Monday, 12 September 2016

15 January 1881 - 'What the Flowers Say' by James Mason

I have preserved the slightly odd placement of the pictures amongst the text. And #TIL there's a flower that symbolises "You're not pretty, but at least you're not stupid too".

"Is there any moral shut within the bosom of the rose?" - Tennyson

You may look at flowers in two ways - botanically, which is very interesting, or sentimentally and poetically, which is more interesting still. They are almost all surrounded by a halo of human thought, and we find in them - or fancy we find in them, which is much the same thing - an approach to human expression. We speak of them as possessing pride, modesty, boldness, delicacy, as inspired by joy, sorrow, and ambition. We give them a voice and a language.

We do not, of course, always know what they say. You remember the man in the fairy tale who had the gift of understanding the speech of animals, but lost it through telling the secret to his wife. Now it is not unlikely that the exact language spoken by the flowers, if ever it was known, has been lost in some such fashion. We comprehend it very imperfectly, guessing at it as we might guess at the speech of our dogs and cats.

Some people can never understand its meaning, any more than they can make out what is told by any of the other wonders of nature. Such are not desirable acquaintances at all. Keep far away, says a wise man, from those who have no sympathy for flowers.

The great thing requisite is to be in love with what is beautiful, and to have an open and tender heart. To all happy natures of whom this is the description flowers say strange things, and birds and beasts make surprising revelations.

The object of this article is to speak of the language of flowers as it is at present understood. By the matter-of-fact this language has been held of small account, and has often been sadly misrepresented, but, girls, to speak seriously, it contains a genuine truth to which good sense will not refuse attention. The more the things of nature are mixed up with our own spiritual being the more interesting, the more enjoyable, the more beautiful the world will appear. Connect things with thoughts, then things are truly valuable.

If the study of the language of flowers did nothing more than send you to the garden and the fields, it would not be an unsatisfactory result. The value of the open air is not half understood, and how few, after all these years, have discovered that there is more genuine happiness to be obtained in the healthy round of rural life than amidst all the bustle of society.

There is a great deal of poetry still left in the country, though perhaps not quite so much - and the more's the pity - as in the olden times when "the elves danced full oft in many a green mead," and the cowslips were the pensioners of the fairy queen.

Flowers are in a special manner connected with the romance of life. They are mixed up with all our remembrances, and the older we grow the most quiet nooks they occupy in our hearts. It would be a curious calculation how many withered flowers there are in the world treasured as relics beyond price, and forming the links that connect us with a happy past. It is, therefore, of great interest to know the sentiments connected with different flowers, and the human attributes and human passions which they are held to denote and express.

There can be no doubt that the language of flowers came originally from the East, the home of so many marvels. It received a great deal of attention in Europe in the Middle Ages, and was of good service to lords and ladies, who in those times knew as little how to write as how to read. We have not the only example of utility in the case of the fair prisoner who, having no opportunity of speaking to her lover, informed him of her captivity by throwing from a lofty tower a rose bathed in her tears.

Those who have tried to reduce the language of flowers to a system have laid down several rules for its use. The first of these is that a flower presented in an upright position expressed a certain thought, but given with its head hanging downwards utters just the contrary sentiment. You may also, they say, vary the expression of flowers by altering their position. The marigold laced on the head, for example, signifies sorrow of mind; above the heart, pangs of love; resting on the breast, ennui. It makes a difference, too, if you present a flower with or without its leaves or without its thorns, if it happens to have any thorns. A rosebud, with all its thorns and leaves, means, "I fear, but I hope;" stripped of its thorns, "There is everything to hope for;" stripped of its leaves, "There is everything to fear."

But all this is too elaborate for most people, and we must always bear in mind that the poetry of nature may be ruined by indulgence in fantastic whims.

Let us speak first of the rose, the flower of love and beauty. No other has been more highly praised by poets in every country and in all past times. It has had the most high-sounding names given to it: Queen of Flowers, Daughter of the Sky, Glory of Spring, and Ornament of the Earth show the depth of enthusiasm it has excited. We therefore naturally expect it to take a leading place in speaking the language of flowers. And so it does.

Roses represent a different sentiment according to their colour. The white rose indicates "candour;" the musk rose "affectation;" the single rose "simplicity;" the damask rose "freshness;" the cabbage rose goes forth as "an ambassador of love;" and a white and red rose together form a symbol of unity.

A yellow rose means "decrease of love" or "jealousy," yellow, according to one of the articles of folk-lore, being a jealous colour. If you wish to indicate "charming grace and beauty," you must select a China rose. That must have been the flower sent by the poet with the famous verses -

"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."

In the East, the rose is above all others the flower of affection. There is a beautiful story which represents the bulbul - so the Armenians call the nightingale - as falling in love with the rose, and as only beginning to sing when inspired by the tender passion. This fable has been put into verse by Thackeray -

"Under the bought I sat and listened still,
I could not have my fill.
'How comes,' I said, 'such music to his bill?
Tell me for whom he sings so sweet a trill.
'Once I was dumb,' then did the bird disclose,
'But looked upon the Rose;
And in the garden where the loved one grows
I straightway did begin sweet music to compose.'"

The rose used to be employed as the symbol of silence, and from this arose a phrase one often hears, "under the rose." It seems that in ancient times it was a custom to place chaplets of roses above the heads of the guests, and on these occasions when people wished what they said to go no farther than those present they remarked that their observations were made "under the rose." Thus the phrase we use took its origin.

The lily is the emblem of majesty and purity. This flower is closely connected with the legendary history of the Virgin Mary, the lily which generally appears in pictures in connection with her being the great white lily of our gardens. As a token of purity it was frequently placed by artists in the Middle Ages in the hands of female saints.

The lily of the valley has always been held to be symbolical of purity and holiness. In some country places this humble but graceful plant is understood as pointing men's thoughts to a better world; it is called there the "ladder to heaven," a name evidently suggested by the arrangement of the flowers.

The snowdrop is another of those emblems of purity of which the world cannot have too many. This flower has become invested with a kind of sacredness; no doubt because it forms about the first sign that after the long sleep of winter Nature is rousing herself to begin the life and work of spring.

AS an emblem of modesty we have the daisy, the badge of Maid Margaret, that was so meek and mild, a very popular saint in the olden time. Another flower speaking the same language is the humble violet. The violet is also a lover's flower, and stands for constancy. As the old rhyme has it -

"The violet is for faithfulness
Which in me shall abide."

We have a contrast to these plants of modest looks and lowly thoughts in the tulip, which is held to be a symbol of grandeur and magnificence. During last century this flower created a sensation at which we may well imagine violets, daisies, and all quiet-minded flowers were much amazed. The love of tulips became a mania. IT was no rare thing to see a family ruined through the passion of the father for tulips.

The thistle in the language of flowers stands for "retaliation." To the Scotchman, however, as everyone knows, it speaks of nothing but the glories of his own native land, of which it is the emblem.

It became the emblem of Scotland, if legends be true, in the following way - When the Danes invaded Scotland, a long time ago, it was thought a shabby thing to attack an enemy except in broad daylight. On one occasion the invaders resolved to avail themselves of stratagem, and to come upon the Scots by night. To prevent their tramp from being heard they marched barefooted. They thus got unobserved within a short distance of the Scottish forces; but a Dane unluckily set his foot on a superb prickly thistle, and he gave such a howl of pain that the Scots heard him. They immediately ran to their arms and defeated the foe with great slaughter. After this the thistle was, out of pure gratitude, made the emblem of the Scottish kingdom.

Another Scottish flower is the harebell, the blue-bell of Scotland. In the language of flowers the harebell represents "submission." According to the poet -

"The harebell, for her stainless azure hue,
Claims to be worn of none but those are true."

All blue flowers, however, the bard should have noticed, have equal rights in this way, it being laid down in the old rhyme that blue is the colour of true love, as green is that of grief, and yellow that of love forsaken.

Now we come to "the sweet forget-me-nots that grow for happy lovers."

The language of this flower lies in its name, and its name it is said arose from the following incident - Two lovers were once loitering on the margin of a lake, when the maiden noticed some flowers growing on the surface of the water, near an island at some distance from the shore. She expressed a wish to obtain them, and her knight, in the true spirit of ancient chivalry, at once plunged into the water, and swimming to the spot plucked the wished-for plant. His strength, however, failed, and feeling that he could not regain the shore, although very near it, he threw the flowers on the bank; then, casting a last affectionate look upon his lady-love, he cried, "Forget me not," and was buried in the waters.

Rosemary stands for remembrance. At one time this plant was thought to strengthen the memory, and in consequence of this it became the symbol of remembrance amongst friends and lovers. A lover would say to his lass -

"Rosemary is for remembrance
Between us day and night;
Wishing that I might always have
You present in my sight."

Ophelia, in her madness, gives rosemary to her brother, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember."

Silence is represented by lavender. There is a superstition in some parts of the Continent that lavender has the power of restoring speech to those who have lost it.

Eglantine means just the reverse of lavender, and stands for "you speak well."

Amongst our winter decorations holly has an important place, and it speaks a language of great interest. The Romans of old held holly to be a sign of peace and goodwill, and it has thus come to be the emblem of the principal festival of a religion which preaches peace and goodwill to all mankind. With the northern nations of Europe holly used to be a type of the life which preserved nature through the desolations of winter.

The laurel speaks of triumph or glory. In the middle ages this plant served to crown poets, artists, and men of learning, who had particularly distinguished themselves. From this practice we have derived our expression poet-laureate. During the time when Rome ruled the world the laurel was held to be the emblem of victory, and also that of clemency. Whenever a despatch was sent telling of a great success it was wrapped up in, and ornamented with laurel leaves. And in triumphal processions leaves of laurel were worn by the victorious generals, and the common soldiers bore sprigs of it in their hands.

Friendship, fidelity and marriage are represented by ivy. This pleasant duty has been performed by this plant for many a day. In Greece wreaths of ivy used to be presented to newly-married people as a suitable emblem of undying affection amid the ravages of time.

But we must not linger over the subject in this way or we shall never have done. Our purpose, girls, is to give just enough to show you that there is a language of flowers and that it is worth looking into for yourselves. We shall hurry on and just mention a few more of the commoner plants with the language popularly assigned to them.

Rushes are held to signify "submission" or "docility," and if any day you watch the wind sweeping over them you will see that the plant speaks quite in character. Heath signifies solitude. Pink verbena, on the contrary, has a leaning towards society, and is an emblem of "family union." Jasmine stands for "amiability," fern for "sincerity," and foxglove, which always wears a brazen-faced air, for "insincerity."

The acacia stands for "friendship" or "platonic affection." There is a deeper sentiment at work when one presents a sprig of mignonette, which signifies "your qualities surpass your charms" - mental qualities, be it understood, and personal charms. Apple-blossom is still more serious, for it means "preference;" but "preference' is cold compared with "generous and devoted affection," and that is indicated by a sprig of honeysuckle.

As the flame of affection burns still brighter, the heliotrope, the camellia, the pansy, and the mistletoe, find employment. The heliotrope says "I am ever faithful and devoted;" the camellia, "In me behold constancy itself;"  the pansy, "I think of you, think of me;" and the mistletoe, "Whatever difficulties are in the way of winning you, I shall surmount them all." And may that be the fortune of all the honest-hearted hard-working lovers in the world.

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