#29 Daffodil


As one of the best known of spring flowers, daffodils hardly need much introduction. Comprising the genus Narcissus, the fifty or so types of flowering bulbs belong to the family Amaryllidacea (Hogan 914). Colors range from bright yellow to white, with more recent varieties including shades of pink and green. While all have a corona or central cup surrounded by six petals, narcissi propagate and hybridize so freely that the many species and thousands of cultivars are usually classified by flower shape (trumpet, large-cup, small-cup, double, split-corona etc.) The classic European, Wordsworthian species is N. psuedonarcissus: bright yellow, with a prominent trumpet, slightly drooping head, and partially twisted leaves (Hogan 914)

Daffodils have been around for a long time.  Of course the myth of the youth who became so enchanted with his own self-image that he fell into a pool and drowned is well-known, but the name Narcissus probably preceded the myth; Pliny and Virgil thought it derived from the Greek word narke and referred to the narcotic effect of their sweet spell (Ward 114).  The flowers also appear in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, mixed with roses, crocuses, violets, and iris in the distracting meadow where Persephone is kidnapped (Heilmeyer 62). Such affiliations with the underworld go back to even earlier Egyptian burial practices in which the skins of daffodil bulbs were placed over the eyes of mummies and wreaths of the flowers were placed around theirs necks (Helimeyer 62).

More recent, British folklore and allusions to daffodils tend to stress their beauty and role as heralds of spring. Watts records a British superstition that the “the first daffodil is a lucky one,” presaging “more gold than silver” for the coming year (97). Shakespeare mentions daffodils twice in his late romance The Winter’s Tale (Quealy 66). Autolycus sings that “when daffodils begin to peer. . .o’er the dale/ Why then comes in the sweet o’ the year” (Act IV, sc iii); later Perdita, costumed as Flora, alludes to Persephone’s capture by Hades, calling for all the spring flowers that the goddess dropped in fear so she can weave them into a wreath. Among the flowers she mentions are violets, primroses and “Daffodils,/That come before the swallow dares, and take/The winds of March with beauty.” Florizel is worried that the wreath she crafts is for a corpse, but she assures him that if he is to be buried, it will be in her arms (Act IV, sc iv). Of course, the best known daffodils in British literature belong to Wordsworth: “A host, of golden daffodils. . . Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” And, in his youthful Endymion, Keats lists daffodils as one of the “things of beauty” that are a joy forever: “such are daffodils/ with the green world they live in.”

Woolf’s use of daffodils only occasionally evokes their more mournful heritage as symbols of either death or vanity and instead centers on their vernal beauty.  For the most part the forty-two daffodils she mentions are accessories of spring, given as gifts, presented, with an occasional nod to Shakespeare, as contrasts in the vivid tapestry of spring color.

Virginia’s childhood was casually scattered with daffodils. When she was fifteen, she and Nessa went to a department store in nearby Kensington High Street to buy violets for a child having her third birthday.  When no violets were available, they purchased daffodils instead (PA 51). In 1913, daffodils were a feature of her new country abode, Asheham.  She counts twenty as features of the new garden along with crocuses, and later praises Vanessa for all her work planting daffodils, tulips and “flocks” (L2 20, 64).  In April of 1916, she writes from Hogarth House in Richmond to thank her sister, this time for “your parcel of daffodils,” sent presumably from Charleston where Virginia imagines them growing “all about your lake, with blue flowers” (L2 87).

This painterly contrast of yellow daffodils with blue or purple blooms or the blue of the sky becomes something of a pattern in Woolf’s references to the flower. A 1918 short story, “The Evening Party” pairs daffodils with bluebells in a list of sensory delights: “I look at my hand upon the window sill and think what pleasure I’ve had in it, how it’s touched silk and pottery and hot walls, laid itself flat upon wet grass or sun-baked, let the Atlantic spurt through its fingers, snapped blue bells and daffodils, plucked ripe plums” (CSF 99).  In Night and Day, Katherine imagines her ideal home: “she thought of a cottage garden, with the flash of yellow daffodils against blue water” (ND 218). Woolf’s list of the delights of her country cottage, Monk’s House, in an April 1922 letter to her sister Vanessa echoes this description: “At moments it is divinely lovely here-- hot, birds, daffodils, blue sky” (L2 523). The color contrast continues to appear in three published works of the later twenties and early thirties.  In To the Lighthouse, the horticultural chaos of “Time Passes” includes garden urns “casually filled with wind-blown plants” including violets and daffodils (TTL 138). In A Room of One’s Own, the magically imagined spring in the Fernham College garden features “daffodils and bluebells” “sprinkled and carelessly flung” in the long grass (AROO 17).  A more ordered, urban composition is presented in the floral commerce of the 1932 essay “Oxford Street Tide” where “The first spring day brings out barrows frilled with tulips, violets, daffodils in brilliant layers” (E5 284).

A few of Woolf’s daffodils do have mournful associations. In April of 1918, Woolf records in her Asheham diary that she had just been reading Wordsworth’s poem “Lines Written in Early Spring,” which contrasts the pleasurable beauty of nature with sad thoughts of “what man has made of man” (D1 130).  As if the reference to Wordsworth was a metonymic trigger, she then mentions, “The daffodils were out & the guns I suppose could be heard from the downs” (D1 130). A year and a half later, daffodils appear as tokens of grief in the short story “An Unwritten Novel” as Minnie Marsh’s faithful service to her dying mother includes spending “All her savings on the tombstones-- wreaths under glass--daffodils in jars” (CSF 115). In 1922, at the end of a long bout with influenza, Woolf produces a review, written in the form of a letter composed from bed, describing the appurtenances of an “English sick-room in February in London —the thermometer, the medicine glass, the bunch of insipid grapes, the six daffodils, and daylight drawing further and further its strip of elongated grey” (E6 391). For the next sixteen years, most of Woolf’s daffodils are happy harbingers of spring, but in March of 1938, the death of her nephew in Spain casts a shade of regret over her observations: “And it was like June--& so remains--bland sunny blue; with the thought of Julian dead, somehow not pointless; but I keep thinking why is he not here to see the daffodils” (D5 131). 

Some of Woolf’s references to daffodils refer to literary sources.  Her first public citation of the flower occurs in a very early, 1908, review of “Some Poetical Plays” by Yeats and others in which she quotes a mythopoetic passage from The Virgin Goddess: A Tragedy by Rudolf Besier about Artemis “Parting with silver feet the daffodils/ That fringed his highland stream,” (E6 353). In Night and Day (1919), Mrs. Hilbery (a unifying goddess figure whom Jane Marcus reminds us is called “the magician” [Bells 25]) searches for a passage about spring that recalls Endymion: “it’s the daffodils; it’s the green fields” (ND 307). Later, embarked on her quest to stand at Shakepeare’s grave, she passes a violet seller and reminds herself to send her husband “the first daffodil she saw” (ND 427). When she returns from her pilgrimage to sort out the misunderstandings between lovers and her husband’s attempt to block romance in order to save civilization as he knows it, her arms are full of “yellow flowers” and “palm-buds” which she drops “upon the floor, with a gesture that seemed to indicate and act of dedication,” associating daffodils with the rebirth rituals of Palm Sunday and Easter (ND 479). 

Literary daffodils associated with a creative woman appear again in Woolf’s 1929 essay on Dorothy Words worth, where she describes the intertwined minds of brother and sister: “they hardly knew which felt, which spoke, which saw the daffodils or the sleeping city” (E5 11). A counter-example shows up in Woolf’s diary entry on D.H. Lawrence in October of 1932 where, frustrated with Lawrence’s preaching, she quotes Perdita’s line about “daffodils that come before the swallow dares” as an example of a sentence that is beautiful in and of itself (D4 126). A rather ironic note to Vita requesting a copy of Vita’s Collected Poems a year later seems to recall Besier’s image of Artemis as Woolf suggests that Vita revert to being a hunting dog and protests the end of their friendship, “what was once a grove of flowering trees, and nymphs walking among them through the daffodils” (L5 251).
These literary and creative contexts occasionally allow daffodils to assume a more complex metaphorical function as emblems of artistic achievement.  In an early review of “The Letters of Henry James” (1920), Woolf compares writing books to the blooming of the flowers: “But so far as actual statement goes the books might have sprung as silently and spontaneously as daffodils in spring”(E3 198).  Perhaps her most vibrant evocation of daffodils occurs in A Room of One’s Own where the bright yellow flowers become emblems of the flash of consciousness that is her epistemological goal in life: “What is meant by ‘reality’? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun” (AROO 108). In her “Letter to a Young Poet,” published three years later (1932), Woolf again uses daffodils as an example of the highest artistic synthesis:  “All you need now is to stand at the window and let your rhythmical sense open and shut, open and shut, boldly and freely, until one thing melts in another, until the taxis are dancing with the daffodils, until a whole has been made from all these separate fragments (E5 306).

All these threads of connotation weave the tapestry behind Woolf’s last citations of daffodils, a return to the floral inventories of her childhood Springs.  In March and April of 1940, she makes three diary entries noting the progress of the daffodils, apparently in an effort to cite cheerful flashes of natural beauty. Each deposition, however, is slightly undercut by foreshadows of a coming darkness. On Easter Sunday, March 24 she records the promise of bloom, “And its refreshing & rejuvenating to see the gold thick clumps of crocuses & the unopened green daffodils, & to hear my Asheham rooks dropping their husky caws through the gummy air” (D5 274). Two weeks later, the flowers are in full bloom as she laments her losses at bowls but contemplates writing a new article: “And its a keen spring day; infinitely [?] lit & tinted & cold & soft: all the groups of daffodils yellow along the bank; lost my 3 games, & want nothing but sleep. Still, other ideas prick; & Watkins offers £400 (about) for an essay on a character” (D5 278).  A week later the bright flowers are juxtaposed to intimations of war: “I must make this record, for in fact it gives the old odd stretch to the back curtain of the mind. A fine spring day in front; daffodils luminous groups along the terrace. Aeroplanes overhead. Mine fields laid, apparently to let us land our army” (D5 279).

A last mention of daffodils in May provides a mysteriously shaded coda to these observations of a Persephone about to be kidnapped. In an entry which deteriorates into a kind of list, “torn scraps in a wastepaper basket,” Woolf cites “Clive’s night: the police; & Mary’s visit; the Duke of Devonshire & his midnight daffodils; Clive’s unshaven cheeks; Desmond next day” (D5 282).  “Midnight daffodils” presaging a nocturne on reality’s sunny day.

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...