#54 Ivy


English ivy is botanically classified as Hedra helix. Hedra is a genus of the ivy family Araliaceae consisting of eleven species of evergreen plants which climb by means of aerial roots that anchor to almost any surface (Hogan 678); helix is native to Britain. Ivy grows in two stages: in the juvenile or climbing stage it is infertile and has palmate leaves with three to five lobes; When it has grown as tall as it can, it produces non-climbing branches with simpler leaves, which, being fertile, bear yellowish, umbrella-shaped clusters of flowers in September though October, and later dark berries with poisonous seeds (Hogan 678 and Ward 221).[1]  Cuttings taken from these mature branches will grow into a bush form (Hogan 678). The late autumn flowers are very attractive to bees (Rendall 181).  Hogan adds that H. helix, is “genetically unstable” and so there are hundred of named clones (678).  As anyone who has ivy in their yard knows, it grows in almost any soil, under any conditions, and the juvenile stage can be prolific to the point of being invasive.

Ivy has two main connotative traditions.  The first is classical and has mainly to do with ivy’s identification with Bacchus as well as its association with laurel. Euripides’ The Bacchae, which Woolf read and enjoyed in 1903 (L1 67) and referred to twice in her 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek” (E4 40, 44), is the locus classicus for representations of Dionysus, the Greek name for Bacchus.  In the play Dionysus and his followers wear ivy wreaths and carry the thyrsus, a magical staff made of fennel topped with ivy (Giesecke 72).

According to Watts’ Dictionary of Plant Lore, Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, was “ivy-crowned” because ivy was seen to be cool rather than hot like the grapevine and thus was thought to “have the power to extinguish the heat of the vine, and that is the reason for Dionysus telling his fellow celebrants to wreathe themselves with it” (210-11).

          Ivy was a common material for wreaths in classical times. In an extremely learned and detailed article, “The Owl's Ivy and the Poet's Bays’: An Enquiry into Poetic Garlands,” J.B. Trapp discusses the ramifications of the blending of ivy and laurel in Virgil’s 8th Eclogue, tracing the history of their combination as materials for “poetic laureation” (227) or celebratory crowns for poets all the way to Pope’s Essay on Criticism, where the two wreaths are differentiated as “the poet’s bays and critic’s ivy” (III l.706; qtd by Trapp 228) and the Dunciad, in Book III of which Pope criticizes those dull souls who mix “the owl’s ivy and the poet’s bays” (III l. 54; qtd, by Trapp 229).

Although Trapp argues convincingly that ivy garlands became emblems of learning from the Renaissance on (333), the British heritage of ivy associations is mostly aligned with classical allusions to wine; the emergence of Romanticism at the end of the eighteenth century added new connotations from naturalistic observations. A number of sources point out that in England ivy was associated with taverns.  Ward maintains that a bunch of ivy hanging on a pole “indicated the presence of a tavern” (222), and Rendall suggests that an “ivy-bush” was “an advertisement for a tavern” (181). Other associations arise from the plant’s typical growth habit. As early as Shakespeare’s Tempest, ivy begins to be seen as something dangerous, possibly parasitical. In describing his ouster to Miranda, Prospero describes his traitorous brother as “the ivy which had hid my princely trunk” (I, ii, 86; qtd by Rendall 182).  Milton refers to the evergreen quality of ivy in the second line of Lycidas: “Ivy never-sear.” In 1789, Gilbert White records in his Natural History of Selborne how once “ivy begins to blow” or bloom, bees “swarm on trees covered with this plant” (qtd by Ward 224 and Rendall 181)[2] Shelley also emphasizes the attraction ivy flowers have for insects; in Prometheus Unbound the poet in search of inspiration watches “The yellow bees in the ivy bloom” (Act I, l. 745; qtd by Rendall 183). In The Pickwick Papers (1836) Charles Dickens’s poem “The Ivy Green” describes the destructive qualities of ivy: “For the stateliest building man can raise, /Is the Ivy’s food at last” (qtd by Ward 227).

Gradually, ivy becomes domesticated, associated like so much in the nineteenth century with love and marriage.  In the Victorian Language of Flowers, Kate Greenaway designated the meaning of ivy as “Fidelity. Marriage” (23). The notion of ivy as a symbol of women’s compliance and dependency extends as far back in English folk tradition as the Christmas carol “The Holly and the Ivy,” early versions of which present a rivalry between the masculine holly and a feminine ivy described by Woolf’s acquaintance Robert Graves as representing “the domestic war of the sexes,” in which “ivy came to mean a carline, or shrewish wife, a simile confirmed by the strangling of trees by ivy” (White Goddess 179).  A particularly misogynistic example of ivy as a domestic parasite is contained in Thomas Hardy’s 1898 Poem “The Ivy Wife” where an ivy embraces an ash tree -- “my soft green claw/ I cramped and bound him as I wove” (ll. 16-7) -- eventually causing the tree to fall and kill the imprisoning vine (qtd by Rendall 185).

Elizabeth Barrett Browning exhibits one of the more positive uses of ivy as well as some knowledge of its ancient uses in Aurora Leigh (1857) where her heroine evokes the classical tradition of poetic laureation by pretending to crown herself as poet on her twentieth birthday. Rejecting the ambition of the bay, myrtle’s association with love, verbena’s passionate scent, and the inability of the “guelder-rose” (Viburnum opulus) to stand steady against the wind, she chooses ivy for her wreath because it is “headlong,” “bold to leap a height,” “strong to climb,” as likely to grow on graves as to be wound around the Dionysian thyrsus, and “pretty too. . . when twisted round a comb” (Book ii ll. 40-54; partially qtd. by Ward 225-6), surprisingly linking ivy with strength, courage, and autonomy despite its sometimes funereal habitat.

While Woolf demonstrates some knowledge of the classical heritage of ivy, most of her references to it follow the more naturalistic British tradition -- although like Browning she has a tendency to parody or quietly critique its more misogynistic manifestations.  For example, in Woolf’s second novel, Night and Day, the admirably independent feminist Mary Datchett follows Aurora Leigh’s lead in using ivy to announce her autonomy.  Recognizing that Ralph Denham’s affection for her does not extend as far as seeing her as a possible partner in marriage, she restrains her own feelings and with “a stubborn kind of respect for herself” walks away from him, in the process “tearing a long spray of ivy from the trees,” almost as if she is stripping away her dependence on him (224).  When Ralph begins to confide his future plans to her, secure in “Mary’s trust in him,” she begins to wind “her ivy spray round her ash plant,” making a thyrsus out of the very plant destroyed by ivy in Hardy’s poem (ND 226). But no Dionysian intoxication bubbles up to carry the couple beyond friendship. Instead Mary comes to the intuitive recognition that Ralph is in love with Katherine Hilbery, and in an act of resignation she picks two leaves from the ivy spray “still twisted about the handle” and allowing herself “one sacrifice. .  . to sentimentality and personality,” puts them in her pocket as a keepsake before untwisting the rest of the ivy from her walking stick (ND 232), beginning her modern new life as a single woman.

In a more comic mode, Woolf’s mock biography Orlando similarly critiques the domestic bonds of Victorian ivy. First ivy is presented as a manifestation of England.  When Orlando is posted to Constantinople, s/he notes that the “wild panorama” of Turkey has no parsonages nor manor houses, nor cottages, no “oak, elms, violet, ivy, or wild eglantine . . . no hedges for ferns to grow on, and no fields for sheep to graze” (89). In the first British edition of Orlando, ivy also appears as a screening device; when Modesty retires from the scene of Orlando’s sexual reorientation, she goes “to any cosy nook where there are ivy and curtains in plenty” (Cambridge Edition, 126).[3]  Once Orlando returns to Victorian England, however, s/he finds that the storm cloud of the nineteenth century has spread a pervasive dampness in which the sheltering native plant has gotten completely out of control: “ivy grew in unparalleled profusion. Houses that had been of bare stone were smothered in greenery” (167). In fact, ivy becomes representative of the profligate fertility of the entire era; rioting “in the damp earth outside” ivy is part of a “vast vegetable encumbrance” threatening to swallow up everything (168).  Moved by a sudden modesty to abjure their breeches for crinolines, Orlando retires to their country home where “The ivy had grown so profusely that many windows were now sealed up” (170, 172). Only with the arrival of the twentieth century do women scrape off the ivy like Mary Datchett and emerge “like stalks of corn, straight, shining” (218).

            The sense that ivy is emblematic of a stultifying conventionality is one of the main thematic clusters of Woolf’s treatment of the plant. Getting rid of ivy was a continual process at Monk’s House. In August of 1921, Woolf recorded that Leonard had a “rash on his arm from clearing the horrid little arch of ivy” (D2 129).  A year later she praises the garden “with the outhouses & their ivy down,” as being “a lovely patch—open & airy with views of the hills” (D2 188).  And in 1928, just after the ivy had been scraped off in Orlando, she tells Ethyl Sands how Leonard is “throwing twigs at me from the cherry tree which he was scraping of ivy” (L3 527).

            Some of Woolf’s other contemporary mentions of ivy emphasize its binding and covering nature.  In her 1925 essay on “American Fiction” Woolf contrasts the spacious modernity of America with the fetid age of Britain: “A vast continent, scattered here and there with brand new villages which nature has not absorbed into herself with ivy and moss” (E4 270). The Holograph Manuscript of The Waves reveals that in January of 1930, Woolf ended the first draft of the Interlude to Episode Five, the one preceding Perceval’s death, with the sun lighting up “the ash grey churches, with their dark ivy” (HMTW 239). Also in 1930, the essay “I Am Christina Rossetti” quotes a line from her poem “Looking Forward” about “ivy choking what it garlandeth” (E5 213). 

            This trend is continued in Woolf’s single largest cluster of references to ivy, a series of associations with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in which she choses not to refer to its liberatory manifestation in Aurora Leigh, but instead continues to dwell on ivy as an emblem of female subjugation to domestic imprisonment. Ironically, the note is first sounded in Woolf’s essay on Aurora Leigh, that poetic display of “speed and energy, forthrightness and complete self-confidence” (E5 259). Practicing just the sort of biographical criticism that she complains of at the beginning of her essay, Woolf comes to the conclusion that Aurora Leigh is only “a masterpiece in embryo” (E5 263), that it was fatally limited by the poet’s imprisonment “by sex, health and her father” (E5 262), which caused her inevitably to magnify her inner life so that “The tap of ivy on the pane became the thrash of trees in a gale” (E5 263).

            The tapping of the ivy becomes something of a leitmotif in Woolf’s 1933 biography of Mrs. Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush, where we fist meet Miss Barrett “in her dark, ivy-shaded London bedroom” (15) where even in summer the light from outside is dimmed by by “the ivy, convulvuses and nasturtiums which grew in the window box” (19).  As the flowers die with the coming of autumn, the ivy begins its tapping on the window in the October rains (33).  While the years pass, the ivy flourishes -- “its green curtain became thicker and thicker” (50) --  until finally, at the moment that Miss Barrett leaves the room to join her future husband, “The sun filtered through the ivy leaves,” marking her escape to freedom and light in Italy (F 105).  Years later when Flush and his mistress revisit the back bedroom at Wimpole Street, they find nothing has changed: “The ivy was still tapping on the back bedroom window-pane” (141).

            Not all of Woolf’s references to ivy are quite so negative.  The published version of The Waves demonstrates at least two mitigating contexts for the female characters.  The first time Rhoda quotes Shelley’s poem, “A Question,” she includes the “ivy serpentine” in the list of flowers she imagines binding into a garland, possibly evoking the tradition of poetic coronation (TW 40).  However, the garland she weaves before the envisioning of her suicide only contains “cowbine and the moonlight coloured may” (151).  Susan, on the other hand, has a more comforting relationship to ivy. At home with her father in an apparently ivy-covered country cottage, Susan is not imprisoned.  Instead, when the evening comes and the lamps are lit, “they make a yellow fire in the ivy,” illuminating the home with a domestic glow (72). Later, when she herself is a parent and “glutted with natural happiness” in her own cottage, the light again shines through a window kindling a fire which “burns in the heart of the ivy” (125).

            Besides these reactions to ivy-draped rooms, there are two other thematic clusters of ivy usage rather peculiar to Woolf. Five times she refers to ivy blossom, almost always in concert with insects, and several times with direct reference to Shelley.  In her 1924 review of Molly McCarthy’s autobiography she conjures the image of a late Victorian garden party attended by a “dazzling and erratic butterfly and any other queer Victorian insects who may be on the wing in a veil of gauze.  .  .  fluttering and feasting on their dahlias and their ivy blossoms” (E3 444). In “The Death of the Moth,” published posthumously but thought to have been written around 1927, she again associates ivy blossoms with insects. The essay opens: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us” (E6 442).

While this mention suggests that Woolf may have had personal memories of seeing and smelling ivy blossoms on nocturnal moth hunts in her childhood, her other references occur in daytime and are located in Sussex.  Reading John Lehman’s especially positive reaction to her just published novel The Waves, Woolf confides to her diary in September of 1931 that she is “like a bee in the ivy bloom -- can’t write for pleasure” (D4 44).  The editors have helpfully glossed the simile as a reference to a line in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound about how the poet lost in meditation “will watch from dawn to gloom . . . the yellow bees in the ivy bloom” (D4 44, n. 11). This usage occurs at the time of year that ivy is blooming, and exactly a year later another diary entry suggests that she has regularly encountered an ivy tree in bloom on her many walks around the area adjacent to Monk’s House. In mid-September 1932, feeling raw and exposed by the publication of a photo of herself, she complains about plans to build a path from the Rodmell crossroads up the hill to the downs path which will result in her “ivy blooming walk” being “sold for building” (D4 124).  Amusingly enough, this complaint is accompanied by a reference to T.S. Eliot quoting the lines from Shelley about the “bees on the ivy blooming”-- rather a surprise considering Eliot’s adult disdain for the writer he apparently read widely and deeply as an adolescent (D4 124). Happily, Woolf’s worst anticipations of catastrophe did not occur, at least not immediately.  In late August 1939, she records “a lovely still summer evening” when she “talked to the girl who keeps elk hounds on the hill, by the ivy bloom tree” (D5 232).

The other pattern of references has to do with owls perched in the midst of ivy, an image I cannot trace back to any one particular literary source. It first appears quite early, in Woolf’s juvenile, fictional medieval dairy, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” (1906), where the wandering storyteller refuses stay the night, paying no more attention to the family’s invitation “than the owl in the ivy” (CSF 57). Her 1925 essay “Notes on an Elizabethan Play” tightly packs the mention of an owl in the ivy into a complex composite of literary allusions: “and we scarcely recognise any likeness between the knight who imported timber and died of pneumonia at Muswell Hill and the Armenian Duke who fell like a Roman on his sword while the owl shrieked in the ivy and the Duchess gave birth to a still-born babe ‘mongst women howling” (E4 67). Consultation with various literary scholars yields a wide-ranging hoard of possible allusions in this one sentence.  The knight and the Armenian Duke come from the first page of the essay, Armenia being a location cited in Chapman’s play Bussy D’Ambois. The shrieking owl appears to be a quotation from an essay by Miss Mitford, "The Country Lodging,” which describes a manor house so gothic as to evoke Mrs. Radcliffe’s Castle of Udolpho: where “the screech-owl shrieked from the ivy which clustered up one side of the walls.”[4]  The Duchess giving birth “mongst women howling” is from Webster’s The White Devil (Act V, scene iii, 36-7); only it is not the Duchess dying but a Duke who has been poisoned, one who refers to those around him as “schreech-owls” (l. 17) while wishing for a natural death in which “the dull owl/ Bears not against thy casement” (ll. 30-1).[5]

This complicated tangle of associations of owls in the ivy with omens of death is sustained in Woolf’s last references to ivy.  There were owls aplenty in and around the garden at Monk’s House and the village of Rodmell.[6]  In late December of 1933, Woolf wrote a letter to her nephew Quentin anticipating a cold Christmas stay in Sussex, saying “I shall think of you when the owl comes out of the ivy bush and the bells toll. It was thus that we ushered out the old clergyman’s soul, if you remember” (D5 261).  The notes gloss this as a reference to the funeral of the Rector of Rodmell who had died several years before (D5 261, n. 2). In Roger Fry (1940) owls and ivy are also associated with graveyards. Explaining Fry’s disdain for his neighbor’s preference for conventional British architectural clichés which are “wrapt in a cocoon of unreality,” Woolf describes him as “deriding the village churchyard, its owls, its epitaphs and its ivy, and all those associations which appealed to the impure taste of the incurably literary” (164). 

Ivy makes four last appearances in Woolf’s final novel Between the Acts (1941) which fittingly encapsulate the range of her associations with the plant.  Introducing Pointz Hall, the setting for the village pageant of British history which establishes the interstices of the story, the current occupants are presented as newcomers, having no connection with the old families “who had all intermarried, and lay in their deaths intertwisted, like the ivy roots, beneath the churchyard wall” (5). Then, during the beginning of the Elizabethan portion of the pageant, Giles strings together a medley of partially remembered quotations, including a gothic allusion which seems to incorporate both the reference to the owl shrieking in the ivy from “Notes on an Elizabethan Play” and the ivy which so often taps on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s window: “A churchyard haunter at whom the owl hoots and the ivy mocks tap-tap-tapping on the pane” (BTA 59).[7] Although this conglomerated phrase is not actually part of the pageant, it is one of the fragments picked up and repeated by the entire chaotic chorus at the end of the play before the mirrors are turned on the audience (BTA 126). Finally, when the pageant is over and its author, Miss Latrobe, hoists her suitcase before heading for the village pub to brood over her next concatenation of words, there is one last encounter in the churchyard as “old Mrs. Chalmers” comes with a bunch of pinks “to fill the vase that stood on her husband’s grave. In winter it was holly, or ivy. In summer, a flower“ (BTA 142), a last evocation of ivy’s traditional roles as wife to holly and marker of taverns.

See Works Cited Page for full documentation

[1]  Also see the website of the Missouri  State Botanical Garden: http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=276595  <Accessed 7/9/20>

[2] As Sei Kosugi points out in her lovely article on Woolf’s relation to Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne had been a childhood favorite of Woolf’s (81).  Woolf records re-reading the book in her dairy of March 29, 1937 (D5 73), and she wrote an essay, “White’s Selborne” in September of 1939 (D5 237; E6 189-94).
[3] The ivy does not appear in the American Harcourt edition (101).
[4] https://www.google.com/books/edition/Country_stories/SUYEAAAAQAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=mitford+country+lodgings+screech+owl&pg=PA4&printsec=frontcover (accessed 7/11/20).  Thanks to Caroline Webb and Shilo R. McGiff for chasing down the owl.  Mitford was a significant figure in Woolf’s writing. Woolf wrote three essays about her in 1920: “An Imperfect Lady," "A Good Daughter," and "The Wrong Way of Reading" (the review of a bad biography).  These were all mined for the 1925 essay included in The Common Reader.  Mitford also appears twice in A Room of One’s Own, and, as the original breeder and owner of Flush, plays a prominent role in the dog’s biography.

[5] Many thanks also to Stuart Clarke who provided the precise location of the line about women howling.

[6] There are at least ten mentions of owls at Monk’s House in the 1930’s in Woolf’s letters and diaries.  References are particularly common in 1932 when a pair nested in the garden and produced delightful owl babies (L4 88). Also, a white owl swooped across the garden in August of 1932, just before Woolf had a fainting spell  (L4 94; D4 121).

[7] Although Jane de Gay carefully dissects the various sources of the passage containing this allusion -- it begins with King Lear and Cowper’s The Task -- she calls the derivation of the section about the owl and the ivy “obscure” (209).  Interestingly, she identifies some later, “elegiac” words from the pageant’s Elizabethan drama as being from Webster’s White Devil (207-8).

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