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The unbearable lightness of daffodils

Joyce Marcel’s column appears monthly in The Commons. An anthology of her favorite columns from over the years, A Thousand Words or Less, is available at www.joycemarcel.com.

DUMMERSTON—Daffodils can break your heart in so many lovely ways.

“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,” wrote William Wordsworth a few years after he and his sister, while walking by a lake, unexpectedly came upon great masses of the flowers.

But he was with his sister, so how lonely could he be?

Dorothy Wordsworth described that walk with her brother this way in her journal: “But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore... I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones, as on a pillow, for weariness, and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind..."

Obviously, a talent for writing ran in the family. And yet too few people know only his name, not hers. Sigh.

And I only know about Dorothy because several years ago my husband, bless his heart, brought me home a lovely little 1994 book, Flora’s Gems: The Little Book of Daffodils, by Pamela Todd, in which her prose appears

Narcissus is the Latin name for all daffodils, Todd informs us, as well as the common name for a familiar fragrant flower.

The multitude of shapes and sizes that are daffodils take their name from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who became enamored of his reflection in a pool of water and withered away for love of himself.

“And narcissi, the fairest among them all/Who gaze on their eyes in the stream’s recess/Till they die of their own dear loveliness,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In Olde English, the flowers were also called daffodilly and daffodowndilly — words that are now among my favorites.

* * *

The flowers have been with us seemingly forever.

“He that has two cakes of bread, let him sell one of them for some flowers of the Narcissus, for bread is food for the body, but Narcissus is food of the soul,” wrote the Prophet Mohammed.

“In medieval times, highborn ladies occasionally cultivated daffodils in their gardens as they used the yellow dye the flowers yield to tint their hair and eyebrows,” Todd tells us.

Daffodils grow all over the world. Todd tells a wonderful story from Fujian, China, about a poor widow who was so touched by the plight of a hungry beggar that she gave him her last half-bowl of rice. He ate the rice, thanked the woman, spat a few grains on the floor, and disappeared.

The next morning, scores of graceful daffodils had appeared where he spit. The widow sold the blooms and became prosperous. And Fujian became famous for its daffodils.

“So in China the flower symbolized prosperity and benevolence,” Todd writes.

No one knows when the first daffodil bulbs were brought to the Colonies, but in the 1730s, “John Bartram, who established one of the first plant collections in the six-acre garden at his home on the Schuykill River, a few miles from Philadelphia, wrote to Peter Collinson, the English horticulturist, to say that daffodils were plentiful and he did not want any more,” Todd says.

Another negative, but slightly daft, approach was taken by Edward Augustus Bowles in his 1914 book, My Garden in Spring.

“I greatly dislike the huge race of trumpet Daffodils... A man might almost feel nervous of looking down some of their trumpets, for fear of falling in and getting drowned in the honey, and a lifebelt or two should be hung among the beds,” Bowles wrote.

Getting drowned in the honey of spring — what a lovely image!

* * *

But daffodils can also symbolize the fleeting nature of spring, and that can make us sad.

“Fair daffodils, we weep to see/You haste away so soon,” wrote poet Robert Herrick in the 17th century. “We have short time to stay, as you/We have as short a spring[...]”

“We die/As your hours do, and dry/Away,/Like to the summer’s rain;/Or as the pearls of morning dew,/Ne’er to be found again.”

So much pain, so much poetry, so much imagination!

“There is scarcely a poet in the English language who has not celebrated daffodils,” writes Todd.

And all of it attached to such a beautiful, cheerful, early little flower!

The first sight of it signals that the dark heaviness of the heart in winter is over and gone.

“When daffodils begin to peer/With heigh! the doxy over the dale/Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;/For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale,” Shakespeare wrote in The Winter’s Tale.

So heigh the doxy, drown in the honey of spring, and enjoy the sweet of the year.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #93 (Wednesday, March 23, 2011).

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