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):
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:
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: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas and Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas.]
British Viola species. John Curtis. 1823. British entomology.