“With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive hed,” John Milton, Lycidas. Ln. 147
With the addition of cowslips (Primula veris), Milton’s flower catalog parts from his Shakespearean sources, Oberon and Perdita. It’s not his first departure and (as was the first, the “crow-toe”) it is not an unwelcome one. Oberon’s flowers, which perfume Titania’s bower, include the oxlip (also a Primula). Milton might have used the oxlip, but its form is too close to its other cousin, the primrose. Edward King’s imagined mourners, therefore, would have adorned the casket with two flowers which (from their blooms alone) would have been nearly indistinguishable. Cowslips, on the other hand, are as Milton describes them, pendant, flower heads hung (not unlike the crow-toe) in a way that mirrors our own physical expressions of grief. (The grieved forms and “wan” faces of Adam and Eve in Masaccio’s The Expulsion and in William Blake’s The Expulsion come to mind.) In short, cowslips (which have always been more plentiful than oxlips) are a more fitting flower to be tossed on the dead poet’s hearse.
Curiously, however, Milton’s readers (if not Milton himself) had lost the flower’s baser etymology. The word “cowslip” has nothing to do with cattle slips or lips … nor slips, nor lips of any kind. The cowslip might be better named “cowslop”. Unlike the primrose, which prefers the shade, the cowslip grows in open pasture. Therefore, its gatherers (herbalists and cooks, when out “cowslipping”) would need to traverse paddy strewn fields. Cow manure comes with a lot of moisture (slop) and nutrients (instant mulch) and one might nearly expect to find healthy plants nearby. Fortunately, for Milton, cowslip had lost its slop … but, it would have been an altogether other-world had Milton honored the deceased with a rich pile of crows feet and a heap of manure.
[Note: This is the tenth 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, Musk-rose: Lycidas and Woodbine: Lycidas.]