#74 Primroses




P. vulgaris in my neighbor’s yard


Among the 450-500 different species of Primula or primrose, only three are native to the British Isles, all being early flowering, woodland plants in various shades of yellow: P. vulgaris, aka the common primrose, grows at ground level from a basal rosette of deeply veined, lettuce-like leaves, downy on the underside, to produce a clump of pale yellow, open blossoms, usually with five petals; P. veris, commonly known as cowslip, has much taller stalks, with the flowers being more trumpet-shaped, hanging to the side, a brighter yellow with accent marks of red (see my entry on COWSLIPS); while P. eliator or oxlip looks as if it is a cross between the two with the long stalks of cowslip but the flatter, more open flower forms of the common primrose.  Also light yellow, the “Evening Primrose” is not a primula; see my essay on EVENING PRIMROSE.


          Besides these native versions, as early as the 1650’s, other sub-species began to be imported into England.  According to Elizabeth Lawson in her detailed history of the Primrose, primulas cross-breed so vigorously that they produce what botanists call “a hybrid storm” of wildly different varieties (98).  Among the most common strains were an alpine variety (P. puesbcens) commonly known as auricula after their smaller, scalloped leaves which were said to resemble bear’s ears (Lawson 125; Sackville-West, Some Flowers 43), characterized by spherical clumps of flowers borne on stems about six inches high (Hogan 1079) in what Lawson calls “the broadest and most surprising colour palette in the floral kingdom” (139). Widely grown by working class people, these engendered even more exotic specimens when, in the eighteenth-century, a “virescence” mutation appeared causing the edges of some petals to sport greenish lacey edges (Lawson 131), an effect often accompanied by a thick sprinkling of whitish bloom or “farina” across the face of the flower (133). 


Contemporary auricula in another neighbor’s garden


In the seventeenth century, famed horticulturist John Trandescanth began crossing a purple primrose (ssp. Sibthorpii) with the common English yellow primrose, producing an exciting range of blossoms in reddish hues, commonly called polyanthus, which are the source of many contemporary hybrids available at gardens shops (Lawson 110; Heilmeyer 70). Many other varieties were discovered by intrepid explorers such as Reginald Farrer in the mountains of Tibet (see Lawson 79-86 and Hollingsworth 211-2), and Japanese primroses (P. japonica) of the “candelabra” type with quite tall stems also became popular (Lawson 22). 


            Because of the increasing pace of urban and suburban development in the British Isles, native primroses are in something of a decline.  Lawson comments that the common primrose is now most often found on “railway embankments, graveyards, and private estates”; cowslips, frequently added to wildflower seed mixtures, appear “on motorway verges,” and oxlips survive only “in the remnants of ancient woodlands” (53).


Literary primroses have flourished throughout the history of British literature, being, as Ward remarks in his A Contemplation Upon Flowers, “a staple of both literature and the English countryside” (305). Vernon Rendall’s Wild Flowers in Literature  has over ten pages of primrose references in British literature from Chaucer and Spenser through Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Milton, Herrick, Goldsmith, Scott, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Arnold, Meredith -- the list goes on (256-68). For many of the poets, the primrose is simply what its name implies, the first of the roses, or a well-known harbinger of spring in the countryside, as Lawson puts it, a signifier of “the land, childhood, spring, and home” (169).  In Greenaway’s Victorian Language of Flowers, the primrose connotes “early youth” (34). A good deal of emphasis is placed on the flower’s etiolated, nearly white color; Rendall remarks that “it has in verse the stock epithet of ‘pale’” (257), and that paleness is sometimes associated with virginity and/or the innocence of early death. In The Winter’s Tale, Perdita wants to make a garland for Florizel that includes “pale primroses/ That die umarried ere they can behold/ Bright Phoebus in his strength” (IV, iv, ll 145-8), and in Cymbeline Arviragus mourns death of his friend Fidele, vowing, “I’ll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack/ The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose” (IV, ii, l. 223; mentioned by Ward 302). Although Milton’s “On a May Morning” rather cheerfully hails May as she “who from her green lap throws/ The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose” (ll. 304), in Lycidas, the first of the “vernal flowers” the poet calls for to bedeck his friend’s grave is “the rathe [early] primrose that forsaken dies” (l. 142). And in Keats’ Endymion, at a moment of despair the lover fails to see the smile of his beloved “Wan as primroses gather’d at midnight by chilly-finger’d spring” (IV, ll. 970-1; qtd by Rendall 263).


            On the other hand, as Molly Mahood points out in her detailed study of The Poet as Botanist, “a hint of voluptuousness hangs about primroses” (14; qtd by Lawson 176).  Chaucer describes the carpenter’s fair young wife, Alison, in The Miller’s Tale as being “a prymerole, a piggensnye/ For any Lord to leggen in his bedde” or “a primrose, a tender chicken/ For any lord to lay upon his bed” (ll. 160-1; qtd by Lawson 173). In perhaps the most famous passage penned about primroses in British literature, Ophelia chides her brother Laertes for urging her to virtue while he himself “the primrose path of dalliance treads/ And recks not his own rede” (Hamlet I iii, ll. 51-2). Later in Macbeth, Shakespeare repeats the allusion to a flowery path of ease when the Porter jokes, “I had thought to have let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire” (II, iii, ll.17-8). Oscar Wilde picked up this metaphor in describing his devotion to sensual pleasure in De Profundis: “I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine. I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes. I lived on honeycomb” (qtd. by Lawson 17).


The inability to respond to the beauty and sentimental associations evoked by primroses also became an index of a kind of emotional solipsism in the work of Wordsworth and the art critic John Ruskin.  In his 1819 poem, “Peter Bell” Wordsworth portrays a rude potter, untouched by spiritual contact with nature:

            A primrose by a river’s brim

            A yellow primrose was to him,        

And it was nothing more. (I, ll. 58-60; qtd by Lawson 176)


Following Mahood’s extensive research on primroses in Wordsworth, Lawson points out that in Modern Painters, John Ruskin, probably influenced by this passage, sets up a ranking of poets based on their reaction to a primrose: first comes the literalist, the non-poet, who like Peter Bell, sees the flower without any feeling for it; second comes the mediocre sentimentalist whose feeling for the flower is so intense, so entwined with fanciful metaphors, that he fails to actually see the flower itself; finally there is the true poet who combines feeling with a clear sense of what the flower is “apprehended in the very plain fact and leafy fact of it” (Lawson 178).[1]


The word “primrose” appears twenty-four times in Woolf: only three times in her fiction, five times in the two different versions of the play Freshwater, seven times in essays, and nine times in diaries or letters; four of these are reference to the light yellow color.  For the most part these are passing mentions, evoking traditional associations of the flowers’ rural appearance in spring, which become gradually modernized as their pale yellow color becomes assimilated into urban life. 


Primroses first appear in Woolf’s childhood as sought-after woodland flowers associated with coastal excursions. In her diary of 1897 she records two April rambles near Brighton: on the way back to Lewes from Uckfield, the party “stopped on the way and picked primroses in a wood” (PA 73); a few days later, an expedition to Arundel was punctuated by pauses “allowing ourselves to look at primroses, and woods” (PA 76).  A letter to Lytton Strachey in November of 1908 speaks of the fading unreality of a recent trip to Cornwall, comparing the memory to a report in the Daily Telegraph of primroses “flowering in profusion on the coast” (L1 734). More than twenty years later, similar primroses are sighted or imagined in West Sussex on the train ride from Three Bridges Station to coastal Eastbourne portrayed in Woolf’s short story “An Unwritten Novel,” where the passenger spots an opening in the woods, filled with bluebells in the summer and primroses in the Spring, that might have been the site for an earlier romantic parting of the ways (CSF 115).


The twenties signal a shift to a more modern, urban register for primroses in which they seem to lose some of their nostalgic, romantic charm.  In Jacob’s Room the great hanging lamps with their repressed primrose lights” that hang under the arch of the Opera House illuminate a Prufrockian scene of “women with loose hair lean[ing] out of windows” (JR 184). In her comedic play about her Aunt Julia Cameron’s household on the Isle of Wight, Freshwater, originally written a few years later in 1923, Woolf gleefully parodies old-fashioned Victorian associations with primroses, again located in coastal enviorns. Her aunt’s home, Dimbola Lodge, was next door to the grander Farrington House, home of the Tennysons. Drawn to the island by its association with Keats, who had spent parts of the summers of 1817 and 1819 there,[2] Tennyson was so fond of primroses that he had a primrose path planted through the “wilderness” near his writing hut (Lawson 18), and his friend, the watercolorist Helen Allingham, painted numerous scenes at Farrington, including an image of the primrose path.[1] 

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1300301h.html  http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1300301h-Images/TennysonHomes03.jpg


In both the first version of Freshwater, written in the summer of 1923, and the later, more detailed and complex version performed in January of 1935 (FW viii), primroses appear when Ellen Terry, otherwise known as Nell, is picking the flowers in a deep lane and is startled by a young man on a horse leaping over her head. In the first version, Nell is with her white-bearded husband, the painter George Fredrick Watts, and later asks Tennyson if he has ever picked primroses, to which he replies “millions” (FW 60, 61). In the later version she tells Tennyson about walking by herself in a lane, picking primroses, again asks him about his experiences picking them, and is subsequently recognized by the young man on a horse as “the young woman who was picking primroses” (FW 13, 21). In both versions, Tennyson’s love of primroses is linked to an almost predatory sensuality; in the 1923 version he brags about his alabaster thighs and asks Ellen to sit on his lap (FW 61).  Nell is thus a kind of Persephone figure in danger of being kidnapped by older men; the young man jumping over her while she is picking primroses is an almost surreal version of Katherine’s fantasy of a “magnanimous hero, riding a great horse” through the forest and “by the shore of the sea” (ND 107) in Night and Day, published four years earlier. Nell falls in love with the young horseman, leaving the stultifying dalliance of the primrose path and her elderly husband for a more contemporary life in Bloomsbury (FW 72, 26, 27); in the later version the horseman’s home is specifically placed in Gordon Square. The 1925 essay on “American Fiction” portrays a similar transition from the English village life of the past to a new suburbanized American landscape of the future where “The slow English wagons are turned into Ford cars; the primrose banks have become heaps of old tins; the barns sheds of corrugated iron” (E4 270).


The later twenties continue the tendency of primroses to become associated with trends in fashion.  In March of 1927, Woolf writes a lively letter to her sister Vanessa in which she describes the new decorations Maynard and Lydia Keynes have installed at 46 Gordon Square: they “have consummated the decoration of the drawing room by picking up at a sale some primrose coloured satin curtains, sprinkled with violet wreaths” (L3 349). Nell’s primroses now being expressed in interior decoration.  A month later, writing from Rome, Woolf notices the same color, worn by Italian nurses “in their primrose and pink silks with their veils and laces” (L3 365).  When Woolf reviews the new book, Lay Sermons, by Lady Asquith, the fashionable wife of the Prime Minister, primroses are presented as nothing but a flat-footed evocation of conventional goodness:  “Here Mrs Asquith proves that she is none of those timid suburban spinsters who shirk the disagreeable part of their duties. If spades are spades and primroses are primroses she will call them spades and primroses, and nothing else” (E4 426).


This derogation of primroses continues for a while.  An account of the “detestable spring” funeral of Jane Harrison in April 1928 contains a vividly unpleasant description of the “queer chain” of Harrison’s dingy cousins from the North dropping flowers into the grave: “Then the incredibly drab female cousins advanced, each with a fat bunch of primroses & dropped them in” (D3 180, 181).  A year later, “our homely violets and primroses” are compared to the “earlier and more elegant flowers” inhabiting French forests of “infinite charm” (E5 6).


           Woolf experiences a brief renewal of affection for the primrose in April of 1929, when a chance encounter with a battered blossom lights up a dreary day, warranting two mentions in a letter to Vanessa and another in her dairy. Appearing in an urban environment after a late snow, the sight of the flower reminds Woolf it is spring: “I was just thinking that I was coming home to tea about Christmas time this afternoon, it was so black and so many lamps were lit when I picked up a primrose on the pavement outside Eddie Marshes’ flat in Grays Inn,” she tells Vanessa (L4 38), recounting how, after having seen the flower, she noticed that Roger Fry’s door was open when she returned.  The next day, the event was important enough to be entered in her diary: “I walked Pinka through the Saturday streets this afternoon & was woken to the fact that it is April by a primrose on the pavement. I had been thinking I was on one of my January walks” (D3 220).


            In the thirties, however, primroses retreat into literary realms and are finally rendered almost crass by American usurping of their British charms.  A 1930 essay, “I Am Christina Rossetti,” quotes a stanza from “Looking Forward” that evokes the traditional Miltonic and Keatsian association of wan primroses with deathlike etiolation:

But bring me poppies brimmed with sleepy death

And ivy choking what it garlandeth

And primroses that open to the moon.  (qtd in E5 213)


There is a similar reference in Woolf’s piece on William Hazlitt for The Second Common Reader in 1932 where Woolf quotes the phrase “'Faces pale as the primrose with hyacinthine locks” as an example of rhapsody from Hazlitt’s essay “On the Past and the Future” (E5 499),[4] a passage which evokes Adam’s locks in Milton’s Paradise Lost (see my essay on HYACINTHS), and also emphasizes the flower’s paleness. Both these references are quotations from other writers, rather than original words from Woolf.


            In real life, primroses lose some of their British luster. In April 1929, eating at a restaurant in France recommended by Leonard’s sister Clara, Woolf finds much to despise: the restaurant itself is a “glorified . . . teashop,” so “sham” in its effort to “tickle our vanity & feed on our money” that Woolf pronounces herself sickened by the idea of buying old French furniture; also annoying is the “usual; fake; American” with “bad French” who says of some cowslips, “Look at these baby primroses -- aren’t they cute?” (D4 24) Some years later, when meeting the young, rather star-struck May Sarton at a dinner given by Elizabeth Bowen in June of 1937, Woolf shows a similar disdain, describing “A pale pretty Shelley imitation American girl there, who sat on the floor, at my feet, & unfortunately adores & worships & gave me primroses one day in the winter & her poems” as “Not a type from which I now get much kick” (D4 24).


            The last time Woolf mentions primroses -- aside from quoting a passage from a letter Roger Fry sent his father from Cambridge where he boasts of his dissection of an oxlip (RF 48) -- they have dwindled down to nothing but an urban shadow of their natural origins; instead of being harbingers of spring, the “primrose lights” of London in the Present Day section of The Years mark the fading of a summer’s day against the “glow of the sunset” (TY 311).



[1] It seems to me that Woolf is playing off this passage from Ruskin in “The Patron and the Crocus” when she outlines the various crocuses that the writer may create in writing when “moved by the sight of the first crocus in Kensington Gardens” (E4 213-5). In her posthumously published essay on Ruskin, she mentions having read Modern Painters (E6 461).

[2] See https://kimberlyevemusings.blogspot.com/2013/06/helen-allingham-1848-1826-and-alfred.html  for a discussion of their relationship and images of numerous Farrington watercolors.  Accessed 4/26/2021

[3]  For a detailed discussion of Keats and the Isle of Wight, see Jane Darcy’s essay on the subject. Keats wrote about the primroses on the island “which spread to the very verge of the sea,” telling his friend John Reynolds that “the island ought to be called Primrose Island” (both qtd by Darcy; the second by Rendall 263).  Interestingly, Keats began writing Endymion on the Isle of Wight.


[4] See Table-Talk, vol. 1 p. 7.  Available on-line through Goggle Books.

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