Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Primrose Way

Cross-posted from A Wren-like Note: Maxwell Gray's 1898 essay The Primrose Way. It's an interesting mix once you dig into the references: an evocative recollection of a lane (recognisably on the north of the Isle of Wight's downs); a treatise on flowers in 19th century poetry; an appreciation of the primrose; and an indictment of the despoliation of the flowers on the now-defunct 'Primrose Day' commemorating Disraeli's death.

By Maxwell Gray, in the Weekly Sun.

I know a lane running along the edge of an oaken copse that slopes down from the crest of a bleak, windy hill. Narrow is that lane, and dim and unfrequented; hazels, springing from either bank, meet and overarch it, fanning a still, sweet cloister, green-roofed in summer, brown in winter and spring, gold in autumn. Therein many birds and small beasts dwell and wander safely; there matins and vespers are duly sung in various voice. The Queen's highway passes it at right angles, keeping on the outer edge of the copse, so that travellers' eyes are drawn to look over the rustic stile that bars its entrance, and down the. long dim vista that closes gradually in a bend with a downward turn.

Green is the floor of that shadowy walk, with a thin brown centre worn by footsteps either of' lovers or fairies, by nothing more prosaic; green all the year round are the banks whence the hazels spring, their greenery lighted in season with pale glory of primroses. Nothing can be more inviting than this lane; it might lead anywhere, everywhere, to fairyland, to the land of long ago, to the land of "some fine day," or to "that new world which is the old."

From early childhood I have known and loved this lane, attracted by its mysterious possibilities even more than by the intrinsic charm, of its green quiet and beauty, its lavish spring treasure of. primroses and' autumn wealth of nuts and blackberries. Never but once have I seen human form beneath its braided shadows, never but once set foot on its silent pathway. Though actually and literally in a southern county, with a thatched cottage visible, from its entrance; though, actually and literally—not that imagination accepts the fact—the dull clown must "tread it daily with his clouted shoon"; it is ideally, that is, truly, the mystic “primrose path" discussed by Ophelia and Laertes.

The humanity I once, and only once, saw treading that primrose way was a pair of lovers newly betrothed, in the April of their life and of Nature's. And though my once walking down the dim lane at primrose-tide dissipated its romance and destroyed its wide verge of possibility by landing one nowhere in particular on the other side, one is content to find that the pristine glamour returns with years; crude fact is forgotten; poetry resumes her ancient sway. The woodland aisle is still seen in firm belief that one might wander away, far and far beneath those hazel shadows, to some illimitable pleasaunce of beauty and joy.

The copse it borders is itself a pleasaunce full of natural magic and poetic suggestion; fauns, wood nymphs, lost princesses might appear at any moment from behind those grey oak boles.

A row of tall Scotch firs shelters it from the wild south-wester, that roars salt and savage in riotous joy over valley and level, shearing hedge and tree in its path, twisting and bending the gaunt, red-stemmed guards into weird, suggestive shapes in its fury. These spread wild arms over a grey mystery of leafless oaks that presently in their golden burgeoning will tremble with the nightingale's moon music; they lean over undergrowth of hazel and blackberry, ash and bracken; they hold in their writhen boughs a deep song that echoes the wild sea surge. In March and April the bare oak tops shelted by the firs look down upon beds of primroses interspaced with flowers of less lustre— violets, red and white in March, pale blue in late April; delicate shell-pink anemones, dark sweet hyacinths, red champion, wood spurge, sweet woodruff; but always this sweet underlight, this tender earthshine of primroses.

Among the flowers let fall from Dis's chariot by frightened Persephone we find
pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
The great sun in his strength
Only pale and unmarried, while violets are "sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes or Cytherea's breath." Shakespeare shows, like his poet-brothers, a special fondness for violets. A strain of music is "like the sweet south, that breathes upon a bank of violets, stealing yet giving odour." "Odours when sweet violets sicken," Shelley says, giving them the palm for sweetness; it is "the violet of his native land" to which Arthur Hallam's dust is to be turned; his friend's regret in spring
Becomes an April violet,
And buds and blossoms with the rest.
Keats divines in the darkness that "fast-fading violets, covered up in leaves," grow in his nightingale's plot of beechen green; Wordsworth's sweet secluded maiden is
A violet by a mossy stone,
Half-hidden from the eye.
From Milton's "glowing violet"— strange epithet for a minute dark flower—to L. E. L.'s " Violets, March violets," parodied by Thackeray in "Cabbages, green cabbages," this sweet, small wildling has received constant poetic incense; while "the rathe primrose that forsaken dies," as Milton calls it, classing it as a flower "that sad embroidery wears," has ever lacked due meed of song, probably because—though by accent a trochee—it is a quantitative spondee, and overweighted with consonants. Yet Wordsworth implies that much might be said of “A primrose by a river's brim." He assigns it a curious part in "The Wren's Nest,", while the "Primrose of the Rock" did nothing characteristic. The lesser celandine, his avowed favourite, scarcely occupies so warm a corner in his heart as the daisy, the daffodil, and the violet.

These three wildings lord it over all the rest, even over the typical, antithetic pair, the rose and. lily, in English poetry. In
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty,"
is a. whole poem, true in fact, and more beautiful in form than any, even than Keats’s floral beauty type of "Daffodile, with the green world they live in."

Herrick's best lyric is of "fair daffodils" that" ''haste away so soon." The subtle, spiritual charm of the dear primrose eludes him; "the sweet infanta, of the year" he calls "sickly." Again we hear of primroses as "whimpering younglings, orphans," whose only speech is tears. Jean Ingleow's prize poem is on the daffodil; but the "million, million drops of gold" of buttercups prove them her favourites.

When Browning grows homesick in April he yearns for "the buttercup, the little children's dower," the kingcup of Wordsworth and Tennyson, the cuckoo-bud of Shakespeare. Cowslips, crowfoot, privet, marsh-marigold, "the little speedwell's darling blue," the "clear germander eye" of a baby— there is scarcely a flower, wild or not, unnamed by Tennyson. But, except that his brook "prattles the primrose fancies of the boy," that blossom is passed over, though bindweed bells, bryony, apple blossom, chestnut, hazel, forget-me-not, and many others occur in "The Brook." It is absent from the numberless flowers and, flower similes in "Alymer's Field," even from the typical spring posy in which cowslips occur twice; absent from " Maud." Keats scarcely mentions the primrose in his profuse variety of flowers.

Yet the whole of spring looks out from the pale and- pensive glance of the "prime," or "first," or "spring" rose. It is found in sheltered nooks throughout mild winters, preceding even snowdrop, aconite, and celandine, and lasting till "the sweet musk-rose, the mid-May's eldest child," blossoms upon sandy wastes, and heads the long and splendid procession of summer roses.

Other flowers are prized for colour, form, or fragrance; the primrose has all three— its soft, refreshing scent contains no vertigo, its stems and leaves, soft to .touch, sweet, in odour, never stain or soil, like dandelion, hyacinth, and moon-daisy, which last even blisters mowers' hands. The primrose fades sweetly, unlike the prized violet and vaunted daffodil, the latter being nauseous, even when fresh,. if crushed. The primrose's yellow is unique ; it grows' almost everywhere, and always in generous profusion. Even its sturdy cousin, the cowslip, so like it and quite as sweet and wholesome, is in bloom briefer, in locality more restricted, in hue less rare.

To bury the face in a handful of primroses and inhale their delicate honey-scent is to breathe youth, innocence, and spring. They make exquisite posies set off by the dark small-leaved ivy that creeps in woods, by the bugloss, or the purple or dog violet, or darker hyacinth, that all grow near. What refreshment, what charm, in a green bank shadowed by trees and starred by primrose clumps! Such a one as a child I knew, some 80ft high. Trees and brushwood, and many a wild flower remain on that bank, but no primroses. They have been recklessly gathered for sale, ruthlessly uprooted to pine and die in gardens, and, last and worst fate, to furnish a, party emblem.

It is a kind of simony to buy and sell wild flowers, which are the direct gift of heaven; besides, mercenary hands gather savagely, wastefully. Hecatombs of these slain innocents will soon be piled before his statue in Westminster, in memory of the statesman who is said to have loved primroses; a sight to make-poets and painters, perhaps angels, weep.

For there will be no more primroses soon. My dear, dim cloister will, still invite the fancy to wander far in mystic pleasaunces, but bereft of its delicate light; the stormwrithen firs will still bend protectingly, but with deep-voiced, inconsolable lament, over the grey mystery of woven oak boughs that will brood no more above pale primrose-shine; dells and dingles, river-banks and hedgerows will be forlorn; vernal primrose nests will cluster no more about ash-stools and hazel-roots ; children will lose the most wholesome of country joys; Wordsworth's prediction—
Long as there's a sun that sets,
Primroses will have their glory,
will be falsified.

- The Primrose Way, Otago Witness [New Zealand], Issue 2311, 16 June 1898, Page 59

The reference to the primrose as "a party emblem" and "piled before his statue in Westminster, in memory of the statesman who is said to have loved primroses" is a reference to the British Conservative organisation the Primrose League, and to Benjamin Disraeli:
The primrose was known as the "favourite flower" of Benjamin Disraeli, and so became associated with him. Queen Victoria sent a wreath of primroses to his funeral with the handwritten message: "His favourite flowers: from Osborne: a tribute of affectionate regard from Queen Victoria." On the day of the unveiling of Disraeli's statue all Conservative members of the House of Commons were decorated with the primrose.
- Wikipedia / Primose League / retrieved 5th June 2014
MG's closing comments about the despoliation of primroses may seem over-the-top when you don't know the context; but historically, such 'Primrose fever' and mass picking was regularly a feature of the now-defunct Primrose Day on 19th April, held to commemorate the death of Disraeli. See Custom demised: Primrose Day.

References (which turn out to be a travelogue of MG's poetic preferences, largely early 19th century romantic poetry. Many were evidently done from memory, as MG's wordings weren't accurate).
  • "that new world which is the old" - Tennyson, The Departure
  • "tread it daily with his clouted shoon" - Milton, Comus
  • "primrose path" - Shakespeare, Hamlet
  • "pale primroses ... sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes or Cytherea's breath" - Shakespeare, A Winter's Tale
  • "like the sweet south, that breathes upon a bank of violets" - Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
  • "Odours when sweet violets sicken" - Shelley, To —
  • "the violet of his native land ... Becomes an April violet" - Tennyson, In Memoriam
  • "fast-fading violets, covered up in leaves" - Keats, Ode to a Nightingale
  • "A violet by a mossy stone" - Wordsworth, She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways
  • "glowing violet" - Milton, Lycidas
  • "Violets, March violets" - Isa Craig, March Violets - MG is confusing her references here. Thackeray's "Cabbages, bright green cabbages" is parodying a different verse by "LEL" (Letitia Elizabeth Landon),"Violets, deep blue violets". More later.
  • "the rathe primrose that forsaken dies ... that sad embrodiery wears" - Milton, Lycidas
  • "a primrose by a river's brim" - Wordsworth, Peter Bell
  • "He assigns it a curious part in The Wren's Nest" - Wordsworth's poem in which a wren's nest is hidden by primrose leaves
  • "the Primrose of the Rock did nothing characteristic" - Wordsworth's poem in which a primrose grows on a rock, an unlikely location
  • "daffodils / That come before the swallow dares" - Shakespeare, Winter's Tale
  • "daffodils, with the green world they live in" - Keats, Endymion
  • "fair daffodils ... haste away so soon."Herrick, To Daffodils
  • "the sweet infanta, of the year" - Herrick, The Primrose
  • "whimpering younglings" - Herrick, To Primroses filled with morning dew
  • "million, million drops of gold" - Jean Ingelow, The Letter L
  • "the buttercup, the little children's dower" - Browning, Home-Thoughts from Abroad
  • "the little speedwell's darling blue" - Tennyson, In Memoriam
  • "clear germander eye" - Tennyson, Sea Dreams
  • "prattles the primrose fancies of the boy" - Tennyson, The Brook
  • "the sweet musk-rose, the mid-May's eldest child" - Keats, Ode to a Nightingale
  • "Long as there's a sun that sets / Primroses will have their glory" - Wordsworth, To the Small Celandine
 - RG

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