Woodbine: Lycidas

“The Musk-rose, and the well attir’d Woodbine” John Milton, Lycidas. Ln. 146.

The flowers of Milton

Jane Elizabeth Giraud. The Flowers of Milton. 1846.

The woodbine might have been well attired and, for a fairy’s bower, well attiring, but it was not well imagined as strewn across Edward King’s laureate hearse. Here, I think, Milton let poetic convention (the weight of an echoed Shakespeare) write a sloppy, unthinking image. Shakespeare, too, is part of the confusion. His “woodbine”, however, is better placed; it grows as it should, vined into a canopy, held aloft by the magical forest, by an unseen trellis, perfuming the stage for Titania’s dreams:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act 2, Scene 1. Lines 254-8)

But is it “honeysuckle” that Shakespeare intends? Two acts later, in the same play, he wrote:

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.

(Act 2, Scene 1. Lines 41-3)

Many have taken line 41 as evidence that Shakespeare meant two plants–one a woodbine, another a honeysuckle. It seems just as likely to me that the poet was repeating or clarifying his reference to a single plant. In another world he might have written, for example: “the prickly pear, the Opuntia cactus” or “the tiger, the Siberian tiger”. I do not think it matters, here, what specific plant the bard did or did not have in mind. He imagined a vine, one with love-scented flowers hung from the ceiling of this forest boudoir. Nonetheless, I vote for honeysuckle.

Though murkier in his intentions, Milton too may not have needed a specific flower for this line. Any woodbine would rhyme. Furthermore, he probably would have known more than one plant with this name. On this point, McHenry cites the OED when asserting: “Woodbine in Milton’s time basically meant any climbing plant, including ivy” (101). It seems unlikely, however, that Milton was thinking of what it would mean to toss these “well attir’d” vines on his friend’s casket. Whether by “woodbine” he meant honeysuckle, clematis, or convolvulus does not matter. I can hear the tangled mass of foliage slapping down in an awkward woody heap; one that would likely crush the delicate blossoms that preceded it: primrose, crow-toe, jasmine, pink, pansy, violet and musk-rose.

Perhaps Milton too easily applied a well-metered and rhymed woodbine to his elegy. Perhaps readers were meant only to recall the plant’s sweet odor and its weeping habit. In any event, but for the most dogmatic florists, few readers will trip on these well-attired vines, these three feet at the end of one line in a great poem.

Reference

McHenry, James Patrick. 1996. A Milton Herbal. Milton Quarterly 30, no. 2: 45-110.

[Note: This is the ninth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas, The Glowing Violet: Lycidas and Musk-rose: Lycidas.]

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