feeding on and destroying the young rose. Yeah, we all know guys like that, sighs one world weary female reader. Blake’s lament is a fateful one: she who is beautiful must be defiled and her beauty destroyed by he who desires her. Edmund Waller didn’t mention that bit in Song!

We needn’t over-emphasise the sexual element in the poem, however. It can be read philosophically too, as embodying, in a somewhat lurid form, Blake’s dualistic beliefs, in which ‘innocence and ‘experience’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and even ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are two necessary aspects of the same universe.

Like many of Blake’s poems, the plate metal worker Blake made a plate to go with The Sick Rose. I’ll leave it to you to decide which interpretation of the poem his picture supports…

The Sick Rose

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Song

Edmund Waller’s Song is not particularly original in its imagery, its theme or its message. I like to think it’s a little tongue in cheek, though I might be wrong. It’s very much the same carpe diem vein of poetry as Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, employing different arguments towards the same ultimate end.

Song 

Go, lovely rose–

Tell her that wastes her time and me,

That now she knows,

When I resemble her to thee,

How sweet and fair she seems to be.

Tell her that’s young,

And shuns to have her graces spied,

That hadst thou sprung

In deserts where no men abide,

Thou must have uncommended died.

Small is the worth

Of beauty from the light retired:

Bid her come forth,

Suffer herself to be desired,

And not blush so to be admired.

Then die!– that she

The common fate of all things rare

May read in thee;

How small a part of time they share

That are so wondrous sweet and fair!

Now here was I thinking that you gave roses to girls because they’re pretty and smell nice. You’re more or less saying ‘Here’s a pretty flower for a pretty girl’. Obviously I lack sophistication. For Waller, the rose is a symbol of the transieence of beauty, implicitly imploring the reciever to share her delights with him. ‘Implore’ is no exaggeration, as I sense a whiff of desperation just below the surface here – that comes to the fore with the dramatic ‘Then die!’ at the end of the last stanza. Poor rose.

There are no biographical notes in my Norton to tell me whether or not Waller’s plea was successful. He was a widower of 39 when he wrote the poem, unlucky in subsequent romantic adventures and living in exile during a bitterer part of the Civil war – during which he had taken the King’s side. Lucky for him, he survived into the Restoration and the delights of Charles II’s court.

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