Tuesday 23 March 2021

"The sweet of the year": Shakespeare’s spring flowers


It’s Act 4, Scene 3 of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and Autolycus the thief is singing a song about spring.

When daffodils begin to peer
With hey, the doxy over the dale,
Why then comes in the sweet of the year
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge
With hey, the sweet birds, O how they sing…

Introducing himself to the audience as a follower of Mercury (god of thieves) and a ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’, he intercepts a country yokel heading to market to buy provisions for the sheep-shearing festival – a shopping list which includes sugar, currents, rice, saffron, mace, nutmegs, ginger, prunes and raisins. (How and why did the English turn away from these yummy, spicy groceries and end up with the 19th and 20th century cuisine of the plain and boiled?) Relieving him of his money, Autolycus heads for the festival itself, where he expects to ‘make this cheat bring out another’.

Next scene: Perdita arrives at the sheep-shearing festival like a vision of spring – ‘No shepherdess/But Flora, peering in April’s front’ – to hand out flowers like a more positive version of Ophelia. ‘Reverend sirs,’ she welcomes Polixenes and Camillo, ‘For you there’s rosemary and rue. These keep/Seeming and savour all the winter long./Grace and remembrance be to you both/And welcome to our shearing/.’  When the middle-aged Polixenes protests with mild irony: ‘Well you fit our ages/With flowers of winter’, Perdita adds to them ‘flowers of middle summer’: ‘lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,/The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun/And with him rises, weeping.’ 
If it’s springtime though, how does she have these summer flowers to hand? 

The answer is simple: it isn’t springtime. As Thomas Tusser points out in ‘Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ (printed in 1557,  a year before Elizabeth I became queen and seven years before Shakespeare was born) sheep-shearing happens in June.

Wash sheepe (for the better) where water doth run,
And let him go cleanly and drie in the sun,
Then shear him and spare not, at two daies an end,
The sooner the better his corps will amend.

Besides reminding us with his jog-trot lines just how wonderful Shakepeare’s poetry is, Tusser underscores the rural reality that lies behind the play. Though probably not with quite so many expensive ingredients, English as well as Arcadian farming wives were cooking plentifully for the sheep-shearing feasts.

               Wife make us a dinner, spare flesh neither corne
               Make wafers and cakes, for our sheepe must be shorne,
               At sheepe-shearing neighbours none other thing crave
               But good cheere and welcome like neighbours to have.

Act 4 of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is, therefore, set firmly in the month of June and that is why Perdita has only summer flowers to distribute. (And rosemary and rue, which are available all year round). But then why has Autolycus just been singing so merrily of spring? And Perdita herself conjures spring in her next words as, speaking to Florizel, to Mopsa and Dorcas, she wishes she had some springtime flowers to gift and suit their youth.

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
Bright 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.

Well, Shakespeare is able to have it all ways: and why not? Sheep-shearing happens in early summer, but Autolycus’s song and Perdita’s speech conjure up springtime too. Both are times of rejuvenation and hope, the sweet of the year… and the young lovers Perdita and Florizel represent the hope of healing for their parents’ breach. ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is a tisane of flowers.

‘With fairest flowers,’ says Arviragus in ‘Cymbeline’, speaking sad words over the body of the boy Fidele (actually his sister Imogen, not really dead, just drugged):

Whilst summer lasts and I live here, Fidele,
I’ll sweeten thy sad grave. Thou shalt not lack
The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose, nor
The azured harebell, like thy veins; no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, who not to slander
Outsweetened not thy breath...   [Act 4 Sc 2]

Shakespeare associates primroses with youth and beauty, but often in contexts of fragility and death. (Although growing en masse, these delightful flowers appear as ‘the primrose path’ of worldliness or temptation: Ophelia begs Laertes to avoid ‘the primrose path of dalliance’ and the Porter in Macbeth claims to have ‘let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to th’ everlasting bonfire.’) Perdita’s primroses ‘die unmarried’: a sentiment echoed by Milton in ‘Lycidas’: ‘the rathe primrose that forsaken dies’. The archaic  word ‘rathe’ means ‘over-eager’, ‘too early’. Primroses don’t live to see the summer… but then neither do daffodils, and no poet seems ever to have regarded them as emblematic of early death. Flowers affect us in very different ways. Our native daffodils ‘come before the swallow dares/And take the winds of March with beauty’: they are tall, daring, triumphant flowers with actual golden trumpets. In ‘Shakespeare’s Wild Flowers’ (1935) Eleanour Sinclair Rohde says:-

"In Shakespeare’s day daffodils were favourite flowers for chaplets, and he refers to this fact in ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’:

… I’ll bring a bevy,
A hundred black-eyed maids that love as I do
With chaplets on their heads of daffodillies… " [Act 4 Sc 1]

In fact Shakespeare’s collaborator John Fletcher was probably responsible for these lines, and the context in which they occur is an obvious borrowing from the death of Ophelia – a mad, lovesick girl, knee-deep in a lake, singing and plaiting garlands of waterflowers. It’s nothing like as good, though. I’m tempted to imagine a dialogue between two professional playwrights, writing to deadlines:

[John Fletcher, scratching his head:] ‘Will, what am I going to do with the Jailer’s Daughter?’ – ‘You mean the girl with the unrequited love for Palamon?’ – ‘Yup.’ – ‘The usual, I suppose. Can’t she run mad?’ – ‘I suppose so. What do mad girls do?’ – ‘I don’t know… mess about with flowers? Look, Jack, I’m busy. Read this and do your own version.’ [Will tosses over a copy of Hamlet…]

Primroses are pale, low, poignant, early, ‘rathe’ – they come before the spring is well advanced and we wonder if they’ll survive the next frost. Gertrude’s words at Ophelia’s funeral – ‘I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid, And not t’have strewed thy grave’ – might echo the sentiments of many an onlooker at a spring funeral, as the wastage of winter took its toll of young people made ‘lean’ by January blasts.   

But spring is always a time of resurrection. Fidele lives and, revealed as Imogen, is reunited with her repentant father and husband. Perdita’s mother Hermione, long thought dead, descends from her plinth to embrace her daughter and bless her marriage with Florizel. Wounds are healed, families are made whole. It is the sweet of the year, and time to rejoice. 

Picture credits

John Fawcett plays Autolycus in The Winter's Tale (1828) by Thomas Charles Wageman
Perdita distributes flowers in Act 4 of The Winter's Tale [untraced origin]
Flower de luce, or yellow flag iris: Redouté's Les Liliacées, 1808
Primroses and Bird's Nest: William Hunt, 1790-1864
Wild Daffodils, Narcissus Pseudonarcissus:, Antoine de Pinet, 16th century
Ophelia, detail: John Millais, 1852, Tate

Thursday 4 March 2021

From the Wild Hunt to the Fairy Rade

Sir Joseph Noel Paton: 'The Fairy Rade: Carrying Off A Changeling - Midsummer's Eve'

This account from an unnamed 'old woman’ of Nithsdale tells of a Fairy Rade or cavalcade of the fairies which she had witnessed as a lass. It was recorded by Allan Cunningham and R.H. Cromek in Remains of Nithdale and Galloway Song (1810) and is repeated verbatim in Thomas Keightley’s Fairy Mythology (1828). It is strangely convincing, as folk accounts often are. (Translation below!)


“In the night afore Roodmass I had trysted with a neebor lass a Scots mile frae hame to talk anent buying braws i’ the fair.  We had nae sutten lang aneath the haw-buss till we heard the loud laugh of fowk riding, wi’ the jingling o’ bridles, and the clankin’ o’ hoofs. We banged up, thinking they wad ride owre us. We kent nae but it was drunken fowk ridin’ to the fair i’ the forenight.  We glow’red roun’ and roun’ and sune saw it was the Fairie-fowks Rade. We cowred down till they passed by. A beam o’ light was dancin’ owre them mair bonnie than moonshine: they were a wee wee fowk wi’ green scarfs on, but ane that rade foremost, and that ane was a good deal larger than the lave wi’ bonnie lang hair, bun about wi’ a strap whilk glinted like stars.  They rade on braw wee white naigs, wi’ unco lang swooping tails, an’ manes hung wi’ whustles that the win’ played on.  This an’ their tongue when they sang was like the soun’ of a far-away psalm. Marion and me was in a brade lea fiel’, where they came by us; a high hedge o’ haw-trees keepit them frae gaun through Johnnie Corrie’s corn, but they lap owre it like sparrows, and gallopt into a green know beyont it.  We gaed i’ the morning to look at the treddit corn; but the fient a hoofmark was there, nor a blade broken.”

 Here is my tamer English version:


In the night before Roodmas [the Feast of the Cross, May 3rd] I had met up with a neighbour lass a Scots mile from home [a Scots mile was about 220 yards longer than an English mile], to talk about buying pretty things at the fair. We hadn’t been sitting long under the hawthorn bushes when we heard the loud laugh of folk riding, with jingling bridles and clattering hoofs. We jumped up, thinking they would ride over us. We assumed it was drunken folk riding to the fair in the early evening. We stared round and about and soon saw it was the Fairy-folk's Raid. We cowered down as they passed by. A beam of light was dancing over them, prettier than moonshine: they were tiny little folk with green scarves on, all but the one who rode in front, who was a good deal bigger than the rest, with lovely long hair bound about with a band that glinted like stars. They rode on fine little white horses, with uncommonly long sweeping tails, and manes hung with whistles which the wind played on. This, and their voices when they sang, was like the sound of a far-away psalm. Marion and I were in a broad pasture field, where they came by us; a high hedge of hawthorn trees barred them from going through Johnnie Corrie’s corn, but they leaped over it like sparrows and galloped into a green hill beyond it. We went next morning to look at the trodden-down corn, but devil a hoofmark [ie: not a single hoofmark] was to be seen, nor a blade broken. 


Charming as this seems, it’s quite clear that the young women’s experience was startling, even alarming. Hearing the loud, possibly drunken laughter, jingling bridles and thudding hoofs, they leap up in fear of being trampled – but when they see the fairy troop, they cower down.

             The Lowland Scots word ‘rade’ means ‘raid’. It’s derived from Old English rād (‘road’) used in the sense of a (usually military) expedition or incursion upon horseback, ‘a foray, an inroad’ as the OED states. So a fairy rade really is a ‘raid’: an implicitly threatening intrusion into the everyday world. No matter how beautiful fairies may be, they are always dangerous, and the Fairy Rade is related to the phenomenon of the Wild Hunt or familia Herlequini, the host of the dead. Related, yet no longer the same, for superstitions are in constant evolution. The Fairy Rade branched off, you might say, from the Wild Hunt, stories of which of course continued to exist in parallel. Jacob Grimm, in his Teutonic Mythology, connected the Germen wilde Jagt (wild hunt) or wütende heer (furious horde) with Wotan – Odin, the wild or mad god who goes ‘driving, riding, hunting … with valkyrs and einheriar in his train’, and versions of the Wild Hunt led by demi-gods and legendary characters both male and female have been recorded across Europe: it was always bad luck to see it a harbinger of death. But how did the ancient and fearsome host of the dead evolve into the green-clad trooping fairies of early 19th century Nithsdale?

The Wild Hunt by Johann Corde

In a marvellous book, Elf Queens and Holy Friars (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) Professor Richard Firth Green suggests that medieval clerical commentators put a deliberately dark spin on the Europe-wide concept of the Wild Hunt. I’m not entirely convinced by this, for I suspect the familia Herlequini had its frightening side well before Christianity. However, it could certainly be adapted to a Christian agenda, and Green contrasts two of the earliest accounts. The Anglo-Norman monk Orderic Vitalis, writing of an event ‘witnessed’ in 1091, depicts a grim procession of dead knights, priests, ladies and commoners suffering dreadful torments for their sins. A half century or so later, Anglo-Norman courtier Walter Map tells in his book De Nugis Curialium the story of the British king Herla who, returning from attendance at a fairy king’s wedding, finds that centuries have elapsed and he and his company are now doomed to wander the hills forever. Green drily comments: ‘People could hardly be allowed to believe that Herla and his followers were living happily in fairyland.’ Reading this, I was struck by the memory of Aucassin’s famous defiance – ‘To Hell will I go!’ – in the 13th century French romance Aucassin and Nicolette:

For to Hell go the fine scholars and the fair knights who are slain in the tourney and the great wars, and the good men-at-arms and all noble men. With them I will go: and there go the lovely courteous ladies who have two or three lovers as well as their lords, and there go the gold and silver and ermine and miniver, and there go the harpers and minstrels and kings of this world: I will go with them, so only that I have Nicolette my sweetest love beside me. 


Aucassin & Nicolette (artist unknown to me)

One might well imagine that Aucassin has Orderic’s gloomy vision of the trooping dead clearly in his mind, and is deliberately subverting, diverting it. This gaily-clad cavalcade will surely end up in fairyland – not hell – and Aucassin’s vehement, emotional rejection of the stark hell/heaven binary may express a more general sense that alternatives had to be available. Could true love such as Aucassin’s really be a sin? Where did the unbaptised babies go, and men who died in battle unshriven, and mothers who died in childbirth.

They were taken away into fairyland, according to the anonymous author of the late 13th century romance Sir Orfeo, for when Orfeo is admitted to the fairy king’s subterranean crystal castle, he sees lying all about him in the courtyard: ‘folk that had been brought here, and were thought to be dead, but weren’t…’ And there follows a grim catalogue of the headless, maimed, wounded, mad, drowned and burned… ‘Wives lay there in child-bed … and wondrous many others lay there too: as they had fallen asleep at noon each was taken from this world and carried there by fairy magic.’ It’s got to be better than hell.

‘Queen of heaven ne am I naught,’ says the fairy queen to Thomas of Ercildoune, in the medieval Scots romance of that name: ‘For I took never so high degree,/But I am of another countree.’ 


Illustration: HM Brock

Her counterpart in the much later ballad of Thomas the Rhymer (first published in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 1802/3) points out to Thomas three ways that diverge ahead of them: the thorny path of righteousness, the easy road of wickedness, and lastly the ‘bonny road that winds about the ferny brae’ which will lead them to fair Elfland. It must have been tempting! And once you’ve imagined fairy land as a place, and a sumptuous, royal place at that, what remains but to wonder what the people of Elfland do? The answer was obvious: they danced, and they rode out. Not just because of the living tradition of the Wild Hunt, but because this was the way kings, queens and nobles always displayed themselves to the people. Like earthly kings, fairy kings and queens rode out in procession for three main purposes – ceremony, hunting or war – so that the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court are aspects of the same thing. 


Les Tres Riches Heures, Musée de Condé, Chantilly, France by the Limbourg brothers


The medieval romances emphasise the courtly aspect of the fairies: in Walter Map’s 12th century tale of King Herla, the unnamed pygmy fairy king is grotesque in appearance but his entourage is dressed in splendid livery and jewels. He eats and drinks from vessels and plates carved from single precious stones and his underground palace is lit by innumerable lamps as if it were the palace of the sun. The fairy king of Sir Orfeo comes by with a company of over two hundred knights and damsels dressed in white and riding on snow-white steeds: the king’s crown is made neither of gold or silver, but all of one precious stone that shines as bright as the sun. And in the late medieval French romance of Huon of Bordeaux the child-size fairy king Oberon (‘the dwarf of the fairy’) entertains Huon by magicking up a beautiful palace, ‘hung with rich cloth of silk beaten with gold, with tables set ready full of meat’, and he and his guests wash their hands in ‘basins of gold, garnished with precious stones’ and are seated on benches of gold and ivory.


Fairies in a Bird's Nest, by John Anster Fitzgerald


By the late 16th century however, literary representations of the fairy rade had become far more rustic and a lot less serious. Writers like Shakespeare and Jonson (and in the 17th century, Drayton and Herrick) popularised the notion of the fairies as amusing miniature creatures. In part of his Flyting (a poetic duel) against fellow-poet Patrick Hume of Polwart some time in the early 1580s, the Scots writer Alexander Montgomerie includes a fanciful account of the fairy rade:

            In the hinder end of haruest, on Alhallow even

            When our good nighbours do ryd, gif I read right,

            Some buckland on a bunwand, and some on a been,

            Ay trottand in trupes from the twilight;

            Some sadleand a shoe aip all graithed into green,

            Some hobland on ane hempstalke, hoveand to the hight.

            The King of Pharie, and his curt, with the Elfe Queen,

            With many elrich Incubus, was rydand that night…

In rough translation:

            At the back-end of harvest, on All Hallows eve,

            When our good neighbours [euphemism for the fairies] do ride, if I'm correct,

            Some buckling on a plant-stem and some a dry stalk [as weapons],

            Always trotting in troops from the [beginning of?] twilight;

            Some saddling a she-ape all harnessed in green,

            Some jogging on a hempstalk, hovering to the height.

            The King of Fairy and his court, with the Elf Queen

            With many eldritch Incubus, was riding that night…

This may seem whimsical or even cute to us, but the point for Montgomerie is to smear Polwart’s character and morals. For the Reformation has occurred: the fairies are now regarded as disreputable rather than dangerous, and he continues with a scurrilously imaginative account of Polwart’s supposedly monstrous origins:

            There ane elf, on ane aipe, an vnsell begat,

            Into ane pot, by Pomathorne;

            That bratchart in ane busse was borne;

            They fand ane monster, on the morne.

            War faced not a cat.

 That is:

            There an elf, on an ape, begot a wretch

            In a pit near Pomathorn [a place in Midlothian];

            That brat was born in a bush;

            They found a monster in the morning,

            Worse faced than a cat.

You cannot write this kind of thing if you really believe in fairies. Even though some of the fairy lore is genuine (flying on hemp-stalks, for example), you can tell that Montgomerie's attitude towards these country superstitions is part scepticism, part mockery. A few years later in 1599, King James VI of Scotland (soon to succeed Elizabeth as James I of England) writes with disbelief and disapproval in his Daemonology of the popular belief in spirits called ‘by the Gentiles…Diana, and her wandering court’ and ‘amongst us, the Phairie… or our good neighbours’:

How there was a King and Quene of Phairie, of such a iolly [jolly] court and train as they had, how they had a teynd [tithe], & dutie [tax], as it were, of all goods: how they naturallie rode and wente, eate and drank, and did all other actiones like naturall men and women…

He adds that this is ‘no[t] anie thing that ought to be beleeved by Christians’: in fact, the only possible explanation is that ‘the devil illuded the senses of sundry simple creatures, in making them beleeve that they saw and harde [heard] such thinges as were nothing so indeed.’

But if poets and playwrights and kings no longer believed in fairies, many ordinary country people and other common folk undoubtedly still did - and they were interested in them, which is why some of the now unfashionable medieval romances ended up as tales in chapbooks or sung as ballads. The 13th century Sir Orfeo became the Shetland ballad King Orfeo: it was collected there in 1865 and was still being sung up till the mid 20th century, when two different tunes were recorded for it. And Thomas of Ercildoune morphed into the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer (collected by Walter Scott), when a fairy queen as richly attired as any of her predecessors comes riding down past the Eildon tree on her milk-white steed though without followers:

Her shirt was o’ the grass-green silk

Her mantle  o’ the velvet fine:

At ilka tett o’ her horse’s mane

Hung fifty siller bells and nine.


The ballad of Tam Lin includes a famous account of a fairy rade, and one that adds a twist to King James’s dour comment about the fairy king or queen claiming a ‘teynde’ or tithe on earthly goods. For on Hallowe’en, young Tam Lin will pay the seven-year ‘tiend’ the fairies owe to hell unless his lover Janet can save him.


        Just at the mirk and midnight hour

        The fairy folk will ride;

        And they that would their true love win,

        At Milescross they maun bide.

About the middle of the night

She heard the bridles ring;

This lady was as glad of that

As any earthly thing.


First she let the black pass by,

And syne she let the brown

But quickly she ran to the milk-white steed

And pu’ed the rider down…

This is as serious a treatment as it could be, far removed from the satire and whimsy of Mongomerie, and untouched by the notion that trooping fairies were diminutive. The oral tradition preserved the gravity of the fairy kingdom. But writers couldn’t take fairies seriously and expect to be taken seriously themselves: they had to guy it up. It’s not that you can’t find any fairy lore in the poetry of Robert Herrick (1591-1674), it’s just that he’s at such pains to make it all light, decorative, amusing. In his poem The Beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen, the beggar pleads with Mab to feed him:

            Give me then an ant to eat,

            Or the cleft ear of a mouse…

            Or, sweet lady, reach to me

            The abdomen of a bee…


The Fairy Queen's Messenger, by Richard Doyle

Contrast such elegant flippancy with the genuine shiver we get at the end of the ballad of Tam Lin when the fairy queen, furious that she’s lost her knight, swears that if she had known ‘what now this night I see,/I wad hae ta’en out thy twa grey een,/And put in twa een o’ tree.’

Andrew Lang, in The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, tells of a man called Donald Ban who fought at the battle of Culloden and was afterwards troubled by a bocan (boggart) which made great difficulties for him. The bocan was thought to be the spirit of a man who had died at the battle, and it once led Donald to dig up some plough-irons which had been hidden while he was alive: as Donald lifted them, ‘the two eyes of the bocan were causing him greater fear than anything else he ever heard or saw.’ This is very like the incident in the medieval Icelandic Grettir’s Saga, where Grettir slays the corpse-ghost Glam and is never able to shed the terror of seeing Glam’s eyes roll horribly in the moonlight... Donald Ban saw other fairy sights too: for out hunting one day ‘in the year of the great snow, at nightfall he saw a man mounted on the back of a deer ascending a great rock. He heard the man saying, “Home, Donald Ban,” and fortunately he took the advice, for that very night there fell eleven feet of snow in the very spot where he had intended to stay.

Country people – small-holders, crofters, farmers – took the world of spirits and fairies seriously because they had to: they lived liminal lives themselves, dependent on weather, on crops doing well, on animals thriving. Anything that might tip the balance, anything that might help or hinder their own survival, was worth paying attention to. So they kept a belief in their ‘good neighbours’ the fairies, whom it really wasn’t worth offending, and they kept telling the old tales and finding new ones. That is why the story of the fairy rade of Nithsdale with which I opened this post is so compelling. The fairies those young lassies witnessed may have been ‘tiny little folk in green scarves’, bedecked with stars, and shining with a light ‘prettier than moonshine – but they were really scary

And that’s why the two girls cowered down, afraid of being seen. 


Baccanal: Richard Dadd