#77 Red-Hot Pokers

Red-Hot Pokers


Photo by Joshua Schaffer


“Red-Hot Pokers” is the common name for various species of Knipofia, a member of the asphodel family, Asphodelaceae, sometimes also called “Torch Lily.”  Native to South Africa and introduced into Great Britain in the early 18th century,[1] the tall (4 to 5 foot), dramatic, brilliantly colored spikes rise out of rather nondescript sword-shaped grassy foliage, reaching a height of 5 to 8 feet in the case of varieties such k. nobile and k. grandis (Robinson 472). Usually starting out red, the clusters of small tubular flowers, shaped like “bottlebrush heads” (Hogan 780), lighten as they age, often showing tri-color sunset combinations of red, orange, and yellow. Long-lasting and low maintenance, they were quite popular additions to the backs of perennial borders in England until, according to the website of American Meadows, they were replaced during the Second World War with the edible crops of Victory Gardens.[2] Sometimes dying back in cold weather, they prefer sandy soil.


Red-hot pokers appear thirteen times in Woolf’s writing, in three very distinct clusters: as objects of artistic appreciation in 1924-5; as bright boundary markers of civilization and gender in her 1926 novel, To the Lighthouse, and as features of the Monk’s House garden in the 1930’s.  The one temporal outlier is Woolf’s first mention of red hot pokers, a bit of playfully obscene banter in a 1917 letter to Duncan Grant, in which Woolf comments on his brief visit to Hogarth House: “You were like a beautiful but rather faded moth, the other day, after your nights debauch among the red hot pokers and passion flowers of Hampstead” (L2 144) -- since neither flower could have been in bloom in March, one assumes the reference is to romantic liaisons, establishing a connection between red-hot pokers and masculinity that is further developed in To the Lighthouse.[3]                      

The first cluster of red hot pokers is also incited by painters, this time in reference to an autumn 1924 exhibition of works by the London Group in the Mansard Gallery at Heal’s department store. Woolf’s initial review singles out flower paintings by her sister and Duncan Grant: “Mrs Bell illumines a whole wall, in spite of the drizzle outside, with a flower piece in which every rose seems instinct with brilliant life, yet seized in a moment of intense stillness; in a superb picture of red-hot pokers Mr. Grant makes us hope that he has reconciled the diverse gifts which for the last year or two have been tugging him asunder and puzzling his admirers” (E3 448). Later, in a more finished essay about the art of “Painting,” published in April 1925, she seems once again to refer to the two paintings, this time merging them in one bright memory: “That still-life, they proceed, pointing to a jar of red-hot pokers, is to us what a beefsteak is to an invalid—an orgy of blood and nourishment, so starved we are on our diet of thin black print. We nestle into its colour, feed and fill ourselves with yellow and red and gold till we drop off, nourished and content. Our sense of colour seems miraculously sharpened. We carry those roses and red-hot pokers about with us for days, working them over again in words” (E4 245).  

In his notes on the first review, Andrew McNeillie identifies the two paintings as Vanessa Bell, “No. 9 ‘Roses and Apples’” and Duncan Grant, “No. 49 ‘Red-Hot Pokers’” (E3 449, n. 6,7). 

Duncan Grant, Red Hot Pokers, 1924   https://en.wahooart.com/@@/9CW9MM-Duncan-Grant-Red-Hot-Pokers

Although I have not been able to locate an image of “Roses and Apples,” Manchester Art Gallery has a brilliant 1925 painting by Vanessa Bell of “Red Hot Pokers” in which the red and yellow pokers are mixed with what look like deep red chrysanthemums or asters.  Duncan’s earlier composition is mostly gold, with purple thistles and no prominent reds; the bright colors in the 1925 Bell still-life seem closer to the nourishing visual orgy that Woolf describes in the later essay.

Vanessa Bell, Red Hot Pokers, 1925   



Later, in a June 1926 letter to her sister, Woolf seems to refer directly to this painting when she praises Vanessa’s “pigeon breast radiance in which you are so supreme that, before hot pokers, or the asters (?) my mind shivers with joy” (L3 271).

            Since Woolf was writing To the Lighthouse this same year, 1926, it seems safe to suggest that the six appearances of red hot pokers in the novel carry with them something of the joyful shiver produced by her sister Vanessa’s painting. In the final published version, red-hot pokers appear four times in Part I, their red and yellow shades providing a color-contrast that brackets the blue waters of the bay below, and there are single imagined or remnant glances in Parts II and III. Their first appearance in Part I, Chapter IV establishes the pokers’ role as torchlike markers at the edge of the garden when, shortly past six in the evening, Lily and Mr. Bankes stroll down to “that break in the thick hedge, guarded by red hot pokers like brasiers of clear burning coal, between which the blue waters of the bay looked bluer than ever” (TTL 23). As Amy Rosen points out in her 1981 dissertation, “The Pulse of Color,” the subsequent language describing this view is explicitly orgasmic (Rosen 152): 

They came there regularly every evening drawn by some need. It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some sort of physical relief.  First, the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam, only the next instant to be checked and chilled by the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves. Then, up behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water; and then, while one waited for that, one watched, on the pale semicircular beach, wave after wave shedding again and again smoothly, a film of mother of pearl. (TTL 23-4).

Later, in Chapter XII, the Ramsay’s stroll to the same lookout location is much more fraught with domestic tensions. Walking through the garden, Mr. Ramsay does not look at the flowers, except to note that something reddish which his wife had planted seemed “credible” (69). Their arrival at the red-hot pokers is muddled by disagreements over the enforcement of heterosexual norms: whether Mrs. Ramsay is teaching the girls to exaggerate and whether Andrew is studying hard enough (TTL 70). Once standing in the gap, both divert their views to further enhance their gendered isolation: Mrs. Ramsay doesn’t look at the lighthouse for fear of being seen thinking, and Mr. Ramsey reminisces about the days of his solitary walking tours (TTL 71).[4] 

            When the red hot pokers reappear in the last two sections of the book, they have receded into the imaginary remnants of memory.  In Chapter IX of “Time Passes,” at the fateful moment of peripeteia when the house could have fallen into “the depth of darkness” and ruin, one flower remains as a sign of civilization:

Then the roof would have fallen; briars and hemlocks would have blotted out path, step and window; would have grown, unequally but lustily over the mound, until some trespasser, losing his way, could have told only by a red-hot poker among the nettles, or a scrap of china in the hemlock, that here once some one had lived; there had been a house. (TTL 142)

That this blossom is only a figment of the imagination is suggested even more strongly in the holograph draft where only the “apparition of a red hot poker” is seen (TTLHD 228, 3.89)

            In Part III, the pokers reappear as a fragment of memory when Lily Briscoe seems to experience a momentary reversion to her earlier orgasmic moment over-looking the bay:

She seemed to be standing up to the lips in some substance, to move and float and sink in it, yes, for these waters were unfathomably deep. Into them had spilled so many lives. The Ramsays'; the children's; and all sorts of waifs and strays of things besides. A washer-woman with her basket; a rook, a red-hot poker; the purples and grey-greens of flowers: some common feeling which held the whole together.

Again, instead of bracketing the view, a single poker stands as a memory. I have not been able to find any red-hot pokers in Part III of the holograph draft.  Woolf’s insertion of one last poker into the last section of the final draft is typical of her architectural use of flowers in triplicate to provide the structural scaffolding of rhythmic repetition.

              For many critics, the opposition of the red-hot pokers to the blue of the bay has important symbolic associations. Harvena Richter appears to have been the first to note how the contrasting colors of the red-hot pokers and the view of the bay which they frame -- “the near (red) and far (blue)” – establish a spatial depth of field (75). Amy Rosen identifies the contrast between red and blue as representing “sexual union” (151). Similarly, in his 1985 article on “Color in To the Lighthouse” Jack Stewart sorts out an elaborate series of allegorical relationships between characters based on the optical properties of color. He sees red as being associated with the masculine energy of the will, blue being a spiritual color, and “the clash of opposites [being] embodied in the Ramsays” (447).[5]

While the holograph explicitly associates the pokers with Mrs. Ramsay as having been planted by her, and, as Stewart notes, their red and gold fiery color is echoed at the dinner table by the lit candles described as Bacchic “torches lolloping red and gold” (Stewart 450; TTL 99), for the most part, it is significant that non-floral pokers in the novel are associated with masculinity and even violence, as if to adumbrate the heterosexist separation of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay.  At the very beginning of the novel, James’s anger at his father’s curt dismissal of the prospective voyage to the lighthouse evokes a poker as a possible means of retribution:  “Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it” (8). Later, Mrs. Ramsey’s nicknames for Minta’s parents, the Doyles, confirm this gendered configuration: Mrs. Doyle is the Owl, while Mr. Doyle is the Poker (TTL 60).  Once Minta is married to Paul, they continue her familial roles.  Paul, who verbally abuses Minta “in a mutter so as not to wake the children” (176) brandishes a poker “in case of burglars” and also “no doubt to frighten her too” (177).  The gaiety produced by the warm colors of red-hot pokers when painted by Vanessa vanishes once they are fully imbricated into phallic symbolism. 

Despite the locational specificity of the red hot pokers in To the Lighthouse, we have no clear evidence that they existed at Talland House. In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf describes the “Lookout place” -- a “grassy mound” between “clumps of pampas grass” which “jutted out over the high garden wall” (MOB 129)  -- as being in a similar orientation, and indeed the pokers in the novel are described as being “past the pampas grass” (TTL 23). In 2002, when I stayed at Talland House, I did notice that just down the hill, a clump of red hot pokers stood sentinel beside some stairs leading down towards the bay.


Photo by EKS, 2002

            At any rate, red-hot pokers were planted at Monk’s House, and Woolf’s remaining references to them in the 1930s return to the domestic pleasures of Vanessa’s painting.  In a September 1930 letter to Ethel Smyth, Woolf remarks from her sick bed that she has “moved the other way round so that I can have the door open and see the hot pokers” (L4 209). Presumably, Woolf is lying in her new bedroom, built onto the main house the year before, as she mentions that she is hoping to be able to go out to the toolshed in a few days (her writing hut was only built in 1934). Perhaps she was looking at flowers planted near the Mill Terrace above the house where red-hot pokers now emphasize the main entrance into the garden.


Photo by EKS, early 2000's.

We do know, from photographs of Woolf and John Lehman taken in August of the next year, 1931, that very tall red-hot pokers, perhaps k. nobile or k. grandis, were planted just beyond the wall framing the fish pond behind the granary.[6]



Woolf’s very last mention of red-hot pokers, in a diary entry of August 1938, echoes the paradigmatic positioning of the flowers at the top of a drop-off in To the Lighthouse as she tries to convey the scenic effect of an approaching storm: “a watercolour mass of purple & black, soft as a water ice; thin hard slices of intense green stone; blue stone, & a ripple of crimson light. No: that wont convey it: & then there were the trees in the garden. & the reflected light: our hot pokers burning on the edge of the steep” (D5 161).


[1]  Breck’s Bulb company maintains that they were first brought to Britain in 1707, while Wikipedia notes they were first described as a genus in 1794. https://www.brecks.com/product/hot-red-poker and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kniphofia (Both accessed June 27, 2021)

[3] There is an additional historical allusion which intensifies the association of the flower with masculinity, violence, and homosexuality. A British website called “The History Vault” maintains that “Everyone knows how Edward the II died.”  He was supposedly tortured to death, including being sodomized with a red hot poker. https://thehistoryvault.co.uk/the-mystery-of-edward-iis-death/ (Accessed July 4, 2021)

[4] These appearances in Part I correspond pretty accurately with the holograph MS, the only major difference (except for syntactical revisions) being that in the MS, it is specifically the red-hot pokers which Mr. Ramsey sees as “credible” and which Mrs. Ramsey says she had planted with her own hands (TTLHD 112 [1. 227]).

[5] The discussion of red and blue begins on p. 445 and extends through p. 450.

[6] A map of the Monk’s House garden in 1932 can be found at the back of Caroline Zoob’s book (p. 191).  The photos are part of the third Monk’s House album, owned by Harvard’s Houghton Library. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/ids:17948423

https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/ids:17948447  These are also reproduced in Maggie Humm’s helpful Snapshots of Bloomsbury, p. 128.


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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...