Flowers are traditionally associated with love, for instance men offer roses to the women they love. Also symbolism attaches to each flower a peculiar quality, usually one considered as feminine (such as purity). Now flowers are also linked to death; ancient Greece associated the white asphodel with death, mourning and afterlife, this flower was planted near tombs; today, in several European countries, the incurve chrysanthemum symbolizes death and is used for funerals or on graves.
In Greek mythology, love and death merged to give rise to flowers. Adonis, a handsome young man, was loved by both Persephone, queen of the underworld, and Aphrodite, goddess of love; during a hunt he was killed by a boar, and Aphrodite sprinkled his blood with nectar, from which sprang the short-lived anemone, which takes its name from the wind (anemos in Greek) that so easily makes its petals fall. Hyakinthos was a young man admired by both the god Apollo and Zephyr, the West Wind; he was accidentally killed by a discus in a sport accident, and when he died Apollo made a flower, the hyacinth, from his spilled blood. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection as he bent over a pool of water; after his death a flower appeared where he had sat gazing yearningly into the water: it was called the narcissus, and it became a symbol of selfishness and coldheartedness.
This myth of dead lovers giving rise to flowers has survived in modern European culture. For instance, the Danish explorer Peter Freuchen wrote in Arctic Adventure: My Life in the Frozen North (1935) about a romantic Inuit who lived and died loving only one woman:
This is the story of a man who died because of his belief in one, and only one, woman!
I went to look at the abode of this Arctic Romeo […] We saw the grave; cruel Nature had been sufficiently touched by his love to grow flowers of many colors about his stone pile.
(The full story translated in French was given in an earlier post.)
A great part of Greek mythology has been preserved in the Metamorphoses, the narrative poem by the Latin poet Ovid. The Hungarian scholar Éva Antal compared the symbolism of flowers in Ovid’s Metamorphoses with the one in the works of William Blake (b. 28 November 1757, d. 12 August 1827), in particular his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Indeed, the Songs of Experience contain 5 poems about flowers, which he illustrated with calligraphed and hand-coloured plates; as explains Antal, they deal in fact with some aspects of love. I will thus present them here and attempt to give an interpretation in light of Antal’s essay.
THE SICK ROSE
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm.
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
To me (I differ with Antal), this poem describes a parasitic and predatory form of love. The plate shows a rose bush whose stem arches over the poem, top left one sees a caterpillar eating a leaf and in the middle two women crouched, hiding their faces; then the stem bends down, with a full blossom lying on the ground, in whose opening appears the tail of a worm and a woman with her arms raised; the three women look desperate.
The next plate illustrates 3 consecutive poems of the Songs of Experience, representing 3 different forms of love.
MY PRETTY ROSE TREE
A flower was offerd to me;
Such a flower as May never bore.
But I said I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree.
And I passed the sweet flower o’er.
Then I went to my Pretty Rose-tree:
To tend her by day and by night.
But my Rose turnd away with jealousy:
And her thorns were my only delight.
Here I follow Antal’s interpretation: this poem describes jealous and possessive love. A woman is presented to a man, but he refuses her because he already has a pretty wife; now the latter is jealous and ungratefully turns away from him. However the man is also possessive, as he says ‘my’ three times. Antal quotes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1.537-38) “amor sceleratus habendi” (the wicked love of having), and this perfectly fits the corrupted mind of these two spouses.
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire.
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
As indicates Antal, this poem is very difficult to interpret. The sunflower bends to follow sunlight, but maybe the latter represents a spiritual enlightment, as “where the travellers journey is done” can mean a successful quest or death; but the dead “arise from their graves and aspire” after that light.
The modest Rose puts forth a thorn:
The humble Sheep, a threatning horn:
While the Lilly white. shall in Love delight
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright
The wite lily is a symbol of purity, but here it represents the perfection of pure love, without thorn, “which is not without sexual fulfilment” according to Antal.
In the Songs of Experience, the above 3 poems are immediately followed by this one:
THE GARDEN OF LOVE
I went to the Garden of Love.
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
This clearly describes the repression of love by the Church and its clergy. In the Garden of Love, a Chapel is built, its gates are shut with a prohibition, “thou shall not”; the flowers have been replaced by tombstones and priests in black gowns who hold in check joys and desires. In the illustration, one sees a boy and a girl kneeling in prayer with a priest, which hints that children enjoyed the Garden of Love before it was taken over by the clergy.
Another poem from the Songs of Experience, A Little Girl Lost, also deals with the parental repression of the nudity and sexuality of young people.
One sees thus Blake advocating a love without thorns, free of possession and jealousy, liberated from religious repression and allowed to children.
References and Sources:
Éva Antal, “Labour of love” — Ovidian flower-figures in William Blake’s Songs, Eger Journal of English studies, Vol. VIII (2008), pp. 23–40.