‘Dances with the Daffodils’ – The Essential Guide to Flower Poems
Wednesday 12th Apr 2017 – It's a Flowerful Life
Flowers, as we know, are food for the soul as well as the senses –which is why so many great poems are about them. Here’s a guide to the very best flower poetry, aka Freddie’s Floral Anthology…
By Nigel Andrew
If you were asked to name a flower poem, what would come instantly to mind? Surely it would be this one – William Wordsworth’s Daffodils (1804):
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.
It’s a perfect evocation of the joy of flowers at its most intense – so intense that the joy can return out of the blue and fill the heart with pleasure all over again.
This is Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ in its happiest form, expressed in verses of perfect simplicity. No wonder it remains such a favourite.
The 17th-century poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) also turned his attention to daffodils in this sweet and delicate lyric – To Daffodils:
Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Until the hasting day
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.
Unlike Wordsworth’s daffodils, Herrick’s are being used to teach a lesson – that life is short and we must die – but it is so elegantly and musically done that the hard lesson seems easy and painless.
Herrick is, from the start, striking an attitude – ‘Fair daffodils, we weep to see…’ – rather than recording an encounter with real daffodils in the natural world.
William Wordsworth and John Keats
‘Musk-rose and eglantine’
To find a poet who rejoices in the beauty and bounty of real flowers in their natural environment, we need only step back a little further in time – to William Shakespeare.
Here is one of the most famous of his many floral passages, from 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…
Shakespeare beautifully evokes a scene from nature – from an English midsummer woodland – while making music with those lovely traditional names. ‘Woodbine’ is honeysuckle (Lonicera), ‘eglantine’ is the sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa) – but what is the ‘sweet musk-rose’? It can’t be what we now know as musk rose, the cultivated Rosa moschata; the likelihood is that what Shakespeare had in mind was the English field rose (Rosa arvensis), the familiar, simple rose of our hedgerows and field margins.
English field rose (Rosa arvensis)
Musk-rose and eglantine show up again, more than two centuries later, in John Keats’s great Ode to a Nightingale (1819). The poet, following in his imagination the bird whose song has enraptured him, finds himself in the darkness of the woods:
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Evening Primroses and Golden Glories
John Clare (1793-1864), another of the Romantic poets, also finds himself enchanted on a summer evening – not by a bird but by a flower, the Evening Primrose:
When once the sun sinks in the west,
And dewdrops pearl the evening’s breast;
Almost as pale as moonbeams are,
Or its companionable star,
The evening primrose opes anew
Its delicate blossoms to the dew;
And, hermit-like, shunning the light,
Wastes its fair bloom upon the night,
Who, blindfold to its fond caresses,
Knows not the beauty it possesses;
Thus it blooms on while night is by;
When day looks out with open eye,
Bashed at the gaze it cannot shun,
It faints and withers and is gone.
A sonnet in rhyming couplets, this charming poem shows Clare’s gift for close, accurate observation of nature (a gift not given to all ‘nature’ poets). The plant Clare describes (Oenothera) is not a native English wild flower but an American incomer introduced as a garden plant in the 17th century and widely naturalised by the time Clare was writing.
From evening and flowers ‘almost as pale as moonbeams’ to the bright golden flowers of daytime, as celebrated by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) in Golden Glories:
The buttercup is like a golden cup,
The marigold is like a golden frill,
The daisy with a golden eye looks up,
And golden spreads the flag beside the rill,
And gay and golden nods the daffodil,
The gorsey common swells a golden sea,
The cowslip hangs a head of golden tips,
And golden drips the honey which the bee
Sucks from sweet hearts of flowers and stores and sips.
Oddly one very golden flower is missing from Rossetti’s bouquet – the dandelion. Here the American poet Walt Whitman hails The First Dandelion:
Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics,
had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass—
innocent, golden, calm as the dawn,
The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful
Unfortunately for Whitman, this little poem was published in a newspaper in 1888, just as a tremendous blizzard hit New York. A poetical riposte, The First Blizzard, ‘after Walt Whitman’, appeared in the same paper two days later.
Portrait of Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti (l); Emily Dickinson (r)
‘Every human soul’
Whitman’s fellow American Emily Dickinson celebrates a later spring emergence in her 1896 poem May-Flower:
Pink, small, and punctual,
Covert in April,
Candid in May,
Dear to the moss,
Known by the knoll,
Next to the robin
In every human soul.
Bold little beauty,
Bedecked with thee,
To an English reader, may-flower naturally suggests hawthorn blossom, but Dickinson’s subject is in fact Epigaea repens, a low spreading shrub with pretty, star-like flowers that English gardeners know as Trailing Arbutus. An American native, it’s the state flower of Massachusetts, where Emily Dickinson was born and lived all her life.
Epigaea repens – Dickinson’s ‘may-flower’
Another New England poetess, Amy Lowell, celebrates another of New England’s bounteous flowers in Lilacs (1955):
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs…
‘Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace’
Those ‘great puffs of flowers’ suggest another glorious springtime flowering – cherry blossom. Here is A.E. Housman in A Shropshire Lad (1896):
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Like Herrick’s daffodils, this cherry blossom is a reminder of the shortness of life, a subject dear to the heart of the death-obsessed Housman. Every bit as death-fixated was Philip Larkin (1922-85) – not a poet you’d associate with flowers. But there are flowers aplenty in his Cut Grass:
Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,
White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.
The ‘chestnut flowers’ would be the candles of horse chestnut trees, the snow on the hedges is hawthorn blossom, the lilac is still heavy with blooms – and the ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’ (more correctly Cow Parsley) is in full flower. Is there a more perfect image of the deep English countryside in early summer than those ‘lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace’ and the slow-moving cloud above?
And that cloud takes us all the way back to where we began, with Wordsworth’s Daffodils – ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’
Queen Anne’s Lace and lonely clouds…