#38 Forget-me-not

Forget-me-nots at the foot of the Talland House Garden -- EKS


Although the name “Forget-me-not” has been ascribed to a number of different plants, tiny blue Myosotis sylvatica, a member of the Borage family, has held pride of place since the fifteenth century, when Henry of Lancaster (later Henry IV) adopted it as an emblem of his exile and had it embroidered on his robes and collars (Folkard 181; Ward 143). Most varieties of the flower have five petals and are blue-violet with yellow centers; the name “myositis” comes from the Greek for “mouse ears” since many varieties also have small, lance-shaped leaves covered with soft, greyish hairs (Hogan 908).

As one would expect from such a sentimental sobriquet, there are numerous romantic stories clustered around the forget-me-not, the most common of which appears to be the German tale of a knight who threw himself into the Danube (in full armor, presumably) to rescue a bunch of the pretty blue flowers for his Lady.  As the current carried him away, he called out “forget-me-not,” providing her with a memorable phrase to contemplate after he drowned (Folkard 181; Ward 143).

Despite the story about Henry IV, there are no forget-me-nots in Shakespeare, but the flower is commonly used in English poetry, mostly in the context of its significance in the language of flowers: “true love, remembrance” (Greenaway 18). Coleridge refers to the flower in “The Keepsake,” as missing in nature during the winter (like Persephone) but embroidered into the scarf that reminds him of his love. “The Brook” of Tennyson’s poem babbles along, swaying “the sweet forget-me-nots/ That grow for happy lovers.” And, as Ward points out, Christina Rossetti takes a slightly more ironic attitude in her poem “A Bed of Forget-me-nots” where she complains about the limits placed on love when the flowers are constrained “By measure in a garden plot” (Ward 145). True love, she claims “is not parcelled out by rule” but instead must be free.

Like Rossetti, Woolf seems to be a little cynical about the prescribed meanings of forget-me-nots the few times she refers to them. In a wildly playful letter to Violet Dickinson in April 1903, young Virginia asks her gardening friend to plant a flower for her: “Heartsease or Forgetmenot, or something that climbs and is evergreen, typical of . . . Sparroy’s tendril heart” (L1 73).  The joke here is that neither Heartsease (aka Viola or Johnny Jump Up) nor Forget-me nots are climbers, evergreen, or possess tendrils, so “Sparroy” (one of Virginia’s nicknames for herself) is simply punning on the names of the flowers in asking to be remembered fondly. A letter to Lytton Strachey a few years later presents the flowers in a similarly comical light as she reminiscences about time recently spent in Cornwall: “The Daily telegraph talks of ‘forget-me-nots, primroses and apple blossom’ flowering in profusion on the coast.  So I think of you as a kind of Venetian prince, in sky blue tights, lying on your back in an orchard, or balancing an exquisite leg in the air” (L1 374).  Many years later, a letter to Elizabeth Bowen shows even more comic hyberbole as Woolf threatens to retaliate for the gift of some shortbread by making her a tea caddie in “magenta plush -- that will be your fate on the next occasion.  I embroider them with forget-me-nots in gold” (L5 144).

The little flower’s one appearance in Woolf’s fiction is, however, perfunctory and even derogatory. It appears in Jabob’s Room (1922) where, sitting idly in chapel, the young Jacob notes how the women at the service distinguish themselves through the decorations on their hats: “some like blue, others brown; some feathers, others pansies and forget-me-nots”; comparing the women to dogs liable to urinate on any gravel path, he declares that their presence “destroys the service completely,” implicating the artificial flowers in a moment of fairly extreme misogyny (JR 31), rather a far cry from its affectionate use in Woolf’s personal writing to friends.

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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...