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CHRYSANTHEMUMS

I

     EVERY year, in November, at the season that follows on the hour of the dead, the crowning and majestic hour of autumn, reverently I go to visit the chrysanthemums in the places where chance offers them to my sight. For the rest, it matters little where they are shown to me by the good will of travel or of sojourn. They are, indeed, the most universal, the most diverse of flowers; but their diversity and surprises are, so to speak, concerted, like those of fashion, in I know not what arbitrary Edens. At the same moment, even as with silks, laces, jewels and curls, a mysterious voice gives the password in time and space; and, docile as the most beautiful women, simultaneously, in every country, in every latitude, the flowers obey the sacred decree.

     It is enough, then, to enter at random one of those crystal museums in which their somewhat funereal riches are displayed under the harmonious veil of the days of November. We at once grasp the dominant idea, the obtrusive beauty, the unexpected effort of the year in this special world, strange and privileged even in the midst of the strange and privileged world of flowers. And we ask ourselves if this new idea is a profound and really necessary idea on the part of the sun, the earth, life, autumn, or man.

II

     Yesterday, then, I went to admire the year's gentle and gorgeous floral feast, the last which the snows of December and January, like a broad belt of peace, sleep, silence and night, separate from the delicious festivals that commence again with the germination (powerful already, though hardly visible) that seeks the light in February.

     They are there, under the immense transparent dome, the noble flowers of the month of fogs; they are there, at the royal meeting-place, all the grave little autumn fairies, whose dances and attitudes seem to have been struck motionless with a single word. The eye that recognizes them and has learned to love them perceives, at the first pleased glance, that they have actively and dutifully continued to evolve towards their uncertain ideal. Go back for a moment to their modest origin: look at the poor buttercup of yore, the humble little crimson or damask rose that still smiles sadly, along the roads full of dead leaves, in the scanty garden-patches of our villages; compare with them these enormous masses and fleeces of snow, these disks and globes of red copper, these spheres of old silver, these trophies of alabaster and amethyst, this delirious prodigy of petals which seems to be trying to exhaust to its last riddle the world of autumnal shapes and shades which the winter entrusts to the bosom of the sleeping woods; let the unwonted and unexpected varieties pass before your eyes; admire and appraise them.

     Here, for instance, is the marvellous family of the stars: flat stars, bursting stars, diaphanous stars, solid and fleshly stars, milky ways and constellations of the earth that correspond with those of the firmament. Here are the proud plumes that await the diamonds of the dew; here, to put our dreams to shame, the fascinating poem of unreal tresses: wise, precise and meticulous tresses; mad and miraculous tresses; honeyed moonbeams, golden bushes and flaming whirlpools; curls of fair and smiling maidens, of fleeing nymphs, of passionate bacchantes, of swooning sirens, of cold virgins, of frolicsome children, whom angels, mothers, fauns, lovers have caressed with their calm or quivering hands. And then, here, pell-mell, are the monsters that cannot be classed: hedgehogs, spiders, curly endives, pine-apples, pompons, Tudor roses, shells, vapours, breaths, stalactites of ice and falling snow, a throbbing hail of sparks, wings, flashes, fluffy, pulpy, fleshy things, wattles, bristles, funeral piles and sky-rockets, bursts of light, a stream of fire and sulphur.

III

     Now that the shapes have capitulated comes the question of conquering the region of the proscribed colours, of the reserved shades, which the autumn, as we can see, denies to the flowers that represent it. Lavishly it bestows on them all the wealth of the twilight and the night, all the riches of the harvest-time: it gives them all the mudbrown work of the rain in the woods, all the silvery fashionings of the mist in the plains, of the frost and the snow in the gardens. It permits them, above all, to draw at will upon the inexhaustible treasures of the dead leaves and the expiring forest. It allows them to deck themselves with the golden sequins, the bronze medals, the silver buckles, the copper spangles, the elfin plumes, the powdered amber, the burnt topazes, the neglected pearls, the smoked amethysts, the calcined garnets, all the dead but still dazzling jewellery which the North Wind heaps up in the hollows of ravines and foot-paths; but it insists that they shall remain faithful to their old masters and wear the livery of the drab and weary months that give them birth. It does not permit them to betray those masters and to don the princely, changing dresses of the spring and the dawn; and, if, sometimes, it suffers a pink, this is only on condition that it be borrowed from the cold lips, the pale brow of the veiled and afflicted virgin praying on a tomb. It forbids most strictly the tints of summer, of too youthful, ardent and serene a life, of a health too joyous and expansive. In no case will it consent to hilarious vermilions, impetuous scarlets, imperious and dazzling purples. As for the blues, from the azure of the dawn to the indigo of the sea and the deep lakes, from the periwinkle to the borage and the corn-flower, they are banished on pain of death.

IV

     Nevertheless, thanks to some forgetfulness of nature, the most unusual colour in the world of flowers and the most severely forbidden – the colour which the corolla of the poisonous euphorbia is almost the only one to wear in the city of the umbels, petals and calyces – green, the colour exclusively reserved for the servile and nutrient leaves, has penetrated within the jealously-guarded precincts. True, it has slipped in only by favour of a lie, as a traitor, a spy, a livid deserter. It is a forsworn yellow, steeped fearfully in the fugitive azure of the moonbeam. It is still of the night and false, like the opal depths of the sea; it reveals itself only in shifting patches at the tips of the petals; it is vague and anxious, frail and elusive, but undeniable. It has made its entrance, it exists, it asserts itself; it will be daily more fixed and more determined; and, through the breach which it has contrived, all the joys and all the splendours of the banished prism will hurl themselves into their virgin domain, there to prepare unaccustomed feasts for our eyes. This is a great tiding and a memorable conquest in the land of flowers.

     We must not think that it is puerile thus to interest one's self in the capricious forms, the unwritten shades of a humble, useless flower, nor must we treat those who seek to make it more beautiful or more strange as La Bruyère once treated the lover of the tulip or the plum. Do you remember the charming page?

     "The lover of flowers has a garden in the suburbs, where he spends all his time from sunrise to sunset. You see him standing there and would think that he had taken root in the midst of his tulips before his 'Solitaire ;' he opens his eyes wide, rubs his hands, stoops down and looks closer at it; it never before seemed to him so handsome; he is in an ecstasy of joy, and leaves it to go to the 'Orient,' then to the 'Widow,' from thence to the 'Cloth of Gold,' on to the 'Agatha,' and at last returns to the 'Solitaire,' where he remains, is tired out, sits down, and forgets his dinner; he looks at the tulip and admires its shade, shape, colour, sheen and edges, its beautiful form and calyc; but God and nature are not in his thoughts, for they do not go beyond the bulb of his tulip, which he would not sell for a thousand crowns, though he will give it to you for nothing when tulips are no longer in fashion and carnations are all the rage. This rational being, who has a soul and professes some religion, comes home tired and half starved, but very pleased with his day's work: he has seen some tulips.

     "Talk to another of the healthy look of the crops, of a plentiful harvest, of a good vintage, and you will find that he cares only for fruit and understands not a single word that you say; then turn to figs and melons; tell him that this year the pear-trees are so heavily laden with fruit that the branches almost break, that there are abundance of peaches, and you address him in a language which he completely ignores, and he will not answer you, for his sole hobby is plumtrees. Do not even speak to him of your plum-trees, for he is fond of only a certain kind and laughs and sneers at the mention of any others; he takes you to his tree and cautiously gathers this exquisite plum, divides it, gives you one half, keeps the other himself and exclaims, 'How delicious! Do you like it? Is it not heavenly? You cannot find its equal anywhere; and then his nostrils dilate, and he can hardly contain his joy and pride under an appearance of modesty. What a wonderful person, never enough praised and admired, whose name will be handed down to future ages! Let me look at his mien and shape, while he is still in the land of the living, that I may study the features and the countenance of a man who, alone among mortals, is the happy possessor of such a plum."

     Well, La Bruyère is wrong. We readily forgive him his mistake, for the sake of the marvellous window, which he, alone among the authors of his time, opens upon the unexpected gardens of the seventeenth century. The fact none the less remains that it is to his somewhat bigoted florist, to his somewhat frenzied horticulturist that we owe our exquisite flower-beds, our more varied, more abundant, more luscious vegetables, our even more delicious fruits. Contemplate, for instance, around the chrysanthemums, the marvels that ripen nowadays in the meanest gardens, among the long branches wisely subdued by the patient and generous espaliers. Less than a century ago, they were unknown; and we owe them to the trifling and innumerable exertions of a legion of small seekers, all more or less narrow, all more or less ridiculous.

     It is thus that man acquires nearly all his riches. There is nothing that is puerile in nature; and he who becomes impassioned of a flower, a blade of grass, a butterfly's wing, a nest, a shell, wraps his passion around a small thing that always contains a great truth. To succeed in modifying the appearance of a flower is insignificant in itself, if you will; but reflect upon it for however short a while, and it becomes gigantic. Do we not violate, or deviate, profound, perhaps essential and, in any case, time-honoured laws? Do we not exceed too easily accepted limits? Do we not directly intrude our ephemeral will on that of the eternal forces? Do we not give the idea of a singular power, a power almost supernatural, since it inverts a natural order of things? And, although it is prudent to guard against over-ambitious dreams, does not this allow us to hope that we may perhaps learn to elude or to transgress other laws no less time-honoured, nearer to ourselves and important in a very different manner? For, in short, all things touch, all things go hand to hand; all things obey the same invisible principles, the identical exigencies; all things share in the same spirit, in the same substance, in the terrifying and wonderful problem; and the most modest victory gained in the matter of a flower may one day disclose to us an infinity of the untold ....

V

     Because of these things I love the chrysanthemum; because of these things I follow its evolution with a brother's interest. It is, among familiar plants, the most submissive, the most docile, the most tractable and the most attentive plant of all that we meet on life's long way. It bears flowers impregnated through and through with the thought and will of man: flowers already human, so to speak. And, if the vegetable world is some day to reveal to us one of the words that we are awaiting, perhaps it will be through this flower of the tombs that we shall learn the first secret of existence, even as, in another kingdom, it is probably through the dog, the almost thinking guardian of our homes, that we shall discover the mystery of animal life.


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