Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies.
The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Jasmine,
The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jeat,
The glowing Violet.
The Musk-rose, and the well attir’d Woodbine,
With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive hed,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears:
Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the Laureat Herse where Lycid lies.
— John Milton, “Lycidas“. 142-151.
Why should we care what flowers Milton thought to toss on the “Laureat Herse” of Lycidas? If the young Edward King did have flowers at his memorial service, it is unlikely that he had the eleven species named in Milton’s poem. Furthermore, Milton declares “bring” these flowers; he doesn’t claim to document what flowers were in bloom or even available for Cambridge services in the month of August, 1637. (A victim of a shipwreck, King’s body was never found … perhaps a memorial service was not held in Cambridge; perhaps they waited until the Spring; I do not know.) Is it fair, therefore, to hold Milton’s imagined memorial accountable to the absolute possibilities of time and place? Probably not.
Nevertheless, readers find different paths, different entryways to the appreciation of a poem. For some of us, flowers suffice, but if flowers are not the object of your fascination, I still argue for the value of knowing what you are reading. To let the flowers pass you by as mere poetic convention is to reduce a good ten lines of the poem to mere mental shorthand. If you have no mental picture of the blooms Milton asks us to bring, the lines must amount to little more than “the bring the pretty flowers ….” Give the poem some respect.
It may also be the case, however, that Milton himself did not know the flowers he tossed into the poem. One of my first efforts at poetry (an adolescent poem for a girl–I never gave it to her) included a lonely buttercup on a hill. At the time, I had no idea what buttercups looked like, where or how they grew, but I did know that they were pretty … just like the girl I admired. I’m no Milton, but it is possible that he too borrowed his flowers from the common stock of poetic convention. Did he gather up a few pretty clichés to honor the death of his Cambridge classmate? Would it matter to us if he did?
Perhaps these are questions that I can not answer for every reader, but I plan to share, here, some of what is known of the flowers Milton would have us bring to a reading of “Lycidas”. I will take them in the order that the appear in the ten lines above, beginning with the Primrose and, eventually, ending with the Daffadillies.