Monthly Archives: February 2010

Pale Jasmine: Lycidas

The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Jasmine

– John Milton, Lycidas, ln 143

Jasminum officinale

Jasminum officinale. 1787. Botanical Magazine 31.

By the time that Milton wrote Lycidas, at least one specie of Jasmine (Jasminum officinale) was famously (if not widely) cultivated in the warmer parts of England and, elsewhere, under glass. The plant traveled, presumably with the spice trade, from Asia Minor and China. It was probably cultivated in Mediterranean climates long before it made it to England.

If you’ve ever walked within ten meters of a blooming jasmine vine, you know why people have (for so many centuries) coddled and coaxed the vine through bad winters. Like many white flowers, the scent makes one glad to be alive. Feeling somewhat dead at the moment, I wish I had a jasmine vine in bloom right here, right now. At the same time, it’s better to only get a whiff now and then–a constant barrage of jasmine becomes noxious or else quickly fatigues the senses. Abraham Cowley wrote: “Who that has reason and his smell / Would not among roses and jasmine dwell” (from The Garden). And, in a similar vein, Samuel Johnson: “The fragrance of the jessamine bower is lost after the enjoyment of a few moments, and the Indian wanders among his native spices without any sense of their exhalations” (The Rambler, No. 78).

Although Jasmine is a derivative of the Persian “yasmin” (“gift of God’), Jasminum officinale has some fairly boring common names, including “common jasmine”, “hardy jasmine” and “poet’s jasmine”. The first two are obvious enough, but why “poet’s jasmine”? Why “poet’s” anything, for that matter? Perhaps readers noticed the regularity of “jasmine” in poems (in addition to Milton and Cowley, the OED cites Dryden, Coleridge, Spenser, Thomson and Tennyson). I think a more likely explanation would be something like this: your average yokel walks past a jasmine plant, is pleasantly overwhelmed by the odor, and thinks “that’s the sort of thing that would inspire a poet”. I like the odor. I like to swoon. But I cringe, generally, at the notion that poetry is born of swooning. I suppose many poems are written in a swoon, but I think these are usually artistic failures (youthful excesses, more passion and than poem) or efforts to minimize the artistic rigor, while emphasizing the spontaneity involved (Wordsworth, Coleridge and the whole Romantic notion, which is still very much with us).

But then, jasmine is no plant for a hack; I have failed every jasmine plant I’ve owned and many, many times that in poems.

[Note: This is the fourth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, and Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas.]

Dealing with our Devils

On January 12, 2010 an earthquake leveled much of the Republic of Haiti (Haiti Earthquake of 2010, The New York Times).

People died. People are still dying. Soon after the quake, a well-known televangelist (while asking for aid for the victims) attributed the country’s poverty, oppression, and frequent earthly disasters to a pact made with the devil. Supposedly, at some point during the Haitian Revolution and the slave rebellions that preceded it, someone made a deal with the devil to win independence from French colonial rule. (The whole thing smacks of Robert Johnson standing with his guitar at the crossroads, but the phrase is much, much older. Faust, yes … but even the temptations of Christ were “deals”, though not “made”.) The verity of a specific deal made or not made in Haiti’s history does not interest me, nor do I want to join in the chorus of outrage. (Curiously, the words of this “evangelist” are considered worthy of outrage. The man has become some kind of cultural sounding board; when he talks people don’t really listen, but they do define themselves and their friends according to the strength of their emotive responses. I hope that my bit soap-boxing does not add the cultural co-dependency, but it probably will.) I am interested, however, in the exchange, in the fact that it exists. Why are so many people so united in opposition to a silly comment?

I suspect, the televangelist and his outraged detractors share some common impulses. When shit happens, we want to know why. We’re wired that way. If you’re walking down the street and suddenly stumble and fall, you will take a quick inventory: Did I do this to myself? Did someone else do this to me? Let me find someone, anyone, to hold responsible for my pain and shame! It’s all a part of making sure it doesn’t happen next time. The more fortunate folks who witnessed your fall are probably asking themselves similar questions, but they’re more likely to blame you for your misery … even if they saw someone trip you. People “blame the victim” because they are afraid of becoming the victim. If you can identify a weakness or short-coming in the victim that you (presumably) do not possess, you can assuage your fears a bit. Even saying that someone “was in the wrong place at the wrong time”, blames that someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of us do this quietly; some of us, like the televangelist, are vocal about it.

So, when something terrible happens and there are, apparently, no humans to blame for the event, what do we do with our anger and fear? Some blame devils and gods directly; others wait for a vocal nit-wit to say something stupid, and then we unload. It seems to be a popular and cathartic option.

The act of condemning the televangelist, however, is more than merely cathartic. It also gets us off the hook. It proves to ourselves and to others that we are not the kind of person who blames the very people for whom we feel so sorry. But, as I already have implied, we are (to some degree or another) exactly that kind of person.

And the “devil”? Well, yes, an efficacious devil is out of fashion, but I’d bet that you have a one somewhere in your “details”. One doesn’t need to attend to too much of the chatter about Haiti before hearing that the country has suffered from many years of political corruption–corruption leading to poverty, poorly constructed buildings, failing civil infrastructure … all magnifying Haiti’s losses. Political corruption works for some people; the corrupt leaders and regimes did have supporters. Some of these supporters were Haitian citizens, others were wealthier governments and their citizens in other countries. At any rate the supporters saw something to gain and some may have seen a price to pay … you might as well call it “a deal with the devil”. If it makes you feel any better, call it a deal with slavery or colonialism or “homeland security”. Any time that you (or the government leaders that you support with your vote and tax dollars) do something that benefits your well-being at the unjust expense of others, one might call it a “deal” made with the “devil”.

In the end, it is not a question of which one of us made the deal, or even a question of the what the deal might have been, but rather: who is going to pay for it?

Seeing and Knowing

One of my regular routes for running takes me along the banks of the Indianapolis Central Canal and the White River in Indianapolis. Even in the coldest weather, a portion of the canal will not freeze. Some of the city’s steam lines spill into the canal and by the time the slow current reaches the river (roughly a half mile down stream) the water is still warm. The canal water entering the river makes an attractive winter-time micro-culture for fish and birds seeking a warm place to meet, greet and eat. This warm-water spot is also very close to the Indianapolis Zoo (local runners call this route the “zoo loop”); so, I wonder, sometimes, if the critters I’ve seen on my runs have actually made a quick stop in honor of those caged and penned nearby. In five winters I have seen carp, coots, cormorants, foxes, grebes, hawks, and shrews—all within the high-traffic heart of a major urban city.

I know that I am not alone in enjoying these sightings. (There are plenty of runners on the zoo loop.) Likewise, I’m probably not alone in lamenting the fact that eye sight dulls with age. I can not see these creatures as well as I once could. For a couple of weeks now, I have seen some ducks, and while I can tell that they are not Mallards, what are they? Divers, yes … but Scaups? Mergansers? Buffleheads? Ring-necks? The seeing-and-not-knowing really kills curiosity … or maybe makes it more desperate. Perhaps the fact that I would probably know, if I could see, makes the desperation worse.

This slow fading of the senses and (even more so) the frustration that accompanies them has really stumped me. I keep wondering why I care. What is it about seeing and knowing that seems so important? Plenty of people fail to identify ducks at fifty meters distance without glasses or binoculars. Plenty of people see Scaup or Ring-neck, but know only “duck”. I am sure these folks live richly–days just as full of meaning.

*   *   *

Now that I have started thinking about seeing and knowing and why they should matter, the questions bob to the surface and refuse to stay down. Recently, John Latta (in Williams’s seeing. Isola di Rifiuti, February 5, 2010) pointed to William Carlos Williams’s comments on the topic. (Williams being only one of an endless list of writers with failing eyesight; I’ve also been reading a lot of Milton lately.) Williams, in a comment to the poet Marianne Moore, noted: “I don’t like not being able to see dust flecks quite so distinctly as formerly—and the grains of pollen in the flowers” (To Marianne Moore, June 2, 1932. The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp, 1984. pg. 124). Latta, however, juxtaposes this with a quotation from the “Prologue” to Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations:

But the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty that sets a value upon all works of art and makes them a necessity. The senses witnessing what is immediately before them in detail see a finality which they cling to in despair, not knowing which way to turn” (William Carlos Williams. Kora in Hell: improvisations. Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1920. pg 17)

Thus, Williams would seem to argue against the necessity of “seeing” … because it stifles the imagination? Any five year old in a crowd at the annual city parade, would probably disagree. If we’re merely going to imagine the parade, let’s all stay home. Williams’s mother might have said to him: “Dust flecks? Grains of pollen? You’re a poet, just use your imagination.”

The imagination (whatever that is) is a good thing, and seeing too literally can be a disability. Williams associates overly literal seeing with a kind of hyper-materialism, one that strips a culture of its aesthetic wisdom, if not of its moral and ethical foundations. (I think he would also condemn cliche seeing: “true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the false” (16). From the Prologue again:

It is to the inventive imagination we look for deliverance from every other misfortune as from the desolation of a flat Hellenic perfection of style. What good then to turn to art from the atavistic religionists, from a science doing slavey service upon gas engines, from a philosophy tangled in a miserable sort of dialect that means nothing if the full power of initiative be denied at the beginning by a lot of baying and snapping scholiasts? (16)

When it comes to rescuing a culture from ignorance and slavery, I have no more faith in the imagination than I do in the senses. Therefore, I’ll beg for both of them, but to what end?

Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas

Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Johann Georg Sturm. 1796. Belgische Hyazinthe, Hyacinthus nonscriptus. In: Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen.

The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Jasmine
– John Milton, Lycidas, ln 143

The genus Corvus deserves respect; of all the birds, the crows will thrive with us. They are fascinating creatures, but their toes (while useful and even industrious) do not remind me of flowers. Why did the word-makers of old name flowers after the crow’s foot? Someone (a peasant, a king, the local shaman) took a look at a flower and said to themselves, their neighbors and the whole tribe: You know what? That flower looks like a crow’s toes. We typically use metaphors and similes to explain an unfamiliar object by referring to a more familiar object. Thus, for the community in which these word-makers made their way, a crow’s toes were a common reference point and visually more familiar than the flower they described. By the time that Milton listed the crow-toe as a flower fit for the imagined funeral of his (lost-at-sea) classmate, people had forgotten the original, bony toes of the crow and imagined the flower instead. Tossing actual crow toes at a casket does have a certain Gothic appeal, but it would likely offend the living (if not the dead) and put one at the mercy of local corvid murders. But what did Milton have in mind? What were the crow-toes blooming in Milton’s literary garden?

Most sources (including the OED) identify Hyacinthoides non-scripta (also known as Scilla nutans), commonly called the English Bluebell. In fact, this line from Lycidas is a common reference, used by the OED and suffusing as the definition of crow-toe in the 1828 edition of Websters. To be fair, the OED, also notes that “crow-toe” additionally refers to Orchis mascula, Lotus corniculatus, and a number of Buttercups (crow-toes in a cup a butter–yum), but I find each of those unlikely in this case. With the possible exception of a some unnamed variety of Buttercup, these were either not common enough or simply not attractive … not worthy of funeral biers. Homer B. Sprague’s notes in an 1891 edition of Paradise Lost make the best case for the Bluebell; Sprague finds one of Milton’s early drafts which does not use “crow-toe”, but does allude to the Hyacinth.  However, how exactly does an English Bluebell look like a crow’s toes? True, the leaf blades are narrow and pointy and the sky blue petals curl back on themselves (like a bird’s foot on a perch?), but what makes them “tufted”? To some, Hyacinth foliage in a field or lawn may appear tuft-like, but I’ve never thought so.

Hyacinths are reliable bulbs and Bluebells spread quickly under trees. They bloom (as do Primroses) in the Spring (maybe a bit later), so it’s feasible to have both Primroses and Bluebells at a special occasion in 17th Century England. The word-makers, however, failed us and failed Milton too. We have lost the crow-toe, while the flower may be alive and well, the word is little more than a ghost of a metaphor.