Charlotte Smith's "Flora"

by Michael Peverett

     Flora descends, to dress the expecting earth,
     Awake the germs, and call the buds to birth;
     Bid each hybernacle its cell unfold,
     And open silken leaves, and eyes of gold !
     Of forest foliage of the firmest shade
     Enwove by magic hands, the car was made;
     Oak, and the ample Plane, without entwined,
     And Beech and Ash the verdant concave lin'd;
     The Saxifrage, that snowy flowers emboss,
     Supplied the seat; and of the mural moss
     The velvet footstool rose, where lightly rest,
     Her slender feet in Cypripedium drest.
     The tufted rush, that bears a silken crown,
     The floating feathers of the thistle's down,
     In tender hues of rainbow lustre dyed,
     The airy texture of her robe supplied,
     And wild convolvuli, yet half unblown,
     Form'd, with their wreathing buds, her simple zone,
     Some wandering tresses of her radiant hair,
     Luxuriant floated on the enamour'd air;
     The rest were by the Scandix' points confin'd
     And graced a shining knot, her head behind,
     While, as a sceptre of supreme command,
     She waved the Anthoxanthum in her hand.

      (from "Flora")

I have read somewhere that this poem was intended for children. But Charlotte Smith, more than most poets, was intensely interested in botany; indeed it's one of her major themes, the other one being her inconsolable despondency (amply justified, from what little I know of Smith's life). Here the despondency is unexpectedly muted, only noticed in passing at the poem's beginning and end; and perhaps that's part of the adaptation to an audience of children. Anyway, I'm going to talk about the botany, and the poetic challenge of Linnaeus, which came to general notice via Erasmus Darwin, whose poems began to appear in 1783, just after Smith's first sonnets. The influence here is manifest: e.g. "hybernacle" (winter bud) is Linnaeus' term, via Darwin (see Note 1). Aside from the botany, Darwin's radical politics must have appealed.

Linnaean nomenclature throws down a challenge to writers by suddenly and dramatically increasing the number of different things that can be spoken about in poetry. For centuries or even millenia the variety of flowers had been reduced in literate Europe to little more than "roses and lilies"; these stood in as shorthand for all the others, the way that  "gold and silver" stands for wealth. The reason for this drastic simplification was that other flower-names were not comprehensible off their own turf, they were local names or were applied to different plants in different places. (I wrote more about this here.) After a while what had begun as enforced shorthand became hallowed by use. Roses and lilies developed a patina of literary tradition (they had been sung by the poets), hence of that chimaeric thing "nobility". So Shakespeare begins his sequence:

     From fairest creatures we desire increase,
     That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
     But as the riper should by time decease,
     His tender heir might bear his memory...

Because of the patina developed by the idea of "rose", we don't need to be told that the addressee of these lines is both noble and beautiful, even if his relationship to the spicy nest of female sexuality (the other immemorial association with roses) remains initially enigmatic.

Against this background it took the confidence of a Chaucer to admit, with an air of cheeky intimacy, that his own favourite flower was the daisy.

So the first thing we notice, even now, about Smith's mythological description of Flora is how the Linnaean nomenclature, like a bulk upload of some hitherto unknown glossary, completely displaces these immemorially noble emblems, and in just the place where you might expect to find them. Flora bears as her sceptre nothing more noble than a stem of Anthoxanthum (Sweet Vernal Grass), a plant that is humble in several senses: common, overlooked, and altogether unknown to poetic tradition. Linnaeus offered a democratization of botanical values that could be a powerful liberation to a poetic outsider like this author.

Humble, too, is Smith's choice for Flora's clothing; tufted rush (I think this means cotton-grass) and thistledown. Here, as in the use of Scandix (Shepherd's-needle) as a pin, and Cypripedium (Lady's Slipper) as a shoe, you can detect the influence of Darwin's chattily informative scientific poems:- I'm referring to his notes, more than to the stiffly-achieved epic colouring of the verse.

What is unlike Darwin is the observation that thistledown, itself without colour, is prismatic in effect, with the sun on it. At this point a poetic apprehension of the thisness of the plant, an individual response, enters the picture. This is the kind of way of writing poetry about nature, valuing specificity, that we are now more used to, but Smith was one of the first to do it. e.g from her sonnet "Snowdrops":

     The woods yet leafless; where to chilling airs
     Your green and pencil'd blossoms, trembling, wave.

But "Flora" shows that this was not yet an established (and hence eventually limiting) mode. The waves made by the Linnaean influx were still unsettled, and this vast expansion to the body of what could be written might also take other forms, e.g. a destabilizing encrustation of the mythologizing vision. (There's probably a term for this mythological vision that a student of Renaissance forms might be able to supply here: a mythological/allegorical triumph, a masque with a relative paucity of narrative, but elaborately described in the manner of an ekphrasis.) The sylphs or fays are Popeian, ultimately Miltonic, but are in strange garb.

     In honeyed nectaries couched, some drive away
     The forked insidious earwig from his prey;
     Fearless the scaled libellula assail,
     Dart their keen lances at the encroaching snail;
     Arrest the winged ant, on pinions light,
     And strike the headlong beetle in his flight.

Libellula (dragon-flies) may seem like what a sensible commentator would call "a false note"; they seem a rather unlikely opponent for the watch, being purely carnivorous. But it only needs a glance at Darwin to recall that, though we may be heady with this influx of modern naming, the science was still rudimentary. The sexual function of flowers was indeed understood, and the powerful conception of genera already implied the fact, though not the explanation, of a kinship between species (a question to be answered by his grandson). But other things that we suppose obvious were still quite unknown: genetics was undreamed-of, and his speculations about why plant material gives off what he calls "oxygene" are entirely off the point.

Quite a lot of the material in "Flora" is taken from books, and has no idea of a decorum of local reference. Lady's-Slipper Orchids, after all, are distinctly exotic - a rare native that Smith had surely never seen. And she is quite happy to co-opt the non-native Tradescantia, Yucca and Passiflora as materials for her visions. Yet as the poem develops something unexpected happens, Smith becomes an ecologist - drawing now on her own observation of plant communities. In fact "Flora" expands on the sequence outlined in her sonnet "To the Goddess of Botany"

     where my tired, and tear-swollen eyes
     Among your silent shades of soothing hue,
     Your 'bells and florrets of unnumber'd dyes'
     Might rest--And learn the bright varieties
     That from your lovely hands are fed with dew;
     And every veined leaf, that trembling sighs
     In mead or woodland; or in wilds remote,
     Or lurk with mosses in the humid caves,
     Mantle the cliffs, on dimpling rivers float,
     Or stream from coral rocks beneath the ocean's waves.

In "Flora", too, this sequence is traced out, but in much more detail: through woodlands, freshwater habitats, coastal cliffs and eventually into the sea itself;

     Green Byssus, waving in the sea-born gales,
     Form'd their thin mantles, and transparent veils,
     Panier'd in shells, or bound with silver strings,
     Of silken pinna; each her trophy brings
     Of plants, from rocks and caverns submarine,
     With leathery branch, and bladder'd buds between;
     There, its dark folds the pucker'd laver spread,
     With trees in miniature of various red;
     There flag-shaped olive-leaves, depending hung,
     And fairy fans from glossy pebbles sprung;
     Then her terrestrial train the nereids meet,
     And lay their spoils saline at Flora's feet.

(a movement from land to sea that is evidently of much importance to Smith, because we can still discern it beneath the unschematic surface of her great unfinished poem, "Beachy Head", for which "Flora" is in some respects a preparation; "Beachy Head", among other things, contains her most remarkable botanical poetry.)

Our perception of ecological communities can be rationalized as scientific observation (for instance that sea-lavender is found on cliffs but not in woods). The experience of reading "Flora" suggests something different, that Smith's discerning of these communities is an intuition, i.e. an interaction between the human imagination and the natural world. What I'm suggesting is that ecological communities are soft science; but I mean that as the opposite of a criticism. Our conceptions of nature, like those of birth and death, cannot be entirely hard because our own existence is overshadowed by those bulwarks.

But now that this influx of intuition has transformed the poem, what has happened to the elaborately described car and its attendant sylphs? It is still with us: a minimal narrative has described (or rather, mentioned) the procession coming down to earth, becoming water-borne, and drifting down a stream to the sea, still in receipt of trophies and tributes. But Flora and her train have become miniaturized, positively engulfed by the vast populus of natural ecosystems, like a sovereign by subjects (at Wembley Stadium perhaps).

And we ask, sacreligiously, this being the case do we really need a sovereign at all? Do we really need all this nonsense about Flora and other imaginary entities when we have this wealth of nature, surely sufficient matter for epiphany in itself? The answer, for Smith, seems to be yes. Or rather not so much Flora herself, but the spirit of Fancy that brings her into being. Without Fancy, Smith could not sustain a delight in nature; it was something that had consoled her once. She emits a few lines of realization (as e.g. the snowdrop above) but already qualified by, and immediately dropping back into, the larger despondency.

So I suppose we'll have to forgive it, and agree to be pleased by the ingenuity of her armed sylphs that

                              spread the hollow shield
     Of lichen tough; or bear, as silver bright,
     Lunaria's pearly circlet, firm and light.

Lecanora chlarotera, from

(Above and below, potential shields for sylphs)

Lunaria annua, from Wikipedia

Hence in "Flora" the sad yearning of that recurrent address to Fancy:

     Ah ! yet prolong the dear delicious dream...

     Still may thy attributes of leaves and flowers....

     And still may Fancy's brightest flowers be wove...

     Thou visionary power! mayst bid him view
     Forms not less lovely, and as transient too...

The "him" in that last quotation is in effect the poet herself, the sorrowful one. It becomes clear that her consolation lasts only so long as the composition of the poem lasts, when Fancy is kept alive by use.

But it's the persistence of the act of composition in these last hundred or so lines that, in contrast to the unfulfilled yearning of these apostrophes, starts to generate the poem's remarkable effect, just when its initial impulse may appear to be in danger of running dry. The structure transforms, so what began as a vertical kind of nature poetry breaks through into a horizontal one with the excited promise of a new way of writing.



Hence Linneus names buds and bulbs the winter-cradles of the plant or
hybernacula, and might have given the same term to seeds. In warm
climates few plants produce buds, as the vegetable life can be
compleated in one summer, and hence the hybernacle is not wanted; in
cold climates also some plants do not produce buds, as philadelphus,
frangula, viburnum, ivy, heath, wood-nightshade, rue, geranium.

(Erasmus Darwin, from The Botanic Garden)


Rude rocks with Filices and Bryums smile,

(Ferns and mosses, respectively.)


                         The summit bare,
Is tufted by the Statice; and there,
Crush'd by the fisher, as he stands to mark
Some distant signal or approaching bark,

Statice = Sea-lavender (Limonium)


Nourish the harebell, and the freckled pagil;

(from "Beachy Head")

The pagil is another name for the cowslip, described here as freckled because of the orange marks near the throat of the corolla. The etymology of "pagil" is unknown, but a connection has been supposed with the word "paggle", meaning to droop, bulge, swell out like a bag, as in that splendid vision of the cows in Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay:

With grouting dugs that paggle to the ground.

In the cowslip's case, this would have reference to the swollen calyx. This may not be the place to speculate (but I'll do it anyway) on the extremely submerged sexuality of Smith's poetry. When it peeps out at all, it is only indirectly, for example in connection with flowers. But in so far as its objects are discernibly gendered they strike me as female rather than male.


Charlotte Smith's poems are all available online, thanks to Poemhunter. The texts seem fairly good, but you need to ignore the way they break up continuous blank verse into 15- or 16-line "stanzas".

Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (1791) is also available online, on Project Gutenberg. (Part II repackages The Loves of the Plants, first published in 1789.)

Dear Michael, thanks for this, you've opened up a new way of reading Smith's poetry for me. I thought you might like to know that yes, Darwin was one of Smith's favourite poets (along with William Cowper and others), and that yes, this poem first appears in one of her children's books, wherein, rather astonishingly, the mother hopes her young children will memorize it.
Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Twitter
  • Intercapillary Places (Events Series)
  • Publication Series
  • Newsreader Feed