#58 Lilacs


Lilacs belong the genus Syringa, a member of the olive family.  Of the more than twenty species of these large shrubs or small trees, only two are native to Europe. The common lilac, S. vulgaris, has at least 1,500 named cultivars (Hogan 1387). Having heart-shaped leaves, lilac blooms in upright panicles of small, highly scented flowers with four or eight petals, in mid-spring, April through May.  While cultivars can range from dark mulberry or magenta to white, the typical color is a light purple.

The name Syringa is said to come from the Greek word syrinx or pipe, and refers to the plant’s hollow stems; in Greek mythology, Pan pursued the nymph Syrinx who was, like Daphne, transformed into a plant, in her case a reed from which Pan constructed his pipes -- a legend repeated by Ovid as well as Dryden and Andrew Marvell (Watts 238). “Pipe Tree” was an old English name for lilac (Bartrum13). The word “lilac” is of Persian origin, thought to be derived from Lilj, the name of the indigo plant, or Lilak which means bluish (Bartrum 11). Lilacs have been grown in English gardens since the sixteenth-century; Bartrum records that six lilac trees were in the palace gardens at Nonsuch, brought back by Henry the VIII’s gardener, who was coincidentally named Woolf (12).

Lilac has a typically mixed tradition in literary symbolism.  Dryden mentions that “Pan, and fair Syrinx, are fled from our Shore” in the second stanza of “The Lady’s Song” (1704), and Marvell briefly cites the myth in the fourth stanza of “The Garden” (1681) as an example of how “The gods, that mortal beauty chase,/ Still in a tree did end their race,” but neither actually mentions lilac. The Victorian language of flowers seems to classify the meanings of lilac largely according to generic color symbolism with Field Lilac being assigned to “Humilty,” Purple Lilac to “First emotions of love” and White Lilac to “Youthful Innocence” (Greenaway 27). Ward maintains that lilac commonly appeared in novels of the nineteenth century and quotes as an example the conclusion to Silas Marner (1861) which maintains that the best time for a wedding is “when the great lilacs and laburnums in the old-fashioned gardens shouwed their golden and purple wealth above the lichen-tinted walls” (239). The single, most definitive use of lilac in literature is, of course, Whitman’s evocation of the flower as a manifestation of the pastoral tradition of mourning for an untimely death in his elegy “When Lilac Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865) where lilacs are paired with the “great star [which] early droop’d in the western sky” as a perennial reminder of Lincoln’s death on April 14th of that year.  This association with mourning is furthered by the popularity of lilac as a color similar to lavender to be worn during the period of “half-mourning.”[1]

            For the most part, Woolf seems to attach little symbolic weight to lilac, its twenty-nine appearances being mostly associated with spring beauty in enclosed garden spaces, though there are occasionally ambivalent resonances of mourning and liberation, much like Eliot’s summoning of lilac at the beginning of The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Like Whitman’s star, Woolf’s lilac is often presented as “drooping,” “nodding,” or otherwise “stirring” in some state of tremulous movement. Woolf’s first mention occurs in the 1918 short story “The Evening Party,” a luminous, impressionistic account of a social gathering in the back garden of a London house studded with roses and wisteria. After a series of interrupted conversations, the two women at the center of the story decide to leave, one being afraid of the breezes which lift the flounces of their dresses and threaten to ignite the paper lanterns hung in the garden. As they go, “the lilac stirs,” reacting to the garden breezes (CSF 101). Lilac metaphorically hangs in another garden in a May 15, 1919 letter to Roger Fry a year later. Complaining of her isolation in Richmond, Woolf counters the accusation that she has deserted Roger for new friends with the statement: “like the wistaria[2] and the lilac I droop in my remote suburb, chaste and unviolated save by the bees of Heaven”(L2 256). Even in Woolf’s 1919 essay on Addison, lilacs are seen as inhabiting a special, protected environment, for Woolf says Addison no longer lives (is read) in public libraries, but instead survivesin libraries that are markedly private, secluded, shaded by lilac trees and brown with folios”
(E4 107).

            The link between Woolf’s drooping lilacs in enclosed gardens and those of Whitman seems even more distinct in Jacob’s Room (published in 1922, the same year as The Waste Land[3]) where lilacs appear three times in quite varying contexts. The first mention is pastoral and elegiac. Betty Flanders’ late husband Seabrook is described as having merged with the elements of the cemetery in which he lies buried: “the crosses of green tin, the narrow yellow paths, and the lilacs that drooped in April, with a scent like that of an invalid’s bedroom, over the churchyard wall” (13). This clear reference to Whitman was added after the holograph draft, which instead features drooping laburnum (JRHD 6).[4] Another lilac added to the final version of the novel is ironically deployed as an emblem of escape from conventionality.  Having put up with the relentless social climbing of the family of a Cambridge Physics don during a Sunday luncheon, Jacob leaves their house, “scanning the street for lilac or bicycle—anything to restore his sense of freedom” (34). A few pages later, lilacs again appear, this time in connection with three dons sitting high in lamp-lit rooms above Cambridge. The passage is quite dense and syntactically confusing; the dons are described as looking “priestly” under the light of learning “whether Rossetti’s on the wall, or Van Gogh reproduced, whether there are lilacs in the bowl or rusty pipes,” and the whole scene is then denigrated as being contrived: “How like a suburb where you go to see a view and eat a special cake!” (38) I am not able to make much sense out of these various interiors, which introduce a certain epistemological uncertainty about whether the lilacs exist as flowers in a bowl, or as represented in a painting, or as figments of a suburban imagination, but it is interesting to know that Van Gogh has a painting of “A Lilac Bush” (1889) now at The Hermitage (https://www.arthermitage.org/Vincent-van-Gogh/Lilac-Bush.html) and that lilacs were also known as Pipe Trees.[5]  At any rate, this additional pairing of lilacs with Cambridge professors is part of a parade of composite purple flowers such asters, sea holly, purple clover, Cornish spotted orchid, teasle, heliotrope, violets, and passion-flower, which appear throughout the novel as a kind of continuous, visual elegiac refrain.[6]

            In Mrs. Dalloway, where lilacs also bloom three times, the flowers have a more high-society appeal.  In an April 1924 letter to Ethel Sands, Woolf conjures a dreamlike vision of her friend “in some French drawing room with lilacs and polished floor” (L3 101), and an atmosphere similar to this and to the lilacs’ presence in “The Evening Party” pervades their appearance in Mulberry’s florist’s shop where “bunches of lilac” are gathered next to sweet peas and “masses of carnations” (12). Once again the lilacs are animated as their “nodding tufts” spread a “delicious scent, as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer's day,” and once again lilacs are associated with twilight: “the moment between six and seven when every flower—roses, carnations, irises, lilac—glows; white, violet, red, deep orange” (12). 
            This vivid plenitude is celebrated in Woolf’s 1928 account of the April garden at Monk’s House -- “the garden blazing with lilac, apple, pear blossom and every flower you can imagine” (L3 488) -- and is echoed in the fantasy of seasonal reversal in the gardens of Fernham in A Room of One’s Own.  Having specified that it is October, as the narrator of Woolf’s essay enters the precincts of the women’s college at twilight, she declares that she will not “imperil the fair name of fiction by changing the season and describing lilacs hanging over garden walls, crocuses, tulips and other flowers of spring” (16). And yet, inspired by the verse of Christina Rossetti, she fancies she does see the lilac “shaking its flowers over the garden walls,” and at just the same magical moment conjured in Mrs Dalloway: “the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window-panes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world [is] revealed and yet soon to perish” (16).

Like Jacob’s search for lilacs, this incarnation of the flowers is associated with freedom for “The gardens of Fernham lay before me in the spring twilight, wild and open” (17).

But the beauty of the world the lilacs represent is a double-edged sword with “two edges, one of laughter, one of anquish, cutting the heart asunder,” a mixing of desire and memory (16-7).

A brief sketch written in 1929, the same year that Room was published and that Woolf began writing her next novel, The Waves, emphasizes the darker side of the flower: “In the middle of the night a loud cry rang through the village. Then there was a sound of something scuffling; and then dead silence. All that could be seen out of the window was the branch of lilac tree hanging motionless and ponderous across the road” (CSF 229). Portraying an ominous moment of shock, “The Second Picture” suggests a connection between the ponderous branch of the lilac and “an obscure human form, almost without shape, raising a gigantic arm in vain against some overwhelming iniquity” (CSF 229) -- an image which seems to anticipate both the figure of a woman raising a lamp with which The Waves begins and the image of the spear man riding against death with which it ends ( TW 3, 220).

            Lilacs appear three times in the final version of The Waves, in the lyrical garden interludes which introduce the fictional episodes dealing with Percival’s departure and the news of his death. In the prelude to episode four, the banquet scene in which the six friends say goodbye to Percival before he leaves for India, lilac branches serve as perches for the birds whose actions sometimes foreshadow those of the characters. At first the birds all sing separately: “One sang under the bedroom window; another on the topmost twig of the lilac bush; another on the edge of the wall” (78). But suddenly, as the contents of the kitchen waste bucket are turned out, they descend to attack and feed: “dry-beaked, ruthless, abrupt. They swooped suddenly from the lilac bough or the fence. They spied a snail and tapped the shell against a stone. They tapped furiously, methodically, until the shell broke and something slimy oozed from the crack” (79).
[7]  In the next interlude, right before the friends hear of Percival’s untimely death, lilac reassumes its ecstatic role as purveyor of the beauty of the world when the passionately singing birds are transfigured by light: “Gilt and purpled they perched in the garden where cones of laburnum and purple shook down gold and lilac, for now at midday the garden was all blossom and profusion” (108) Although this traditionally regal combination of purple and gold recalls the ecstatic twilight vision in the Fernham Gardens, lilac’s conventional elegiac function coupled with laburnum’s poisonous qualities hint at a certain proleptic irony. (See LABURNUM)

During the years while she was writing The Waves, Woolf’s personal encounters with lilac remain pleasantly benign, untroubled by literary overtones of the elegiac.  The flowers appear frequently as gifts or are sighted during various European travels.  In July of 1930 Ethyl Smyth sends Woolf several cardboard boxes of flowers, including lilacs, and Woolf replies with a thank-you note saying her room is “like a bower in a garden, all shades of pink, yellow, lilac nodding together in great pale bunches” (L4 190). Lilacs are again affiliated with France in April of 1931 when Woolf records a quiet morning in Angleterre in her diary: “a garden: ruins; lilac; flower pot roofs, but still gray this morning” (D4 20), and then posts a similar though more lively description to Ethyl Smyth: “O the sun! the red flower pots shining—the lilac—So we go out, and I shall post this” (L4 316). In October of 1931, Leonard buys more lilacs (along with laburnum and mulberry) for the garden at Monk’s House (LWGA).  More lilacs arrive from Violet Trefusis, “a vast nodding bunch” in January of 1933 (L4 148). In May of 1935, Woolf exclaims over more lilacs in Holland: “Oh but the carved doors, the curved white façades, the lilac trees: the air of swept & garnished prosperity, antiquity, air, cleanliness” (D4 309).  But in a brief sketch written in 1937, she makes a disparaging comparison of English lilacs to the wisteria at Vernon Lee’s Villa in Florence, “something like our lilac, only better” (CSF 245).

            Lilacs re-emerge in two of Woolf’s later published works, vested with their usual rich literary complexity.  In The Years, they are first seen in a muted version of their regal splendor when, once again situated in Cambridge, the rain falls “over flowering bushes of lilac and laburnum” (59). In London, still in the 1880 section, white lilacs appear for the only time in Woolf’s work, in a list of funeral flowers delivered to commemorate the death of Rose Pargiter, the family matriarch: “white tulips, white lilac—flowers of all kinds, some with petals as thick as velvet, others transparent, paper-thin; but all white, and clubbed together, head to head, in circles, in ovals, in crosses so that they scarcely looked like flowers” (79). Although it is not quite clear whether she is referring to the color or the flower, a scene marking the entrance into the Present Day, the last segment of the novel, is set in the incandescent red glow of twilight, harkening back to the imaginative visions of Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own: “and the flowers in cottage gardens, lilac and pink like cotton dresses, shone veined as if lit from within” (290). 

A final mention in Three Guineas completes the circle of association, once more connecting lilacs with liberation from a stultifying academic precinct: “we are in a lecture room, rank with the fumes of stale print, listening to a gentleman who is forced to lecture or to write every Wednesday, every Sunday, about Milton or about Keats, while the lilac shakes its branches in the garden free” (138).  Considering that Milton and Keats are the author and the subject of two of literary history’s most famous pastoral elegies, Lycidas and “Adonais,” it seems a fitting valediction, expressing the consolation of ever-returning spring.

[1] See the article on “Funeral and mourning clothing” by Alison Petch on the Pitt-Rivers Museum website: https://england.prm.ox.ac.uk/englishness-funeral-clothing.html  Accessed July 25, 2020

[2] Sic; Woolf consistently misspells wisteria as “wistaria.”

[3] Eliot first read the poem to the Woolfs in June of 1922 (D2 178) as Virginia Woolf was beginning to write the stories which preceded Mrs Dalloway; she typeset the entire poem for the Hogarth Press in 1923.

[4] Lilacs appear paired with laburnum a few pages in the holograph (15); however, in the final draft, the contrasting pair is replaced by a single, generic “yellow flower” (JR 20).

[5] The pairing or contrast of lilacs and rusty pipes also occurs in the holograph draft (39).

[6] See my “Quotidian Flowers,” pp. 48-9.

[7] Throughout The Waves, snails are consistently associated with Louis and Rhoda, the two most vulnerable characters.  See my “Occipital Horn” p. 23.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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...