Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas

The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jeat
– John Milton, Lycidas, ln 144

Viola tricolor

Viola tricolor. Illustration in: C.A.M Lindman: "Bilder ur Nordens Flora" 1917-1927.

These days, pansies are a popular flower for spring borders and containers. Modern hybrids grow quickly and bloom profusely in cool weather. They leg out and need frequent pinching when the weather starts to warm. I’ve over-wintered pansies in South Bend, Indiana (with protection); they made it, but were less vigorous in their second year.

As a curiosity, I’ve grown Johnny Jump Ups (Viola tricolor) too. These were probably the pansies Milton had in mind; our pansies were not widely cultivated until the 19th century. Viola tricolor is a rangy plant, with small, odorless, but very artful blossoms. A single plant will have plenty of variety in its expression of the three colors: purple, white and yellow. And so, for its delicate brush work, I actually prefer the humble Johnny Jump Up to the gaudy marketplace pansy. For that matter, I prefer your average yard violet (Viola sororia) too; I have a fondness for the natural, white-blue hybrids. But back to Milton and the Viola tricolor.

In addition to having its place here in a great string of old words with new meanings (pansy, freaked, jet), the plant has a range of literary associations. As in Milton’s poem, it is a flower of grief. The jet freaks (streaks in this case and not freckles) might be imagined as the streaks of tears on a weeping face. James Patrick McHenry in “A Milton Herbal” probably overstates the association in responding to a John Carey’s edition of Milton’s Complete Shorter Poems (1971):

I do not believe that Carey’s footnote, “The ‘jet’ is a sign of mourning” (250n144), adequately expresses the effect: having its black streaks highlighted, V. tricolor’s bloom becomes a face in mourning. (Milton Quarterly 30, no. 2: 45-110. See pg. 45.)

McHenry possesses a better imagination, perhaps, but I have stared at the flower cross-eyed and have yet to see the face of mourning.

Shakespeare also saw other associations. First, in his famous pun on pansy and pensive from Ophelia’s madness in Hamlet, Act 4, lines 191-192:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.

And later, and here we get to the licentiousness of “freaked”, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Act 2, Scene 1, lines 168-177. Oberon instructs Puck:

Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

“Love-in-idleness” indeed and clearly sporting a brash, purple hickey. The herb accounts for how one might fall madly in love with a jackass. Coupling with plant with foolish sexual passion finds additional support in Milton’s later use of pansy in Paradise Lost. The flower is included in Adam and Eve’s post-sin sex scene:

Flours were the Couch,
Pansies, and Violets, and Asphodel,
And Hyacinth. (P.L., 9:1040)

The associations grower stranger when one realizes that what American’s have been calling a “Johnny Jump Up” the English have long referred to as Heartsease. While this is explained, perhaps, by its long medicinal history, although not for cardiac problems; how is it that a plant can at once be an emblem of grief, love, joy, “jump up” (whatever that might be), and the ease of one’s heart?

I’ll leave this question unanswered, and end on this: of the many common names, and though I am tempted by the randy “Kiss-her-in-the-Buttery“, I am most fond of Heartsease, and could use a good portion of it right now.

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


3 responses to “Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas

  1. What a great post. Our daughter has loved Johnny Jump Ups since she was a toddler. She is 29 now and they are still her favorite flower in the garden.

    She says they just make her happy.

    Make someone smile send flowers!


  2. Pingback: The Glowing Violet: Lycidas | Commonly

  3. Pingback: Musk-rose: Lycidas | Commonly

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