Amaranthus: Lycidas

And every flower that sad embroidery wears:
Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed.

— John Milton, “Lycidas“. 148-149.

Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

The amarant provides a good study of the-roster-or-the-chicken-or-the-egg problem in language. What came first? The myth, the metaphor, or the word? I speculate that the word, amarant, did not come first, but perhaps it came second. With its roots in Greek, the word means not-fading, incorruptible, or (as is said of many plants with long-lasting floral displays) “everlasting.” The modern, widely distributed genus, Amaranthus, is indeed an “everlasting” flower–although not truly “incorruptible,” it is also a vegetable and a pseudograin, but these facts are less to the point.

Amarant appears in two very old, very well-known texts. First, in Aesop’s fables (The rose and the amaranth, 6 BC) and later in the New Testament–although, as a word and not as a plant (1 Peter 5:4, about 100 AD, give or take a few decades). In both cases, the word refers to an everlasting, floral display of beauty. In Aesop, it possesses a persona and so begins its journey as myth; in the New Testament it serves metaphorically, but waits for Clement of Alexandria and others (like Milton) to plant it firmly in soil of Christian symbol and allegory. Having encountered its literary type long before finding the plant in a garden (if ever), many editors and annotators assume that the plant was first imagined and later given as a name to the genus. While it is true that Aesop precedes all Linnaean names for plants, I found no evidence to disprove that Aesop may have known an actual plant (possibly an amarant) which he contrasted favorably with the fading rose. After all, no one suggests that Aesop did not mean the rose of genus Rosa–i.e., no one would propose that Aesop meant an imaginary plant for great beauty that he just happened to name “rose.” Why should we not assume that Aesop had an amarant somewhere in gardens of his daily life? It is for this reason that I would guess that somewhere, many, many years before Aesop, people saw a plant, realized that its flowers were long-lasting, and named it “amarant.” Thus, the metaphor would have been first (this plant is like something that never fades), and the word second (let’s call it “amarant”) and the myth third (so, there’s this plant which is named “amarant,” and long, long ago in fable-land the amarant said to the rose …).

Milton muddles the matter with an inventive conceit in his great poem:

                                                                          [L]owly reverent
Towards either Throne they bow, and to the ground
With solemn adoration down they cast
Thir Crowns inwove with Amarant and Gold,
Immortal Amarant, a Flour which once
In Paradise, fast by the Tree of Life
Began to bloom, but soon for mans offence
To Heav’n remov’d where first it grew, there grows,
And flours aloft shading the Fount of Life,
And where the river of Bliss through midst of Heavn
Rowls o’re Elisian Flours her Amber stream;
With these that never fade the Spirits elect
Bind thir resplendent locks inwreath’d with beams. —Paradise Lost, III:349-61.

Russell M. Hillier makes a good case for the influence of Clement of Alexandria’s Paedogogus on this passage of Milton’s most famous poem. Milton places the plant (as does 1 Peter) in heaven; it adorns the crowns of the angels–but he also tells us why the flower is found in heaven and (presumably) not on earth. As it is “incorruptible,” it was transplanted from garden of Eden after the fall of Adam and Eve. In other words, after the fall, the earth was no place for a flower of everlasting beauty. Perhaps Milton knew an Amaranthus plant by a different name, but he does seem to assume that it was first a myth. Were Milton to find the plant in our gardens and whole-food stores, he would assure us that is was wrongly named.

In “Lycidas,” Milton uses the amarant with even less clarity. He calls for the everlasting flower to shed its beauty upon the hearse of his deceased friend, Edward King. Did Milton mean that the flowers would be everlastingly beautiful on the casket, even though departed from the plant? Did Milton intend that the amarant should humble itself at such an event of grief and loss … in other words, foreshadowing the conceit in Paradise Lost–a world without Edward King is no place for an incorruptible beauty? Of the two, the first seems more likely to me. Perhaps Milton hoped to send King to his imagined grave with the ornaments he might use to attire his heavenly crown or perhaps he meant to confirm the deceased’s salvation while also making a gesture toward the young man’s “immortality” in verse.

Whatever the case, I find the amaranth to be an ugly plant–especially the ornamental Love-lies-bleeding. On the plate, however, it is very interesting. The seeds are earthy and sweet, while the greens have just a bit of peppery bite. Last summer a local co-op farm grew a small crop, I hope they expect a larger harvest this year. In all its ugliness, the genus Amaranthus (even spiny pigweed) should out last Milton–a world without Milton would be a dire place; a world without an Amaranthus would be a dead place.

Hillier, Russell M. 2007. “To Say it with Flowers: Milton’s ‘Immortal Amarant’ Reconsidered (Paradise Lost, III.349–61).” Notes and Queries 54 (4) (December 1): 404 -408.

[Note: This is the eleventh 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, Woodbine: Lycidas and Cowslips: Lycidas.]


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