#50 Honeysuckle/Woodbine



Honeysuckle or Lonicera is a member of the Caprifoliacae or woodbine family.  A climbing vine with many twisting, recursive, self-knotting tendrils, its highly scented flowers are “tubular at the base but divide at the mouth into 5 petals frequently arranged in 2 lips, an upper lip of 4 fused petals and a lower lip of a single petal” (Hogan 834). The Woodlands Trust in UK describes the delicate blossoms as “a yellow/cream colour” which “when pollinated may develop an orange colouration, with a touch of crimson/red,” noting that they bloom from June through September and are pollinated “by either moths or long tongued bees.”[1]  Rendall specifies that hawkmoths are especially common fertilizers of honeysuckle (197). He maintains that “Lonicera Periclymenum is the “loveliest of our wood climbers and twiners” and that the flowers bloom “freely as late as October” (192).  The derivation of the name is obvious; coming from the Old English honi and sucan, it refers to sucking honey or nectar from the tube of the flower (Ward 203). Some sources, such as Ward, assume that honeysuckle is the same as woodbine, using as evidence the interchangeability of the two names in a long history of British literature (Ward 202 and passim), but Rendall points out that the term “woodbine” is more generic and can also refer to other climbers such as clematis and convolvulus (193), making the helpful suggestion that “Woodbine was applied to the plant generally and honeysuckle to the flower” (194). 

            Symbolically, honeysuckle is often associated with the bonds of love. In Greek mythology the honeysuckle was entwined with the story of Daphne and Chloe who could stay together in their scented arbor “for as long as the honeysuckle blooms” and so the goddess of love made it “last and last” (Hielmeyer 36). In his comprehensive study of plant lore, Watts describes the “evil-averting powers” of honeysuckle, particularly its use as a barrier to witches, probably because of the complexity of its “interwoven braided cords” which were thought to “confuse evil eyes” which became fixated on its clockwise patterns (198). He also chronicles its use as a courtship charm.  In the Victorian language of flowers it was associated with “generous and devoted affection” (Greenaway 22).

In the British literary tradition, honeysuckle is as “familiar and well-loved” as in folklore (Watts 198), with references appearing in everyone from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, Jane Austen, and Dickens. The two favored contexts are scenic, where the vine provides the shelter of an entwined bower, and romantic, in which the twining habit serves as a metaphor for love’s usually happy co-dependency. For example, in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseydei  the lovers wind around each other like “wode-binde” “aboute a tree, with many a twiste” (qtd by Ward 203). Shakespeare’s Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is of course, the locus classicus for honeysuckle/ woodbine: in Oberon’s monologue the bank where his wife sleeps among the wild thyme, oxslips, and nodding violets is another bower:  “Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine” (II. i. l 639); and in the comic mix-up of Act IV an enchanted Titania promises to wind the ass-headed Bottom in her arms as “the woodbine the sweet honeysickle/ Gentle entwist” (IV, I, l. 1586). This line in particular has caused concern amongst scholars of flowers in Shakespeare for it could seem to suggest that woodbine and honeysuckle are two different or plants; though some sources, such as the Royal Gardens at Kew, maintain that this is a distinction without a difference as Shakespeare “seems to be describing honeysuckle as the flowers of the woodbine plant.” [2] At any rate, the first instance describes a bower and the second is an evocation of romantic devotion.

Other British greats display similar uses for the flowering vine. Ward points out that winding woodbine “round the arbor” is one of the gardening tasks listed for Adam by Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost (204), but Rendall suggests the appearance of “well-attired woodbine” in the call for “every flower that sad embroidery wears” in Milton’s Lycidas (ll. 146 and 148) is more or less random since it was substituted for “the garish Columbine” in an earlier draft (Rendall 195). Samuel Johnson is the odd man out in this catalogue of rustic bliss as Mrs. Thrale reports that the great man once referred to “honeysuckle wives” who wind so tightly about their husband that they destroy them (Rendall 193).

Rendall suggests that by the eighteenth-century woodbines had become something of a poetic cliché; saying “they appear in every hedge and bower” (195), he cites numerous appearances in the poems of Lady Winchilsea, while Ward notes occurrences in Burns, Keats, and Wordsworth where another “rustic shed” is hung with woodbine (205).  Jane Austen makes fun of their fashionable prevalence in Sense and Sensibility when the cottage loaned to the Dashwoods is deemed “defective,” that is, not romantic enough because “the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles” (qtd by Ward 207 and Rendall 195).  Dickens, however, perpetuates the sentimental cliché, as well as the Shakespearean muddle, as he twice envisions honeysuckle entwining with woodbine (in The Old Curiosity Shop and Our Mutual Friend) -- both times describing latticework around a porch (noted by Rendall 194).

            Considering their extensive lineage in British literature, honeysuckle and woodbine have rather disappointing manifestations in Woolf’s writing.  We know honeysuckle existed at Monk’s house; there is an August 1929 entry in Leonard’s Garden Account book for purchasing 132 Lonicera (if I am reading Leonard’s handwriting correctly), which were used to screen the vegetable garden in the back. However, honeysuckle makes only three appearances in Woolf’s prose, twice in essays and once in fiction -- all three after she is fifty years old and largely representative of an idyllic past, now long gone. In her 1934 essay on Oliver Goldsmith, honeysuckle is evoked as an emblem of a romanticized bucolic setting. Speaking of Boswell’s even-handed portrayal of Goldsmith, Woolf remarks that Boswell showed “that the silver-tongued writer was no simple soul, gently floating through life from the honeysuckle to the hawthorn hedge” and was instead “a complex man, full of troubles” (E6 26). An account of Roger Fry’s honeymoon in her biography of her friend features a random sighting of the plant: “In blazing heat they visited Faenza and found it deserted; the courtyards ‘all grown over with vine and honeysuckle’” (RF 99).  By the time honeysuckle shows up in Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, it is nothing but the stamped trace of a lost convention.  During the Victorian segment of the village pageant, a matron with four daughters in want of husbands asks whether the new clergyman has a wife, the question being raised by the appearance of a tea cosy amongst his belongings as he was moving into his residence. The chorus amplifies her query, singing: “did he also display the connubial respectable tea-table token, a cosy with honeysuckle embossed” (BTA 115).  Here honeysuckle retains its associations with romance but dwindled down into domestic decorative respectability. 

Appearing four times (once in an essay, once in a play, and twice in a single diary entry), woodbine has a similarly casual presence.  In Woolf’s 1920 review of an overly fanciful biography of Miss Mary Russell Mitford, she highlights Mitford’s delight in glow-worms, creating her own fancy of a glow-worm having been carried into Mitford’s bedroom “with the wild woodbine” (E3 222). In an essay concentrating on the ways in which Miss Mitford’s freedom of movement and even to write in her preferred genre were constrained by her devotion to her father, the woodbine does seem like a particularly appropriate import. Although it is not clear whether this woodbine is actually honeysuckle, the emphasis on scent in the next reference, a quotation from Tennyson’s “Maud” in the 1923 version of Woolf’s comic play Freshwater about the artistic circle of her great-aunt, Margaret Cameron, insures the botanical provenance. Reading to Mrs. C. from his lengthy poem, Tennyson declaims: “Come into the garden, Nell, . . . I am here at the gate alone; And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad, And the musk of the rose is blown” (69). Eliminating the black bat of night and changing Maud’s name to the nickname of Ellen Terry, the wife of Sir George Frederick Watts, Woolf once again evokes honeysuckle in the context of a bye-gone era, although this time the wild twists of the plot -- as Tennyson speaks, Ellen Terry is dressed as a man and kissing her new lover amongst the raspberry canes -- suggest an even more sardonic attitude towards this sentimental remnant.

Woolf’s last two mentions of woodbine, in a November 8, 1930 diary entry, are a provocative look back at honeysuckle’s place in the canon of British Literature. Describing a lively conversation about poetic favorites with Water De la Mere and W. B. Yeats, Woolf reports that in discussing “what poems we could come back to unsated,” she nominated Milton’s Lycidas, but both poets disagreed: “De la M. said no. Not Milton for him: he could never recognise his own emotions there. Milton’s woodbine was not his woodbine, nor M.’s Eve his Eve. Yeats said he could not get satisfaction from Milton” (D3 330).  Milton had been much on Woolf’s mind while she was writing A Room of One’s Own, which had been published the year before. Considering that the narrator of Woolf’s essay goes on a thwarted journey to locate the manuscript of Milton’s pastoral elegy in search of “which word it could have been that Milton had altered” (AROOO 7), it is ironic that the honeysuckle which De la Mere rejects was actually a revision. Is it presuming too much on Woolf’s knowledge of Milton to suggest that she shares De la Mere’s rejection of Milton’s Eve and by association, the bondage of the bower on her honey-do list of Adam’s gardening tasks? 


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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...