#31 Daisy


Although many different flowers are called daisies, most sources agree that references to the common daisy usually allude to Bellis perennis, a member of the huge Asteraceae family that spreads prolifically in lawns and meadows.  Made up of many white, slightly spooned petals, sometimes with pink undertones or tips raying out from a yellow center, the flowers are small, from ¾ to 2 inches across and from three to six inches tall.[1] Both Chaucer and Ben Johnson call it “day’s eye” or Eye of the day” (Folkard 166), presumably because of its thermostatic habit of opening in the morning warmth and closing when evening’s chill or bad weather arrives. The association with eyes and seeing led to its being used by ancient herbalists as an eyewash to cure bloodshot or sore eyes (Ward 123; Watts 99). From the fifteenth century on, the daisy has been “a popular oracle on affairs of the heart” as generations of lovers have consulted it to find whether their lovers “love me” or “love me not” (Heilmeyer 56).

In his compilation of flower lore, A Contemplation on Flowers, Ward maintains that after
 the lily and the rose, the daisy is probably the flower most mentioned by English poets, 
although it comes sixth in Woolf’s oeuvre, after roses, carnations, lilies, violets, and 
crocuses (Ward 122).  In that tradition it consistently represents innocence and modesty, 
beginning with Chaucer, who used it as an emblem of female self-sacrifice and fidelity.  
The Legend of Good Women begins with a paean of praise dedicating the poem to the daisy, 
his “gyde and lady sovereyne” (l. 94) and then mashes up several classical sources to tell 
the story of Queen Alceste, who volunteered to replace her husband in Hades and was 
turned into a daisy as a model for all the good women honored in the poem (ll. 511-4).
Shakespeare’s use of daisies is a bit more nuanced and complicated. In Hamlet the flower 
betokens a betrayal of female innocence, connected with madness and death in the character of 
Ophelia, who offers a daisy to her brother Laertes, “There’s a daisy; I would give you violets, 
but they all withered when my father died” (Act IV, sc 5), and weaves her own funeral wreath 
of “crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples” (Act IV, sc 7).  In Cymbeline, the daisy 
becomes a full-fledged emblem of death as soldiers planning an honorable burial seek to 
“Find out the prettiest dasied plot we can,/ And make him, with our pikes and partizans, a 
grave” (Act IV, sc 2).
Robert Burns emphasizes the daisy’s modesty and fragility as he apologizes for accidentally ploughing a plant under in “To a Mountain Daisy” (1786). Addressing it as a “Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r, ” he compares it to an “artless maid” clad in a “scanty mantle,” “unassuming” and “humble” and doomed like all humanity to being crushed by fate. Wordsworth shows a similarly gentle derogation of the flower in “To the Daisy” (1802), one of three poems he wrote praising this “Unassuming commonplace/ Of Nature, with that homely face.”

Daisies appear at least forty-two times in Woolf’s writing, not counting the times the name is used for characters in novels or in discussing friends and family members such as Duncan’s Aunt Daisy McNeil (L3 464). While many of these references fit into traditional patterns of usage, emphasizing daises as emblems of innocence, picturing them scattered among rural grasses, and carelessly repeating clichéd similes, Woolf puts her particular spin on the flower, subjecting it to a variety of destructive forces, sometimes going back to the derivation of the name and subtly exploring issues with looking or being seen, and often undercutting the usual association with pure young women by ironic referents.

Of course, a fair number of Woolf’s daisies are simply observed as part of her quotidian environment.  In early October of 1915, for example, she records working on the garden path at Asheham, planting “Wallflowers, daisies, and foxgloves” (D1 55). But many of her daisy sightings are far from home. In April 1927, she writes Vanessa about a garden in France “which is sprinkled with saucers of daisies” (L3 358 ). In May of 1932 she records writing in the gorge at Delphi, ”under an olive tree, sitting on dry earth covered with white daisies” and later notes “the flies sitting in yellow hearts of the daisies” (D4 93).

In her professional writing, however, Woolf is perfectly cognizant of the British tradition which associates daisies with the carefree comforts of youthful rural life. In an early essay on “Miss Mitford” (wr. In 1920 and rev. in 1925) she offers the suggestion that “Our brilliant young men might do worse, when in search of a subject, than devote a year or two to cows in literature, snow in lit, the daisy in Chaucer and in Coventry Patmore” (E4 192), connecting the flower to bucolic bovines, fields of purity, the medieval past, and authors known for recommending female self-sacrifice. There are many such self-conscious evocations of literary daisies where the daisy in the grass is an index to youth, innocence, and a Wordsworthian lament for the passage of time. In an early review of the diary of Frances, Lady Shelley (1913), Woolf twice quotes a line in one of her subject’s letters about “the springy, daisy-spangled turf,” the first time as part of a description of the rural joys of the subject’s youth (E6, 376), the second time as a marker of loss: “The world is no longer a place of ‘springy daisy-spangled turf’ upon which she gallops in the early morning, but a far more decorous place” (E6 378).  A similar comparison between simple daisies and a more complex reality is made in a review of George Meredith’s novels (1928): “His boys and girls may spend their time picking daisies in the meadows, but they breathe, however unconsciously, an air brittle with electricity” (E4 527). Charles Elton’s poem “Luriana Lurilee,” famously recited in To the Lighthouse, is a similar intimation of mortality in which the narrator remembers a time when he and Luriana “Roamed in the forest . . . And laughed & chattered in the flowers” before they went out “To see the kings go riding by/ Over lawn and daisy lea” (TTL 113). Not quoted in the novel is the end of the poem where Luriana sleeps “in a bramble bush/ Or under the gloomy churchyard-tree,” probably the yew, often planted in graveyards.[2]

Daisies are frequently linked with children in Woolf’s writing, often under circumstances that make them more the eye of the dark than of the day.  The first daisy to appear in her fiction is a fairly conventional but slightly disturbing simile in The Voyage Out: “Lunch went on methodically, until each of the seven courses was left in fragments and the fruit was merely a toy, to be peeled and sliced as a child destroys a daisy, petal by petal” (VO 118). The one daisy in Night and Day is noted for its absence rather than its presence; the lawn of the Rectory at Disham is “unspotted by a single daisy” (179). The lawns of Cambridge in Jacob’s Room are spotted, but seen in the near darkness of twilight; as the young men return back to their colleges the lights begin to come on, “picking up dark patches of grass and single daisies” in the courtyard greens (41).[3] In her 1924 children’s story, “Nurse Lugton’s Curtain” daisies are again liminal markers; as the Nurse falls asleep, the pattern on the fabric she is sewing undergoes a fantastical transformation: “the blue curtain. . .  became made of grass, and roses and daisies” (CS 160). Daisies are similarly associated with the magical other-world of children and dreams in “Slater’s Pins Have No Points” (also 1924) where Fanny Wilcox, longing to break the spell of Miss Cray’s isolation, imagines her look of desire for the merry heart of the child Polly, skipping home across the fields: "’Stars, sun, moon,’ it seemed to say, ‘the daisy in the grass, fires, frost on the window pane, my heart goes out to you.” But the connection fails: “And the stars faded, and the child went” (CSF 216).

Woolf’s frequent use of the daisy in similes or metaphors further demonstrates her awareness of the flower’s fragility, often undercutting its freshness with allusions to death or destruction as in the example above from The Voyage Out. Sometimes, the metaphorical daisy is slain by words. In a 1918 review of Swinburne’s Letters she cleverly critiques his sometimes over-enthusiastic criticism, remarking that “Swinburne’s praise or blames blots out the object of it as effectively as a dustorm conceals a daisy” (E2 230). Madame du Deffand’s rare bon mot in Orlando has a similar effect: The witticism, as it left her lips, bowled over the current conversation as a cannon ball lays low the violets and the daisies” (O 147). In two slightly later letters Woolf again compares literary criticism to killing daisies.  A March 1929 letter to Bunny Garnett discussing George Moore, the Irish novelist famous for outraging the circulating libraries with his frank treatment of sexual issues, mentions that “I’ve met him once or twice lately and been amused to watch him switching off the head of every possible daisy in the neighborhood.” That the daisies are authors whose work Moore dislikes is suggested by Woolf’s caveat that “I think you alone survived last time. Otherwise it was ‘poor dear Henry James--deplorable, deplorable’” (L4 32). She uses almost the exact same figure of speech a few years later in a March 1932 letter to Vita Sackville-West, sending congratulations to Vita’s husband Harold for a review in the New Statesman which she felt justly criticized the rather right-wing author of Lives of a Bengal Lancer, praising Harold for “slic[ing] the heads off daisies” (L5 88).

The sad fate of literary daisies is somewhat offset by their visual associations with change and transformation as well as with fidelity to detail, two rather contradictory ideas. In the original, 1926 version of “On Being Ill,” Woolf imagines being the flower’s eye and looking up at the changing procession above her.  If one becomes “as the leaf or the daisy, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different” from ordinary reality “that really it is a little shocking” (E4 320). Woolf goes on to describe a panoply of roiling transformations: “this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together . . . this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away” (E 4 320).[4]  However, in her accounts of two Victorian sages, Ruskin and Tennyson, the daisy is presented as the object of the gaze, pinned and wriggling for inspection.  Reminding readers of the pleasures of reading Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita, in her 1927 essay “Ruskin Looks Back on Life,” Woolf contrasts his “sensuous susceptibility” with his puritanical austerity: “He revels in the description of changing clouds and falling waters, and yet fastens his eye to the petals of a daisy with the minute tenacity of a microscope” (E4 503). Tennyson credits himself with a similar devotion to detail in Woolf’s comical play Freshwater (1935) where he claims his poetry is based on fact: “I never describe a daisy without putting it under the microscope first.” For proof he quotes two lines from “Maud: “For her feet have touch’d the meadows/ And left the daisies rosy”(FW 15). Both these examples describe an acute looking-at the daisy in the context of transformation: the changing clouds, the changing color of the flower after it has been stepped upon.

Echoing these almost epistemological contrasts, the treatment of daisies in The Waves (1931) turns on a fascinating pun between transformative sensuality and constraint.  As a child at school, half in love with her teacher Miss Lambert, Rachel becomes aware that the presence of her beloved shifts her perceptions: “When Miss Lambert passes, she makes the daisy change; and everything runs like streaks of fire when she carves the beef” (TW 31).  Later, leaving school for summer holidays, daisies return to their unvarying whiteness and become lines of demarcation: “I see the fields white with daisies, and white with dresses; and tennis courts marked with white” (TW 45). After Percival’s death, Neville thinks of the futures before the group of friends and asks, “Shall we push through flowering meadows and make daisy chains?” an image which seems to conjure up the innocent games of childhood (TW 103). But Bernard replies with the announcement that he has just become engaged, and Susan immediately turns the daisy reference into an emblem of permanence: “Everything is now set; everything is fixed. Bernard is engaged. Something irrevocable has happened.  A circle has been cast on the water; a chain is imposed. We shall never flow freely again” (TW 103; see note 2 above). Change has metamorphosed into a chain; the daisy has gone from sensuous fluidity to chalk lines marking game boundaries, to a wedding ring, to a circle of constraint.  Published a year later, “Oxford Street Tide” repeats this contrast between change and rigidity, celebrating the transience of the city of London with its claim that we should be foolish “if we asked of the lily that it should be cast in bronze, or of the daisy that it should have petals of imperishable enamel” (E5 285).

Given the dialectical variety with which Woolf deconstructs the daisy’s attributes -- opening the day’s eye in the dark, subjecting delicacy to destruction, chaining change -- it should come as no surprise when Woolf turns her irony onto the flower’s gender affiliations. As pointed out earlier, Woolf’s knowledge of Chaucer inspired an early suspicion of the flower as a symbol of female subjugation; this seems to lurk behind the choice of Daisy for characters’ names in Woolf’s fiction. The mention of “Daisy Budd and her troupe of performing seals” in Jacob’s Room seems to be a clearly comic incongruity, perhaps a play on Melville’s Billy Budd, but one that certainly derogates women (23). And in Mrs. Dalloway, Peter Walsh’s love interest back in India is almost a travesty of the clichéd attributes of an “artless maid.” Although married to a major with two small children and thus an adulteress in emotion if not deed, Peter’s Daisy seems almost childlike in her simplicity: “It did come, after all so naturally; so much more naturally than Clarissa.  No fuss.  No bother.  No finicking and fidgeting.  All plain sailing”(MD 153). Despite Peter’s obsession with her photograph -- “All in white, with a fox-terrier on her knee, very charming” (153)-- he knows she “would look ordinary beside Clarissa” (42). And their love affair is presented with a kind of on-again, off-again ambivalence that echoes the oracular game played with the flower.  Although Peter is ostensibly in England to consult lawyers about her getting a divorce, he does not think of her “for hours and days” (77), seems unsure if she will actually accept him, and thinks it might be “happier. . . that she should forget him” (154). Daisy’s youth, innocence, and purity, are illusions that reduce her to an “unassuming commonplace.”
Several of Woolf’s last references to daisies cast a cold eye on these traditional links between young women and the modest flower of the field as her daisies seem to age along with the writer. In April of 1935, Woolf met Ava Wigram and her husband for tea and, in both her diary and a letter to her sister, remarked  on how Ava looked “something like an old daisy or other simple garden flower, if a flower could look very unhappy” (D4 304; see also L5 387).  Another aging daisy appears in Woolf’s 1940 review of the letters of Lady Harriet Cavendish in the person of one Selina Trimmer, governess to Lady Harriet, whom Woolf describes initially as a “modest daisy” (E6 229). Despite Trimmer’s middle class Quaker upbringing, she stayed with the family for many years, her reason, morality, and mild advice earning her the position of a “confidante” (231).  Woolf imagines Selina “grown very old and very gaunt” but still with something “hardy and perennial” about her (E6 232), a testament to the staying power of a flower with character.

Appearing in Between the Acts, Woolf’s last daisy is a skeptical rebuttal of maidenly modesty.  Lady Harpy Harraden, an appropriately named character in Woolf’s mock restoration comedy, attempts to pimp her daughter to the equally egregious Sir Spaniel Lilyliver, a companion of her own childhood, by evoking their youthful alliance some fifty years before when Sir Spaniel called her “little bride” and the two “Bound our wrists with daisy chains together” (BTA 91). Recalling Neville’s reference to daisy-chains in The Waves, these chains are an ominous sign of the decline of love into sexual trafficking, a pretty severe critique of the Age of Reason and a final rebuke to the subordination of the daisy.


[2] https://archive.is/20001026130844/http://orlando.jp.org/VWWARC/DAT/luriana.html
[3] Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang suggests that by the mid-1940’s, “daisy” was a term used for “a male homosexual”; subsequent references to male authors having their heads sliced off and to daisy chains (“A circle of 3 or more people. . . all linked physically in mutual sex acts”), may carry homophobic or erotic overtones (Cassell’s 379).
[4] In later versions of this passage, the analogy to the daisy is eliminated.

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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...