Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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.


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.]

Musk-rose: Lycidas

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

Rosa arvensis

Redoute, Pierre-Joseph. Rosa arvensis. 1817-1824.

On first finding the musk-rose among the funereal flowers of “Lycidas”, I was ready to object: How is it that the poet would imagine the musk-rose (an autumn flower) in bloom simultaneously with the spring and early summer primroses and pansies? Certainly, I thought, the great poet has succumbed to mere poetic convention. Turning to McHenry’s “A Milton herbal”, I found similar doubts about the poet’s botanical accuracy. While not mentioning the blooming season, McHenry wonders why Milton would think of the musk-rose as a wild plant, native to England. Rosa moschata, he notes, would only have been observed in gardens. Tended with care, the plant would have been unlikely to appear in even the semi-wild hedgerows of southern England. McHenry writes:

The allusion to Orpheus and the mention of the dale in [“Comus”, ln 495], as well Milton’s putting the musk rose and woodbine (honeysuckle, a wild vine) together in [“Lycidas”, ln 146], confirm that Milton thought of the musk rose as a wild plant. (McHenry, 96)

As it turns out, objections of this sort to “Lycidas” are unfair–at least most of the time. (I have a hard time following–or caring for–the critical debate about the poem’s place in pagan-Christian-pastoral cultural transitions. I do not know when Milton fails in that regard, or at least, I do not see it as others have.) In my case, Milton was not his wrong and not my right. The musk-rose in this poem might not have been what we know as the “musk-rose” today, nor even what the botanists knew as R. moschata in Milton’s century … but would that make Milton wrong? A common name is not wrong if it is common, but common to whom?

In this case, we are not reading about Milton’s roses, nor even about Milton’s neighbors’ roses. The musk-rose, like many of the flowers in the catalogue, was borrowed from another poet. Not, this time, from Spenser’s “April Eclogue” (Spenser includes a damask rose, but not a musk), nor from Perdita’s speech in The Winter’s Tale, but from Oberon’s instructions to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here Oberon describes the bower where Titania sleeps:

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 (Act II, Scene 1. Ln. 628-31)

These are Shakespeare’s musk-roses, not Milton’s. The question, then, is not “Did Milton think of these roses as wild?” nor is it “Did Milton choose the wrong rose for the season?”; but rather, it is: “What did Shakespeare have in mind when he included the musk-rose in Titania’s canopy?” The answer, of course, is: “Who will ever know the mind of Shakespeare? No one.” However, the rose-sleuth and garden writer Graham Stuart Thomas looks at the text, compares Shakespeare’s usage with that of his contemporaries, and identifies a likely species for the Elizabethan common-named “musk-rose”; not R. moschata, but Rosa arvensis (221). The “field rose”, or an “Ayrshire rose”, grows wildly (as does “woodbine”, usually called “honeysuckle” these days) and would easily make a suitable, musky, scraggly canopy for Titania; it also blooms throughout the summer. Thomas even argues that the rose bears a scent closer to the true “musk”–derived from the scent glands of a small, male Musk deer (224).

If Thomas is right (given his reputation, I think he has been and will be “right”), Shakespeare did not mis-imagine a garden rose for his scene in the forests of fairy-land … but what did Milton imagine? Perhaps Milton did not recall a sight (nor even an odor, as Sims suggests–the Musk-rose does have a sweet, funereal scent), but rather the echo of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although Milton probably saw R. arvensis in hedgerows, it may be the case that he knows the Musk-rose only by second hand. We all write from what we know and what do poets know, if not poetry.


McHenry, James Patrick. 1996. A Milton herbal. Milton Quarterly 30, no. 2: 45-110.
Sims, James H. 1971. Perdita’s “Flowers O’ Th’ Spring” and “Vernal Flowers” in Lycidas. Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter): 87-90.
Thomas, Graham Stuart. 1994. The Graham Stuart Thomas rose book. Sagapress, Inc./Timber Press, Inc.

[Note: This is the eighth 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 and The Glowing Violet: Lycidas.]

The Glowing Violet: Lycidas

Playing semi-free association with the words of the 17th century poem, “Lycidas” is an inaccurate (at worst) and fanciful (at best) preoccupation. Some readers (I am one) may find rich allusions in the name of a single flower and seek to re-read the poem with added appreciation. Others, assuming Milton’s genius permeates every detail of every line of every poem, work to construct an airtight artistic unity. McHenry, in his “A Milton Herbal”, for example, points to the appropriate place of the violet at the imagined Christian funeral of Milton’s classmate, Edward King. The violet was thought (according to Leach) to have been present at the crucifixion and having been touched by the shadow of the cross, now hangs its sweet head in mourning. The story, though I doubt Viola odorata grew on Golgotha, may be an old one, and although (perhaps, just perhaps) Milton had heard of it, this is not the source of “violet” in line 145 of “Lycidas”.

Nevertheless, there are older stories and an endless list of literary appearances for the violet. A tempting allusion is associated (over-eagerly) with the etymology of “violet”. A fanciful and popular history purports that viola is a Latin derivative of the Greek ione, a word associated with the story of Io. A succinct version of this popular history may be read in Maud Greive’s A Modern Herbal (1931):

There is a legend that when Jupiter changed his beloved Io into a white heifer for fear of Juno’s jealousy, he caused these modest flowers to spring forth from the earth to be fitting food for her, and he gave them her name.

It’s a good story, but (although close, and closer in Shakespeare), I have found no real evidence in Ovid’s Metamorphosis or in etymological dictionaries to confirm it. In fact, in Ovid, Io does not eat the sweet violets, but “was always fed / on leaves from trees and bitter herbs” (Mandelbaum, 1:631-2). One might build a stronger case for Io in the etymology of “violet” in the Latin and Greek roots of “way” or “to go out”. (Think of “via”, often borrowed in English from Latin.) After Argus (sent by jealous Juno to guard the white heifer, Io) was murdered by Jupiter’s hit man, Mercury, Juno was enraged. She pestered Io with flies and afflictions that drove the beast to madness. Io fled and became a wayfarer, or as Mandelbaum writes: “way-worn Io on her endless path” (1:735). Ultimately, Jupiter confessed his infidelity to Juno and Io was released from her afflictions. Here, the association may be that the violet is: 1) frequently growing beside the way–it does appear regularly at foot paths; and 2) the violet is capable of spreading by sending out shoots and runners–in a few years a patch of violets can walk across a lawn. This, however, is (again) only an association for which there is little evidence. What we know of the etymology of “violet” is: the word has a Latin parent, viola—a word best translated as “violet” and used to refer to exactly the same flowers.

However, Milton’s usage of the word in “Lycidas” can be traced to more obvious and (perhaps) less suggestive sources. He found precedence for his flower catalog in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Although Milton’s list of funeral flowers is longer, Shakespeare’s list also includes the violet (Perdita speaking):

O Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that frighted thou let’st fall
From Dis’s waggon! daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bight Phoebus in his strength—a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one! O, these I lack,
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er! (Act IV, 4: 1995-2008)

What was the great bard thinking of when he wrote “violets dim”? Io? Maybe. Perdita does refer to Juno … and the dim violet is said to be sweeter than Juno’s eye lids … just as Jupiter must have found Io to be. While these lines suggest that Shakespeare might have toyed with the etymology of “violet”, we do know that the bard also had another source for his lines, Spenser.

Writing before Shakespeare, Spenser used an ever shorter catalog of flowers in his “The Shepheardes Calender: April”, Hobbinoll sings:

See, where she sits upon the grassie greene,
(O seemely sight)
Yclad in Scarlot like a mayden Queene,
And Ermines white.
Upon her head a Cremosin coronet,
With Damaske roses and Daffadillies set:
Bayleaves betweene,
And Primroses greene
Embellish the sweete Violet. (55-63)

(Sims, relying on the work of Alwin Thaler and George Coffin Taylor, builds the case for these sources in his “Perdita’s ‘Flowers O’ Th’ Spring’ and ‘Vernal Flowers’ in Lycidas”.)

But, what (you might ask) was Spenser thinking when he included the violet in his poem? Who knows? Perhaps, simply, that violets are sweetly scented and plentiful in April.

In any case, violets were commonly a part of mourning in England. According to Leach, in Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend, they were carried to guard the superstitious living as they visited cemeteries or attended funerals (1157). Violets are even more fitting for funerals when white or, in Milton’s line, “glowing”. Although most violets are violet, some do bloom white. (They are comparatively rare. I can recall the exact location of Viola striata in the tree-shaded pastures of my youth.) The connection here with Io as a pale virgin and as a white heifer is tempting, but probably only one of coincidence. Ultimately, what more can be said, but that Spenser’s violet was “sweete” and Perdita’s “dim”, but Milton’s was “glowing”.


Leach, Maria. 1972. Funk & Wagnall’s standard dictionary of folklore, mythology, and legend. New ed. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
McHenry, James Patrick. 1996. A Milton Herbal. Milton Quarterly 30, no. 2: 45-110.
Ovid, and Allen Mandelbaum. 1993. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Sims, James H. 1971. Perdita’s “Flowers O’ Th’ Spring” and “Vernal Flowers” in Lycidas. Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter): 87-90.

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

British Viola species

British Viola species. John Curtis. 1823. British entomology.

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.]

The Arts of Language: Reading vs Word-Watching

If you want to read some old school literary criticism, try Sis. Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. The book, first published in in 1947, was (for some reason, probably not a good reason) re-published in 2005. It has some devoted readers and I’m (obviously) one of it’s not very devoted readers. A very bright friend with intriguing interests recommended it recently. Apparently the catalog of “arts” provided in this text have informed a few of his writing projects. Fair enough–I can see how the many examples of linguistic forms at play in Shakespeare’s writing … especially when named … might inspire one to deliberately attempt to employ them. I have, in my own poetry, often played with the rules of grammar, so I can’t complain about the influence.

I’m bothered, however, by the book. Granted, I’m only 70 pages or so into the text, but the author doesn’t seem to have an argument–at least, not an argument that merits a book-length manuscript. The Sister was, obviously, a diligent and devoted reader of Shakespeare, but she read the “bard” as if she were bird watching. At each spotting of a linguistic device (like anastrophe) she must have jotted the quotation down on an index card. After many years these were compiled into a book–so, what we have here is a collection of favorite lines glossed by very sparse notes. Given that these lines were harvested from some of the greatest literature written in English, the reading’s not too bad. Given a choice, however, I’d prefer to do my own bard-watching. Sure, I might forget that this-or-that clever phrase from the play is actually a good example of something like zeugma, but do I really need to know these Latin diagnostics to truly digest and enjoy the writing?

As I write this, I am reminded of how much pleasure I find in knowing the names of various plants and animals … , so, I’m probably missing something here. I’ll have to revisit this question after reading another 70 pages of this text. Given my reading rate, that will be sometime next year. (May 30, 2008)