And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the Laureat Herse where Lycid lies.
– John Milton, “Lycidas“. 150-151.
With the daffodil, one comes to the end of Milton’s catalog of flowers in Lycidas. The daffodil makes frequent appearances in poetry (Dickinson, Frost, Herrick, Jonson, Shakespeare, Spenser, Wordsworth). It nearly rivals the rose and often tumbles into cliched preciousness. Its abundance in verse will come as no surprise to gardeners–were I to start another spring bulb garden, I’d probably include the poet’s narcissus (Narcissus poeticus). Not for its name, but because it grows so well, multiplies easily, and blooms abundantly. (I also like the shape and color–green-throated, stout yellow tubes, rimmed with orange against a very white background.) However, if Milton had any narcissus at all in mind, it seems unlikely that he would have thought of the N. poeticus. If he did think of N. poeticus, he would not have known it as the “poet’s daffodil.”
In Milton’s century, botanists were frustrated with the common name “daffodil.” It seemed, to them, to be misplaced. Derivative of asphodel (“the affodil”), the name seemed a better fit for the genus Asphodelus. But common names are stubborn and Gerard uses “daffodil” throughout his descriptions of Narcissus. He also notes: “The yellow English Daffodil groweth almost everie where through England” (134). Thus, I would bet that Milton meant, if he meant any specific Narcissus, for readers to recall the common daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). These were the flowers, as common as they were, to which botanists hoped that English speakers would limit there use of “daffodil.”
All the same, both the N. poeticus and the N. pseudonarcissus are mismatched to Milton’s somewhat mixed metaphor (part eyeball, part cup) in these lines. Not unlike the Narcissus myth, Milton gives the flower some human properties, specifically the ability to express grief. In the Narcissus story the flower bends its head over a stream to gaze at its own beauty, but in Lycidas the daffodil begins to weep and fills its cup with tears. I have no problem with the weeping, as saccharine as it is, but I see no way to fill its cup with liquid. Bent over, the common yellow daffodil cannot fill its cup with anything. In fact, it is probably bent over in this way to prevent it from flooding with rain water. Tears would merely spill to the ground. Although less bent, N. poeticus with its very short flute would serve similarly as a poor cup for sorrows.
Although not expressing incredulity, Sims is also underwhelmed by Milton’s daffodils:
The daffadillies with their cups full of tears seem to be deliberately anti-climactic to prepare for the sudden recognition of the unreality of all these flowers and of the “frail thoughts” of the poet about them. (89)
I agree with the unreality of the image, but I am less willing to make excuses for Milton. In many respects the poet was writing a faux-pastoral poem and at other times a genuinely pastoral poem. In both cases the young talent was showing us what he could do within and around the genre. He took risks and excelled (a lengthy flower catalog), but sometimes hit a false note (a teary-eyed daffodil).
Gerard, John, and Thomas Johnson. 1975. The herbal: or, General history of plants. New York: Dover Publications.
Sims, James H. “Perdita’s ‘Flowers O’ Th’ Spring’ and ‘Vernal Flowers’ in Lycidas,” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter 1971): 87-90.
[Note: This is the twelfth 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, Cowslips: Lycidas and Amaranthus: Lycidas.]