#51 Hyacinth


The flower that most of us think of as a hyacinth is Hyacinthus orentalis, a perennial bulb also known as the Dutch Hyacinth which is a member of the lily family (Liliacaea). Dutch hyacinths “pack their numerous flowerheads tightly around a central stem forming a dense cylinder” or flower spike (Hogan  716). The flowers are mostly white to lavender, pink, and dark purple, although intensive breeding has produced yellow, orange, and red varieties; the trumpet-like flowerets have a recursive outward flare. Highly fragrant, they can be grown in water and are easily “forced” to grow early in the season. Pratt’s mid-nineteenth-century flower book describes the pleasure to be had “in watching the progress of the beautiful white fibres which descend from the bulbs into the water, tinged with the hue of purple or green” (125).

Originally from Iran and southern Turkey (Pratt specifies Aleppo and Bagdad, 126) H. orentalis was introduced to the Dutch markets of Europe in the sixteenth century, along with tulips, lilies, fritillaries, and a variety of exotic bulbs; Pratt claims that the Dutch had bred over two thousand varieties by 1620, at a time when the flower was “scarcely known in England” (126). The name comes from Greek hyakinthos, for the purple flower that sprang from the blood of the handsome youth Apollo accidentally killed while playing what turned out to be a dangerous game of discus tossing. In Ovid’s version of the tale, Apollo inscribes the petals of the flower with the Greek cry of mourning, “Ai, Ai.” This makes it difficult to confirm that what we now call a hyacinth was the same flower. Giesecke suggests instead that it was Gladiolus illyricus, a wild purple gladiolus from Turkey that has “distinctive marks on its lower lip” (49).

There are, indeed, a confusing number of different flowers which, over time and in various places, have been called hyacinths. For example, the “wood hyacinth” -- definitely natural rather than a florist flower -- is variously identified with BLUEBELLS, the English variety of which is named Hyacinthoides non-scripta, as in hyacinths without the writing on them, or Harebells, the Scottish bluebell, commonly known as Bell Flowers or Campanula (Rendall 352; Ward 212). Woolf does mention harebells twice in her letters, in January of 1928, in separate letters to Clive and Vanessa Bell, both times describing he childhood friend Margery Snowdon as a "withered" harebell (L3 447, 451).
Campanula in my garden
The “wild hyacinth” is designated by Rendall to be scilla, aka SQUILL, the name given to Asparagaceae Scilloideae, actually a relation of the Dutch hyacinth.


And then there are “Grape hyacinths,” a name which usually refers to the much smaller woodland lily, Muscari armeniacum.


One way to differentiate these different species is blooming time: Dutch hyacinths bloom in mid-spring, generally at the same time as daffodils in March, while wood hyacinths or bluebells bloom later in mid April through early May.

Regardless of actual species, Hyacinths are consistently associated with youthful beauty, usually male. Heilmeyer makes the fascinating assertion that “eating the bulbs was said to retard sexual maturity” (32), a practice that intensifies the flower’s association with youth. Folkard, Heilmeyer, and Pratt all refer to the common practice of comparing particularly “crisped and curled” hair to the blossoms of the hyacinth (Folkard 201). Pratt explains this odd analogy by suggesting that it is based on the way that “the petals of the hyacinth turn up at the points” (Pratt 126), but I still have trouble picturing   Adam’s “hyacinthine locks,” which “Round from his parted forelock many hung/Clustering” in Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book IV, ll. 301-3; quoted by Folkard 201).  A knowledgeable friend, a professor of Classical Greek drama, tells me that “Hyacinth, as you no doubt know, is considered the most beautiful flower by the Greeks and people who have lustrous curly hair have ‘hyacinth hair’ — the most beautiful kind. Athena gives Odysseus hyacinth hair before he returns home as himself, in order to make him more beautiful, and Helen is always referred to as having hyacinth hair.”

The literary provenance of hyacinth is largely in the area of the pastoral elegy, as a mourning emblem for the early death of a beautiful boy. For example, Milton’s poem On a Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough compares the child’s demise to that of the “dearly-loved” Hyacinth. Ward declares that the “sanquine flower inscribed with woe” in Lycidas is a hyacinth (210), pointing out that in Greek mythology Hyacinth is linked with Adonis as a symbol “of rebirth and the renewed plant growth of Spring” and of “youthful beauty” (209). The two youths transformed into flowers by deities as a sign of their grief are connected in Milton’s Comus where “young Adonis oft reposes” on “Beds of Hyacinth and roses” (ll. 998-9; qtd by Ward 211), and the two are again linked in Shelley’s pastoral elegy on the early death of Keats, Adonias, when the narrator compares his grief to that of the sun god: “To Phoebus was not Hyacinth so dear” (st 16; qtd by Ward 211). A more parodic use of the flower appears in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, where the heroine, Catherine Morland, declares that she has “learnt to love a hyacinth,” which is taken by her love-interest, Henry Tileny, as a sign that she has begun a somewhat parodic neo-platonic progress of moving in stages to learn to love ever higher things, including, one presumes, himself (beginning of Chapter 22; mentioned by Rendall 357).

In the Victorian language of flowers, the various meanings of hyacinth appear to be differentiated by color. The entire genus is associated by Greenaway with “Sport. Game. Play” -- presumably because of the unfortunate discus incident  (Greenaway 22).  She adds that the White Hyacinth also denotes “Unobtrusive loveliness” (op cit). Ward additionally asserts that “the blue hyacinth was the symbol for constancy and fidelity” while “the purple hyacinth meant sorrow” (208), linking back to the pastoral tradition.

As usual, Virginia Woolf does not pay much attention to fine distinctions among species, though the narrator of Orlando does mention seeing a “grape hyacinth” among the crocuses in Kew in early March (215). Woolf can be fascinatingly non-compliant with the pastoral tradition on hyacinths. Her early work consistently aligns them with the coming of age of young women, with a certain corollary evanescence and delicacy that suggests wood hyacinths or bluebells rather than the larger and studier Dutch version. One of her most notable and sustained evocations of hyacinths occurs in an 1903 practice essay entitled “Thoughts upon Social Success,” in which she muses on the round of parties she and Vanessa were being dragged to by George Duckworth during what she elsewhere referred to as “the Greek slave years” (MOB 106). Noting that she and Vanessa often felt like “outsiders” at these parties, where they typically knew no one, she speculates on the other young ladies for whom these social gatherings seem to constitute an entire life. Wondering whether they even exist in the morning, she embarks on a lengthy fantasy:

My private belief is that the dinner bell calls them into existence — they spring up all over the drawing room like hyacinths in June. By daybreak they are faded — a little crumpled perhaps — never mind — they fold themselves in sleep — to wake once more when the sun is set. Now I find this very beautiful & attractive but always a little puzzling. Has she a stalk or a body — is she clothed in silk or gauze or are they flower petals that shine on her? Above all, what does she talk about? (PA 167-8)

The fact that these flowers bloom in June as well as the vision of their stalks clothed in silk suggest a variety of wood hyacinth, although I cannot help but think there is a bit of a reference to the Victorian pastime of forcing hyacinth bulbs as these blossoms seem to exist entirely in drawing rooms.

Although the reference is to an older woman rather than a younger one, the hyacinths which appear in Night and Day resonate with a similar feminine delicacy.  Impatient with her mother’s wayward tendency to distraction, Katherine reads “her mother's musical sentences about the silver gulls, and the roots of little pink flowers washed by pellucid streams, and the blue mists of hyacinths” before momentarily becoming enraged at the way her own time is wasted on the endless task of memorializing her poet grandfather (ND 115).  Once again, the reference seems to be to wood hyacinths; this time it is Katherine who is enslaved and without a voice, the image of the flower roots washed by streams possibly recalling hyacinth roots in glass vases of water.
        This pattern of associating hyacinths with women moving into adulthood but constrained by silencing and/or an unnatural forcing of growth reaches its apogee in Mrs. Dalloway where Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth is several times compared to the graceful flower.  The first time, waiting for her tutor Miss Kilman, she is presented as “a hyacinth sheathed in glossy green, with buds just tinted, a hyacinth which has had no sun” (120), a description which emphasizes her pre-adult status and reiterates early associations of hyacinth with shade.  The second time, waiting for an omnibus in Victoria Street, she begins to resist the effeminate characterization: “People were beginning to compare her to poplar trees, early dawn, hyacinths, fawns, running water, and garden lilies; and it made her life a burden to her” (130).  Like Virginia herself, she resents the artificial social demands of parties “for she so much preferred being left alone to do what she liked in the country” (130).  Later at her mother’s actual party, her sense of being misrepresented is confirmed; although she seems to Sally Seaton to be “very handsome, very self-possessed,” the young man Willy Titcomb (what a name!) is thinking “She was like a poplar, she was like a river, she was like a hyacinth” (184).

            The intentionality of Woolf’s concentration on “hyacinth girls” and rejections of allusions to the fallen male figure of Greek mythology is given further credibility by a perusal of the flower’s absence in Woolf’s previous novel, Jacob’s Room, her pastoral lament for the death of her brother Thoby and the waste of lives in World War I, which is full of spiky composite purple flowers such as ASTERS, SEA HOLLY, LILACS, and TEASLE (see Sparks, “Literary and Quotidian” 48-9). A diary entry of April 10, 1920, directly juxtaposes the genesis of the novel with the blooming of hyacinths at Monk’s House (D2 28), and the visual appearance of the flower as well as its traditional association with the death of a beautiful boy engaged in a dangerous game seem tailor-made for Woolf’s purposes.

In fact, a perusal of the holograph manuscript of Jacob’s Room reveals that the flower originally was mentioned no less than nine times, but it was revised completely out of the published version (JRHD 194, 196, 198, 199, 209). The flowers are inserted as Jacob is walking around the gardens at Versailles with his friend Cruttendon, a painter living in Paris, and Cruttendon’s friend, Jinny Carslake, also knowledgeable about art (the revised scene appears in JR 135-7). The three repeatedly march by a “lozenge shaped bed packed with stiff pink hyacinths” while having “the great argument” about “Do we exist? Does anything else exist?”(JRHD 194). Woolf seems to have interestingly ambivalent feelings about the gender identification of the flower, shown by the line drawn through “pink,” a color that suggest a somewhat feminized version of the traditionally purple floral symbol for sorrow.  Both Cruttendon and Jinny, with their keen, painterly sense of color, notice that in shadow the flowers appear bright violet (194 and 199), and this foreshadowing of mourning is intensified by the addition of a yew hedge (196, 199), yew often being planted in the cemeteries of English country churchyards and, according to Greenaway, representing “Sorrow” (46). As if to compensate for the feminine and childish pinkness, the initial stiffness of the flowers is amplified by the addition of a nearby statue of Priapus “or some other tapering White God” (196; also on 199). The scene, with its juxtaposition of innocence, masculinity, and sorrow, gets lodged in everyone’s mind as an important moment in time. Jacob feels like “a new kind of person” (196); the “hyacinths appear momentous” (199), and Jacob remembers them on the train to Italy (209).  The elegiac function of the flowers is further emphasized when we learn that seeing hyacinths in Devonshire ten years later makes Jinny cry “as she hung her little boys shirt over the hissing fender” (198).
        The re-gendering of the hyacinth appears once more in To the Lighthouse where the flower is reconnected to its Greek elegiac origins in order to honor an older woman, the goddess-like Mrs. Ramsay.[1]  When Lily Briscoe comes back to the Ramsay’s house after a ten-year absence during which Mrs. Ramsay has died, she decides to try to finish the painting she had started. Returning to the canvas, she experiences a moment of consolation as she has a vision of Mrs. Ramsay “raising to the forehead a wreath of white flowers” and then “stepping with her usual quickness across fields among whose folds, purplish and soft, among whose flowers, hyacinths or lilies, she vanished” (184).  The evocation of the “fields of death”(185) anticipates Mr. Carmichael’s final classical valediction at the end of the book when he greets the arrival at the lighthouse with a gesture as if he had “let fall from his great height a wreath of violets and asphodels” (211). Although H. orientalis is now classified with asparagus amongst the order Asparagales, previously, as Pratt reminds us, it belonged to the Asphodeleae or ASPHODELS, which grew by the river Styxx in Hades (Pratt 129), reinforcing hyacinth’s status as a funereal flower.
        With the farewell to Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf also leaves behind the association of hyacinths with women coming of age. A change of venue for hyacinths was first signaled in Mrs. Dalloway, where the young, inexperienced Masie Johnson stands in Regent’s Park, by the “prim flowers” of the hyacinth beds (26, 27). In Orlando the flowers begin to move out of the shaded woods and into the brightly colored arrangements of metropolitan bedding schemes. Hyacinth are among the asynchronous catalogue of flowers listed as growing in Orlando’s resplendent seventeenth century garden -- “snowdrops, crocuses, hyacinths, magnolias, roses, lilies, asters, the dahlia in all its varieties” (81)--, and they also appear in their native landscape during Orlando’s stay with the Turkish gypsies when Orlando’s characteristically English love of nature causes her to cry out in ecstasy at “the red hyacinth” and “the purple iris” (106).  Back in London, another moment of ecstasy is accompanied by the vivid flowers as, walking through Hyde Park, she passes “a fine bed” of red, blue, and purple hyacinths whose violent” spirt” or “splash” of color reminds her of her husband: “my hyacinth, husband I mean” (211).  The masculinization of hyacinths is confirmed when, now visiting Kew, the sight of a grape hyacinth brings to mind “bulbs, hairy and red, thrust in the earth in October” (215).

Woolf’s only other fictional evocation of hyacinths appears in The Years, where they are municipal, located, as in Orlando, in Hyde Park. Each section of the novel opens with a kind of climatological survey of contemporary conditions, and in the years she was writing it, Woolf paid special attention to the annual progression of flowers, making observational flower notes usually at Monk’s House.  She mentions hyacinths repeatedly in her dairies. In February 1934 “the bees [are] buzzing in the hyacinths” (D4 201). In March, the crocuses are “going over, daffodils & hyacinths out” (D4 292), and March of 1936, she records “Trees coming out, hyacinths, crocuses” (D5 20). The fictional weather report for 1910 concerns the opening of London’s social Season in Hyde Park, where “the green chairs were ranged among the plump brown flower beds with their curled hyacinths, as if waiting for something to happen,” perhaps a procession for Queen Alexandra, with her face “like a flower petal,” wearing her “pink carnation”(152). The hyacinths have reverted and once more are linked with a female figure and the color pink, albeit only metonymically.  Presumably the green chairs were arranged along Rotten Row, just south of the Serpentine, exactly where Orlando spotted her hyacinths.


In the 1914 section, the green chairs are once more “drawn up at the edge of the Row” as Martin and Sara stroll towards Hyde Park Corner, passing “a bed in which the many coloured hyacinths were curled and glossy” (224, 225). In real life, the month after The Years was published, in April of 1937, Woolf was observing the “patriotic beds of red, white & blue hyacinths” in Tavistock Square (D5 79). A year later, she makes her last mention of the flower: “The hyacinths over” (D5 134).

See Works Cited for full documentation

[1] The shift of hyacinths to represent females rather than males seems to echo the treatment of Adonis in “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street.” Judith P. Saunders points out that in the earlier short story, Clarissa Dalloway focuses on a repeated line from Shelley’s Adonais, “From the contagion of the world’s slow stain,” associating it with menstruation and with women’s “natural” isolation from social and political activities (Saunders 140 and passim; CSF 154, 155, 158).

No comments:

Post a Comment

About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...