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.



…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
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

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