by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
June 3, 2004
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF DAFFODILS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Daffodils can break your heart in so many lovely ways.
Two years after the poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, wandered down by a lake and discovered a great mass of wild yellow flowers growing there, he famously wrote: "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 golden daffodils." But how lonely could he really be if he was with his sister?
Dorothy also wrote about them, by the way, beautifully, in her journal: "There were more and yet more... I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones, as on a pillow, for weariness, and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind..."
I learned about Dorothy's journal from a lovely little 1994 book called "Flora's Gems: The Little Book of Daffodils," by Pamela Todd, which my husband, Randy, bless his heart, brought home the other day from a thrift shop sale.
"Narcissus" is the Latin name for daffodils, Todd informs us. There are 12 classifications and hundreds of varieties, and all of them take their name from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who became enamored of his own reflection in a pool of water and withered away from the love of himself.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was probably referring to that ancient story when he wrote these sad and beautiful lines: "And narcissi, the fairest among them all/Who gaze on their eyes in the stream's recess/Till they die of their own dear loveliness."
It seems as if daffodils have been with us forever. "He that has two cakes of bread, let him sell one of them for some flowers of the Narcissus, for bread is food for the body, but Narcissus is food of the soul," wrote the Prophet Mohammed, according to Todd.
"In medieval times, high-born ladies occasionally cultivated daffodils in their gardens as they used the yellow dye the flowers yield to tint their hair and eyebrows," Todd writes. Those high-born ladies would be right at home with punk, wouldn't they? Minus, of course, a few piercings.
There's also a wonderful story in the book about Fukien, China, and a poor widow so touched by the plight of a hungry beggar that she gives him her last half bowl of rice. He eats it, thanks her, spits a few grains on the floor and disappears. When she wakes up the next morning, scores of graceful daffodils have appeared where he spit. She sells the blooms, becomes prosperous, and Fukien becomes famous. "So in China the flower symbolized prosperity and benevolence," Todd writes.
Randy thought I might like a book about daffodils because this has been the year of the great daffodil wars - wars which, I'm not proud to say, I'm losing.
Daffodils breed prolifically in my garden, and if I don't separate them every few years, they grow mean, gang up on each other, and prevent each other from flowering. For the past three years I've been preoccupied with watching the world going to hell in a handbasket, so I've let my garden go - mostly to milkweed, I'm afraid.
As a result, this spring, I was bereft of daffodils.
It was time, I decided, to get to work. So I dug into a few clumps with a spade and a pitchfork, and soon I was drowning in daffodil bulbs. I was like the early American settler John Bartram, who in the 1730s wrote to tell his botanist friend in England that daffodils were plentiful in the Colonies and please, please, do not send him any more.
I was filling bucket after bucket with bulbs, so many bulbs and buckets that I couldn't lift them. I spent an entire week on my knees, planting them everywhere I could reach. I covered the hillside behind my house, and still I had more. I lined my garden path; then I created another path and lined it, too. I was welcomed at perennial swaps. I passed out handfuls to my friends - better they should commit bulbicide than I should.
But just after daffodils flower, of course, everything else shoots up at once. Suddenly I had more work to do in the garden than time to do it. Digging up and putting down daffodil bulbs took second place to raking, turning the ground, weeding, planting flats, mulching and fighting the deer, who think my vegetable garden has a neon sign over it that blinks: "Salad Bar - All you can eat."
Now the daffodils are gone, leaving behind nothing but clumps of withering greens. Like spring, they fade so quickly that it heightens our sensitivity to the fleetingness of life itself.
"Fair daffodils, we weep to see you haste away so soon," wrote the poet Robert Herrick. "...We have short time to stay as you; We have as short a spring... We die, as your hours do, and dry away like to the summer's rain; Or as the pearls of morning's dew, Ne'er to be found again."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.