|by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
My Cambridge, Massachusetts neighborhood, hard by Harvard University, is accustomed to the brightest of regalia, gowns, flags, pennants; they all catch the eye and remind all our pageantry is of an ancient type and all our own. Even so, we take particular notice when the daffodils parade, outfitted in the vibrant yellow hues once reserved for the Chinese emperor alone. They are always sharp, chic, dramatic, their presence announced by its central trumpet from which one expects Handel or Purcell at least and would not be surprised at all to hear them, sharp, regal, ceremonius. The daffodil seems tailor-made for this.
For the last several days, house bound with a cold, I have been impatient to behold the arrangements progress, the insistent growth of the stalks, the bulging stems where, very soon, the yellow trumpet will emerge to capture every eye.
There is excitement in the air.
I feel it, and am glad to see these lordly daffodils hard at their work... for they come but once a year and but so briefly stay. They are right to call to me and remind that their time is coming, and I must be ready; ready to behold, to enjoy, to savor, their time brilliant, memorable, but always far too short.
Named after the most beautiful boy in the world.
Daffodil is the common English name for this stylish flower. But it is not its real name. Like noblemen treading carefully in our democratic days, daffodils possess a sense of when to employ their common name, whilst never forgetting their true pedigree. They are in fact Narcissus, the botanic name for a genus of mainly hardy, mostly spring-flowering, bulbs in the Amaryllis family native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The publication "Daffodils for North American Gardens" cites between 50 and 100 wild species.
The story of Narcissus comes from Greek mythology. There a comely youth of unsurpassed beauty became so obsessed with his own absorbing looks that, when observing himself in a pool of water, he fell in and drowned. In some variations of the myth, the youth died of starvation and thirst because he couldn't bring himself to do anything but marvel at himself.
We all know such people.... but the gods did not commemorate their mesmerizing looks and foolishness as they did Narcissus' by marking the spot where he lay with the stunning Narcissus plant.
The daffodils, cautious, sensitive about Narcissus' foolishness, relate this story (and their true identity) to uncritical admirers only; they are just "daffodils" to all the rest. I am such a vetted admirer, sensitive; thus they have shared with me, discretely but with pride. It is rare, they say, to be so commemorated by the gods of Olympus, and so it is.
As every daffodil attests, theirs is a good looking appearance, a "stunner". It features a central trumpet-, bowl-, or disc- shaped corona surrounded by a ring of six floral leaves called the perianth which is united into a tube at the forward edge of the 3-locular ovary. The seeds are black, round and swollen with hard coat. The three outer segments are sepals, and the three inner segments are petals.
Of course, while every daffodil knows these facts precisely (and many more), they understand that you may not be of a botanical turn of mind. Thus, they demand but one thing from you: unqualified admiration. It seems little enough to require for such a luxuriance of color and joy. Should you demur, they are not above reminding that all Narcissus varieties contain the alkaloid poison lycorine, mostly in the bulb but also in the leaves. A hint of this usually garners the deferred compliment. Daffodils are inured to lavish compliments, and are not above reminding you should yours prove insufficient. It is often such with the abundantly, extravagantly, dazzlingly beautiful, constantly lauded... they have their high standards to maintain, making sure we adher. We give them unqualified obeisance; they cast the benediction of their beauty on us. We are glad to do so; such beauty is rare and too soon gone.
The love affair between daffodils and poets.
Poets, for whom a thing of beauty is a joy forever, have but to see a field of daffodils to wax, well, poetic. In 1807 William Wordsworth published in "Poems In Two Volumes", words he had first written in 1807. Every daffodil knows, and joyously too, these magnificent words of beauty, optimism, and contentment:
"I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o'er Vales and Hills, When all at once I saw a crowd A host of dancing Daffodils; Along the Lake, beneath the trees, Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.
The waves beside them danced, but they Outdid the sparkling waves in glee: -- A poet could not but be gay In such a laughing company: I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude, And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the Daffodils." Other poets, and those of hopeful, poetical tendencies, have presented the daffodils with their efforts, too.
Amy Lowell (d 1925) was not as sleek and stylish as daffodils prefer; her words were heavy laden in the Victorian manner.
To an Early Daffodil...
"Though yellow trumpeter of laggard Spring! Thou herald of rich Summer's myriad flowers..."
It is not their favorite poem... but they honor the poet notwithstanding. She meant well.
They prefer Robert Herrick's (d. 1674) To Daffodils
"Fair Daffodils, we weep to see You haste away so soon..."
Herrick can make them maudlin and sentimental. Dead so soon, they prefer such notions -- and obsequies -- be private. Always near the surface of their beauty is the reality of death and too soon oblivion.
e.e. cummings' (d.1962) "in time of daffodils" is a poem of declaration and purpose. It keeps them focused:
"in time of daffodils (who know the goal of living is to grow) forgetting why, remember how"
They cherish their history and all the poets who expand and burnish it.
Still on any day of their too short annual sojourn, they like this best; "April Showers" sung by Al Jolson (1921).
"And where you see clouds upon the hills, You soon will see crowds of daffodils."
"and the daffodils looked lovely today Looked lovely." (From the "Daffodil Lament" by the Cranberries, 2002.)
Indeed they do.