“Blossoms passing fair”

An illustrated introduction to Shakespeare’s flowers
by Dr Levi Fox,
Jarrold Colour Publications 1977

A slim 32-page booklet with colour photos on all but a handful of pages, this introduction is designed to emphasise that Shakespeare’s acquaintance of flowers “was not that of a botanist or horticulturalist but rather of a countryman gifted with an acute sense of observation”. He knew the colour of his plants, the seasons they appeared in, the folklore associated with them. In addition the poet ascribed uses to them (some made up, some genuine) and delighted in descriptions of them, in adjectives, simile or metaphor.

Here you’ll find quotes from Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and the history plays, The Winter’s Tale and the poems; the late Dr Fox also includes an endpiece with mentions of Shakespeare’s herbs, from balm to savory, marjoram to wormwood and much in between. As with the flowers botanical names are included, relevant quotes, and interpretations or clarifications of a few more obscure names the poet uses.

Above all the author includes passages from Will’s works with brief commentary giving context, all supplemented by the opening essay. As an historian, archivist and then director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Fox was in a good position to give an authoritative summary of the Swan of Avon’s familiarity with blooms.

And the blooms themselves? There are some like the familiar rose (“What’s in a name?”), the ‘nodding’ violet, ‘daisies pied’ and “daffodils, that come before the swallow dares”. There are names which are less customary nowadays, though Fox proffers suggestions: Ophelia’s crowflower may be ragged robin, ‘cuckoo-buds of yellow hue’ are buttercups, while the ‘long purple’ could be wild arum, also known as cuckoo-pint and as lords-and-ladies.

The forests and meadows of plays like As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream naturally feature flower imagery, and even the court of Elsinore allows their symbolism through Ophelia’s unhappy madness and early demise, but the author also notes that “no fewer than twenty-nine scenes of his plays are set in gardens and orchards.”

This little publication can’t feature every single mention of flowers in Shakespeare’s oeuvre but there is a good representative sample: “the woodbine, the sweet honeysuckle” for example, carnations or gillyvors which Perdita promoted to “make your garden rich”, and “lilies of all kinds, | The flower-de-luce being one.”

I’m not a gardener but I do appreciate a well tended garden, a grass verge peppered with buttercups and daisies, or even a bit of waste ground where poppies or comfrey or insect-friendly nettles with their delicate white flowers have established themselves. It’s just pleasing to know that even with exotic introduced species proliferating everywhere our man from Stratford would still recognise quite a few plants from his time four centuries ago.


Photos are of flowers from our garden, bar one from the neighbourhood

18 thoughts on ““Blossoms passing fair”

    1. You’re very welcome, as ever, Ola! How different, I wonder, would be the experience of someone with Polish and New Zealander backgrounds, would the references, the symbolism and the associations resonate in the same way?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I intend to find out! If I find this book in the library, that is 😄

        I was always fascinated by the various ways plants and flowers and mushrooms are depicted and venerated in folklore – sometimes the meanings span cultures, sometimes are unique to one territory, but always there is more than meets the eye.

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        1. My interest has largely been academic (I leave the planting in the garden to Emily, I merely do the tidying up and wielding of big boy toys like strimmers and hedge trimmers) because so much culture references horticulture, and I like to worry about etymological roots as much as true gardeners fret about plant roots! So yes, symbolism, folklore, all that for me too. 😊

          Liked by 1 person

  1. What a delightful read. I love the thought of continuity and flowers familiar to us being ones enjoyed generations ago too. The variety of names for a single flower and their origins always intrigues me. Thank you Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Anne. I have to admit that as a city boy, brought up in urban Hong Kong and central Bristol, I had little knowledge of and less interest in flowers and plants. But the passing years have slowly given me a little more than a passing acquaintance with them, and though I still struggle with basics I have learnt to appreciate them more than ever!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe the author wrote a companion book on Shakespeare’s birds, which I wouldn’t mind having if it passed my way. Glad you like the photos, Kaggsy, though it was a shame we didn’t have more flowers mentioned by Fox to show.

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  2. This is interesting, Chris. I think I might have owned this book, a long time ago. I don’t think I still own it, but I’m going to check my shelves.

    I love the way flowers and plants shine out of texts. Even when the names are elusive, they seem to me magical, whether latin or common names.

    Then there are the comic references, did you ever hear the radio show, The Wordsmiths of Gorsemere, by Sue Limb? There was a character in that called Stinking Iris. It’s a plant that seeds prolifically in my garden. It’s not lovely, but whenever I get into a tidying mood and weed it out, I’m taken back to the voices of those lakeland poets, and I have to smile.

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    1. No, never heard of that radio programme, Cath, may be from a time when I didn’t listen to the radio much (though it’s still a patchy experience now). I’d not heard of Stinking Iris, only Stinking Billy…

      The magical names of flowers, whether Latin or common: I quite liked a note in the memoir of Charles Kingsley, His Letters and Memories of his Life, in which there’s a record of his obsession with flower taxonomy; the lists reminded me of the Latin names for the Virgin Mary that I had to recite at the Catholic grammar school I attended, some litany or other…

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        1. There’s one hymn that starts
          “Ave, maris stella,
          Dei mater alma,
          atque semper virgo,
          felix cœli porta.”
          Roughly translated, that’s
          Hail, Star of the Sea, sheltering Mother of God, Ever Virgin, Felicitous Gate of Heaven.
          There are other longer ones which I’ll see if I can search out!

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            1. Last bit (sorry!): this is an antiphon I remember having to recite in English from the Song of Songs (chapter 6, I had to look it up!):

              “Who is she that comes forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in battle array?”

              And this is the Latin, though we never had to recite this:

              Quæ est ista quæ progreditur quasi aurora consurgens,
              pulchra ut luna, electa ut sol,
              terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata?

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  3. What a little gem this book is! The type of book I would snatch up in a secondhand bookshop and feel that I’d found real treasure. Your garden must be quite the gem too, Chris, judging by these photos 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sandra. Our garden’s a bit of a mess, considering that neither of us are proper gardeners. Emily designed the garden to be low maintenance but we didn’t prepare properly so nettles and bindweed and valerian tend to proliferate in the borders. I prefer to think of them as classical Wildernesses or wildlife havens… 😁

      As for the book, yes, it was secondhand purchase many years ago when I knew even less about flowers than I do now — which isn’t saying very much! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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