#6 Asphodel



Woolf’s use of asphodel is largely conventional, relating almost exclusively to its locus classicus as the flower growing in the Elysian Fields.  Homer mentions the asphodel meadows across the river Styxx in Book XI of the Odyssey. The roots of asphodel are edible, and according to Bobby Ward’s A Contemplation Upon Flowers, “the Greeks planted them near tombs in the  belief that the roots would nourish the shades, the spirits who had departed their deceased physical bodies.” (49).  Ward also claims that the asphodel is particularly connected to Persephone as it is the flower she picked just before Hades abducted her (49), and Richard Folkard notes she is often depicted wearing a wreath of asphodel (131). In the Victorian language of flowers, the Asphodel thus means “My regrets follow you to the grave” (Greenaway 8).

With greyish leaves and six-petalled white, pink, yellow, or slightly green flowers with prominent brown veins, clubbed into florets born on tall spikes, the asphodel grows up to two feet tall in scrub and rocky slopes around the Mediterranean throughout southern Europe, and east to the Himalayas (Hogan 197). There are two varieties common in England, the smaller yellow bog asphodel and the larger white asphodel.

Asphodels first appear, rather ironically, in Woolf’s short story, “The Mark on the Wall” (1917) in a passage where the chaos of “life” is compared to “being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour. . . . Shot out at the foot of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office” (CSF 84).  The comic juxtaposition of this most classical and pastoral of references -- Homeric meadows of flowers -- with the modern urban efficiency of the Tube and the Post Office is slightly shifted at the end of the story when the narrator rises back to consciousness amid a bewildering welter of memories, including “Whitaker’s Almanack” and the “fields of asphodel” (CSF 89).  Since “Whitaker’s Table of Precedency” was earlier described as “half a phantom” which “soon, one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbins where the phantoms go” it seems fitting that this volume of a dead order should tumble out into the meadows of an underworld haunted by the ghosts of heroes (CSF 86).

There is a similar melding of ancient and modern in the first reference to asphodels in Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse (1927).  When Mr. Banks calls Mrs. Ramsey on the telephone to confirm the time of his train, he visualizes her as a Greek beauty, “straight, blue-eyed” and then thinks how incongruous it is to be speaking to her on the phone: “The Graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in the meadow of asphodel to compose that face. He would catch the 10:30 at Euston” (TTL 32-3).  With the death of the goddess-like Mrs. Ramsey, however, asphodels take their usual place as emblems of death and mourning.  Lily sees Mr. Carmichael, like some Lotus Eater hailing the ones who had the energy to leave the island, lift his hand and then lower it as if “he let fall from his great height a wreath of violets and asphodels” (TTL 211).  Like the sleepers in Tennyson’s poem, he is one of the “Others [who] in Elysian valleys dwell,/ Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.”

Orlando (1928), Woolf’s romp through British literary history, adds a couple of twists to the allusions evoked by this pale lily-like flower.  In 1923 Woolf wrote an essay about her experiences traveling “To Spain” in which she described the terrain of the Sierra Nevada as consisting of “stones, olive trees, goats, asphodels, irises, bushes, ridges, shelves, clumps, tufts, and hollows innumerable, indescribable, unthinkable” (E3 363), a territory which seems to be rather similar to the “fields of asphodel, and stony fields, and fields watered by strange rivers” where Orlando’s fathers had ridden and perhaps severed the head of the Moor at which he slices in the beginning of the novel (O 11). Even more entrancing, however, is the alleged effect of the seed or pollen of the asphodel, which is blamed for Orlando’s obsessive “love of literature” (55). Here Woolf seems to extend the association of the asphodel with visions of departed phantoms into the realm of creative imagination: “But some were early infected by a germ said to be bred of the pollen of the asphodel and to be blown out of Greece and Italy, which was of so deadly a nature that it would shake the hand as it was raised to strike, and cloud the eye as it sought its prey, and make the tongue stammer as it declared its love. It was the fatal nature of this disease to substitute a phantom for reality” (O 55). Orlando “had only to open a book” to forget all the gifts given to him by fortune.  And, of course, the love of reading leads inevitably to the love of writing -- Orlando’s besetting passion throughout the novel (O 56). 

Woolf’s last reference to asphodel in her fiction, a passage in The Years, fits in with this pattern of connection between memory, vision, literature, and lost love.  Edward is reading Antigone, a Greek text about a woman buried for her principles, and he has a vision in which the woman of the classical past and a women of the modern era are merged:
And whether it was the wine or the words or both, a luminous shell formed, a purple fume, from which out stepped a Greek girl; yet she was English. There she stood among the marble and the asphodel, yet there she was among the Morris wall-papers and the cabinets--his cousin Kitty, as he had seen her last time he dined at the lodge. She was both of them--Antigone and Kitty; here in the book; there in the room; lit up, risen, like a purple flower. No, he exclaimed, not in the least like a flower! (TY 49)
There are no purple asphodels, and yet purple, being a tinge of mourning, is woven like the violets in Mr. Carmichael’s wreath into Edward’s vision, a phantom he rejects at last for the actual woman.

In Between the Acts, Lady Harpy Harraden substitutes the ridiculously flowery  name Apsphodilla for her real given name, Sue.

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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...