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