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FIELD FLOWERS

I

     THEY welcome our steps without the city gates, on a gay and eager carpet of many colours, which they wave madly in the sunlight. It is evident that they were expecting us. When the first bright rays of March appeared, the Snowdrop, or Amaryllis, the heroic daughter of the hoar-frost, sounded the reveille. Next sprang from the earth efforts, as yet shapeless, of a slumbering memory: vague ghosts of flowers; pale flowers that are scarcely flowers at all: the three-fingered Saxifrage, or Samphire; the almost invisible Shepherd's Pouch; the two leaved Squill; the Stinking Hellebore, or Christmas Rose; the Colt's Foot; the gloomy and poisonous Spurge Laurel: all plants of frail and doubtful health, pale-blue, pale-pink, undecided attempts, the first fever of life in which nature expels her ill humours, anaemic captives set free by winter, convalescent patients from the underground prisons, timid and unskilful endeavours of the still buried light.

     But soon this light ventures forth into space; the nuptial thoughts of the earth become clearer and purer; the rough attempts disappear; the half-dreams of the night lift like a fog dispelled by the dawn; and the good rustic flowers begin their unseen revels under the blue, all around the cities where man knows them not. No matter, they are there, making honey, while their proud and barren sisters, who alone receive our care, are still trembling in the depths of the hot-houses. They will still be there, in the flooded fields, in the broken paths, and adorning the roads with their simplicity, when the first snows shall have covered the country-side. No one sows them and no one gathers them. They survive their glory, and man treads them under foot. Formerly, however, and not so long ago, they alone represented Nature's gladness. Formerly, however, a few hundred years ago, before their dazzling and chilly kinswomen had come from the Antilles, from India, from Japan, or before their own daughters, ungrateful and unrecognizable, had usurped their place, they alone enlivened the stricken gaze, they alone brightened the cottage porch, the castle precincts, and followed the lovers' footsteps in the woods. But those times are no more; and they are dethroned. They have retained of their past happiness only the names which they received when they were loved.

     And these names show all that they were to man: all his gratitude, his studious fondness, all that he owed them, all that they gave him are there contained, like a secular aroma in hollow pearls. And so they bear names of queens, shepherdesses, virgins, princesses, sylphs and fairies, which flow from the lips like a caress, a lightning-flash, a kiss, a murmur of love. Our language, I think, contains nothing that is better, more daintily, more affectionately named than these homely flowers. Here the word clothes the idea almost always with care, with light precision, with admirable happiness. It is like an ornate and transparent stuff that moulds the form which it embraces and has the proper shade, perfume and sound. Call to mind the Easter Daisy, the Violet, the Bluebell, the Poppy, or, rather, Coquelicot: the name is the flower itself. How wonderful, for instance, that sort of cry and crest of light and joy: "Coquelicot!" to designate the scarlet flower which the scientists crush under this barbarous title: Papaver rhœas!

     See the Primrose, or, rather, the Cowslip, the Periwinkle, the Anemone, the Wild Hyacinth, the blue Speedwell, the Forget-me-not, the Wild Bindweed, the Iris, the Harebell: their name depicts them by equivalents and analogies which the greatest poets but rarely light upon. It represents all their ingenuous and visible soul. It hides itself, it bends over, it rises to the ear even as those who bear it lie concealed, stoop forward, or stand erect in the corn and in the grass.

     These are the few names that are known to all of us; we do not know the others, though their music describes with the same gentleness, the same happy genius, flowers which we see by every wayside and upon all the paths. Thus, at this moment, that is to say, at the end of the month in which the ripe corn falls beneath the reaper's sickle, the banks of the roads are a pale violet: it is the Sweet Scabious, who has blossomed at last, discreet, aristocratically poor and modestly beautiful, as her title, that of a mist-veiled precious stone, proclaims. Around her, a treasure lies scattered: it is the Ranunculus, or Buttercup, who has two names, even as he has two lives; for he is at once the innocent virgin that covers the grass with sun-drops, and the redoubtable and venomous wizard that deals out death to heedless animals. Again we have the Milfoil and the St. John's Wort, little flowers, once useful, that march along the roads, like silent school-girls, clad in a dull uniform; the vulgar and innumerous Bird's Groundsel; her big brother, the Hare's Lettuce of the fields; then the dangerous black Nightshade; the Bitter-sweet, who hides herself; the creeping Knotweed, with the patient leaves: all the families without show, with the resigned smile, wearing the practical grey livery of autumn, which already is felt to be at hand.

II

     But, among those of March, April, May, June, July, remember the glad and festive names, the springtime syllables, the vocables of azure and dawn, of moonlight and sunshine! Here is the Snowdrop, or Amaryllis, who proclaims the thaw; the Stitchwort, or Lady's Collar, who greets the first-communicants along the hedges, whose leaves are as yet indeterminate and uncertain, like a diaphanous green lye. Here are the sad Columbine and the Field Sage, the Jasione, the Angelica, the Field Fennel, the Wallflower, dressed like a servant of a village-priest; the Osmond, who is a king fern; the Luzula, the Parmelia, the Venus' Looking-glass; the Esula or Wood Spurge, mysterious and full of sombre fire; the Physalidis, whose fruit ripens in a lantern; the Henbane, the Belladonna, the Digitalis, poisonous queens, veiled Cleopatras of the untilled places and the cool woods. And then, again, the Camomile, the good-capped Sister with a thousand smiles, bringing the health-giving brew in an earthenware bowl; the Pimpernel and the Coronilla, the pale Mint and the pink Thyme, the Sainfoin and the Euphrasy, the Ox-eye Daisy, the mauve Gentian and the blue Verbena, the Anthemis, the lance-shaped Horse-Thistle, the Cinquefoil or Potentilia, the Dyer's Weed .... to tell their names is to recite a poem of grace and light. We have reserved for them the most charming, the purest, the clearest sounds and all the musical gladness of the language. One would think that they were the persons of a play, dancers and choristers of an immense fairy-scene, more beautiful, more startling and more super. natural than the scenes that unfold themselves on Prospero's Island, at the Court of Theseus, or in the Forest of Arden. And the comely actresses of this silent, never-ending comedy – goddesses, angels, she-devils, princesses and witches, virgins and courtezans, queens and shepherd-girls-carry in the folds of their names the magic sheens of innumerous dawns, of innumerous springtimes contemplated by forgotten men, even as they also carry the memory of thousands of deep or fleeting emotions which were felt before them by generations that have disappeared, leaving no other trace.

III

     They are interesting and incomprehensible. They are vaguely called the "Weeds." They serve no purpose. Here and there, a few, in very old villages, retain the spell of contested virtues. ' Here and there, one of them, right at the bottom of the apothecary's or herbalist's jars, still awaits the coming of the sick man faithful to the infusions of tradition. But sceptic medicine will have none of them. No longer are they gathered according to the olden rites; and the science of "Simples" is dying out in the housewife's memory. A merciless war is waged upon them. The husbandman fears them; the plough pursues them; the gardener hates them and has armed himself against them with clashing weapons: the spade and the rake, the hoe and the scraper, the weeding-hook, the grubbing-axe. Along the high-roads, their last refuge, the passerby crushes them, the waggon bruises them. In spite of all, they are there: permanent, assured, abundant, peaceful; and not one but answers the summons of the sun. They follow the seasons without swerving by an hour. They take no account of man, who exhausts himself in conquering them, and, so soon as he rests, they spring up in his footsteps. They live on, audacious, immortal, untamable. They have peopled our flower-baskets with extravagant and unnatural daughters; but they, the poor mothers, have remained similar to what they were a hundred thousand years ago. They have not added a fold to their petals, reordered a pistil, altered a shade, invented a perfume. They keep the secret of a mysterious mission. They are the indelible primitives. The soil is theirs since its origin. They represent, in short, an essential smile, an invariable thought, an obstinate desire of the Earth.

     That is why it is well to question them. They have evidently something to tell us. And, then, let us not forget that they were the first – with the sunrises and sunsets, with the springs and autumns, with the song of the birds, with the hair, the glance and the divine movements of women – to teach our fathers that there are useless and beautiful things upon this globe.

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