#3 Amaranth






            There are around sixty species of weedy, tasseled annuals in the genus Amaranthus. Closely related to Celiosa, they are grown for their nutritious grain as well as their ornamental beauty (Hogan 144). Thought to be native to the New World, amaranth was systematically cultivated as early as 8,000 years ago by the Aztecs who relied heavily on its protein-packed seeds as a food source. Although the invading Spanish burned fields of amaranth thinking they were allied with pagan worship, the species had early spread to other continents, including India and southern Europe. [1]  The most commonly grown garden-variety ornamental is Amaranthus caudatus, aka “Love Lies Bleeding” or “The Tassel Flower,” which can reach heights of four feet with long drooping catkins of reddish purple flowers (Hogan 144).


                Amaranth has an impeccably canonical literary history. It was known to the Greeks, who provided the European name, from the Greek for “unfading” (amarantos) plus “flower” (anthos), because the dried blossoms are everlasting. In his account of plant lore, Folkard says that the Greeks considered it “an emblem of immortality,” noting that it appears in Homer’s depiction of the funeral of Achilles, where the mourners wear crowns of amaranth (123).[2] Both Spenser and Milton include amaranth in their lists of funereal blossoms.  In the Garden of Adonis episode in Book III of the Fairie Queene, it is among a group of flowers (including hyacinths and narcissus), “to which sad lovers were transformed of yore”; the “purple gore” of amranthus is said to mirror the fate of one Amintas who died of love and was turned into an amaranth (Canto VI, verse 45, ll. 2, 7).[3] In Lycidas Milton includes it as one of the flowers “that sad embroidery wears” and bids amaranthus to shed “all his beauty” (ll. 148-9). Amaranth also appears in Paradise Lost, woven into the golden crowns of angels (Book III, l. 352); having once blossomed in the Garden of Eden next to the Tree of Life, after the Fall it was removed to heaven where it grows by the River of Bliss whose amber waters run over “Elisian Flours,”  shading from aloft “The Fount of Life” (III, ll. 357-9).  Tennyson picks up these associations of amaranth with both death and immortality in “The Lotus Eaters” where, in an episode adapted from The Odyssesy, the drugged sailors rest “propt on beds of amaranth and moly,” and “Beneath a heaven dark and holy . . . watch the long bright river drawing slowly/ His waters from the purple hill” (Stanza 7, ll. 1, 506).[4]  Walter de le Mare, whom Woolf knew socially and two of whose books she had reviewed (in 1918, a collection of Poems and in 1919 a book on Rupert Brook) also invokes amaranth in his poem “All That’s Past” (1914):


Very old are we men;

Our dreams are tales

Told in dim Eden

By Eve's nightingales;

We wake and whisper awhile,

But, the day gone by,

Silence and sleep like fields

Of amaranth lie. [5]


Here the fields of amaranth in dreams of Eden seem comparable to the legendary fields of asphodel which grow in Elysium, just the other side of the river Hades.


            Appearing mostly in fairly obscure essays, Woolf’s five uses of amaranth hew closely to this literary tradition of visualizing amaranth as one of the flowers of heaven. In a 1919 review of some selections from the work of Walter Savage Landor, she quotes a passage from the dialogue between Aesop and Rhodope in Imaginary Conversations (1844) as an example of prose which has “the pure, almost unthinking beauty” of poetry: “There are no fields of amaranth on this side of the grave; there are no voices, O Rhodope, that are not soon mute, however tuneful; there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last” (E3 111). Here amaranth grows, as in Milton, only on the other side of death, in fields which anticipate de la Mare.


A few years later, in a review of books by Romer Wilson and Dorothy Richardson (“Romance and the Heart,” 1923), while describing the romantic nature of Wilson’s treatment of tempestuous emotions Woolf apparently picks up on Tennyson’s idea that one can be propped up on a bed of amaranth: “While other novelists sit studying the skeleton of humanity and painfully tracing the relations of tiny fibres, Miss Wilson hurls a sponge at the blackboard, takes her way into the forest, flings herself on a couch of amaranth, and revels in the thunder” (E3 366).  Another possible allusion to Tennyson appears in the essay on “Dr. Bentley,” the great Greek scholar once Master of Trinity College, written for The Common Reader in 1925. In a passage so over the top it suggests Woolf is making fun of the man whose work she and other women cannot fully appreciate because of  “the infirmities of our education,” she imagines getting a glimpse of him crossing the college green: “none the less, we treasure up the last flicker of his black gown, and feel as if a bird of Paradise had flashed by us, so bright is his spirit’s raiment, and in the murk of a November evening we had been privileged to see it winging its way to roost in fields of amaranth and beds of moly” (E4 196). The possible reference to “The Lotus Eaters,” while slyly bringing in a mock-herioc Greek allusion perhaps suggests that this arrogant and quarrelsome man who lost his professorship through profiteering on the food supplies of his college rather wasted his promise and erudition.


The Tennysonian combination of amaranth and moly reoccurs in Woolf’s essay on “Abbeys and Cathedrals” written for Good Housekeeping a few years later (1932). Noting the splendors of the tombs in St Paul’s, she describes the entrance to one recess as not leading to heaven:  

True, a heavy bossed door has above it the legend that through the gate of death we pass to our joyful resurrection; but somehow the massive portals suggest that they open not upon fields of amaranth and moly where harps sound and heavenly choirs sing, but upon flights of marble steps that lead on to solemn council chambers and splendid halls, loud with trumpets and hung with banners. (E5 302)


Woolf’s last reference to amaranth -- in a review of a biography of Sara Coleridge the poet’s daughter, written in October of 1940, one of the last essays published before her death -- reiterates the Miltonic context of amaranth woven into the crowns of angels. At the end of her essay, lamenting the daughter’s early death, Woolf quotes what are purported to be Sara Coleridge’s last written words:  “But she died at forty-eight, leaving, like her father, a blank page covered with dots, and two lines:

Father, no amaranths e’er shall wreathe my brow—

Enough that round thy grave they flourish now.”   (E6 253)


For Sara Coleridge, amaranths are not only worn in heaven, but are also a mark of poetic distinction she has not herself earned.


Woolf never mentions an actual amaranth growing in a garden or elsewhere.[6]  It seems clear that for her amaranth is a literary flower, growing out of the soil of the literature of Europe from Homer to Spenser, Milton, Tennyson, and de la Mare.



[1] See this website on Ancient Grains (for vegans) for information on the origins of amaranth.  https://www.ancientgrains.com/amaranth-history-and-origin/ Accessed March 9, 2022. The Wikipedia entry on amaranth suggests that seeds have been excavated in India dating as far back as 1000 BCE.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amaranth  Accessed March 9, 2022

[2] Although Folkard does not supply the location, one assumes that this reference would be in the description of the funeral in Book 24 of The Odyssey.  However, I have not yet found a translation which incorporates this detail.


[3]  This gloss is provided by http://www.uky.edu/~jsreid2/Spenser/Commentary/adonis.htm#45  Accessed March 9, 2022.

[4] Moly is also a flower with Homeric roots.  It appears as a magical herb in Book 10 of The Odyssey, where Hermes gives it to Odysseus to prevent enchantment by Circe. There, as in Book 14 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it is described as a white flower with black roots. The Wikipedia entry records the controversy over the plant’s identification, positing that is usually thought to have been Allium nigrum or Black Garlic but noting the symptoms it provokes are similar to poisoning from eating the roots of snowdrops. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moly_(herb) Accessed March 11, 2022. 

    The only time I can find that moly is paired with amaranth is in Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters.”

[5] The full text of this short poem is available on-line  https://www.poemtree.com/poems/All-Thats-Past.htm  Accessed March 7, 2022.


[6] Although I have no corroborating evidence, it seems possible that, given its alternative name as “Tassle Flower,” the “Tall flowers with purple tassles to them” that the narrator of “The Mark on the Wall” (1917) sights “growing on a dust heap on the site of an old house in Kingsway, which she speculates “must have been sown in the realm of Charles the First” (CSF 85) might be amaranth.  Charles the First was executed in 1649.  In her monumental Plants in Garden History, Penelope Hobhouse maintains that amaranth was “familiar” in Britain by 1565 and notes that it was described and illustrated in Gerard’s Herball of 1597 (120-1).  Not that Woolf usually pays much attention to horticultural chronology, especially before the purchase of Monk’s House in 1919.

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