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Secret of the Charm of Flowers

When my mind was occupied with the subject of the last chapter—the human quality in some sweet bird voices—it struck me forcibly that all resemblances to man in the animal and vegetable worlds and in inanimate nature, enter largely into and strongly colour our ęsthetic feelings. We have but to listen to the human tones in wind and water, and in animal voices; and to recognise the human shape in plant, and rock, and cloud, and in the round heads of certain mammals, like the seal; and the human expression in the eyes, and faces generally, of many mammals, birds and reptiles, to know that these casual resemblances are a great deal to us. They constitute the expression of numberless natural sights and sounds with which we are familiar, although in a majority of cases the resemblance being but slight, and to some one quality only, we are not conscious of the cause of the expression.

It was principally with flowers, which excite more attention and give more pleasure than most natural objects, that my mind was occupied in this connection; for here it seemed to me that the effect was similar to that produced on the mind by sweet human-like tones in bird music. In other words, a very great if not the principal charm of the flower was to be traced to the human associations of its colouring; and this was, in some cases, more than all its other attractions, including beauty of form, purity and brilliance of colour, and the harmonious arrangement of colours; and, finally, fragrance, where such a quality existed.

We see, then, that there is an intimate connection between the two subjects—human associations in the colouring of flowers and in the voices of birds; and that in both cases this association constitutes, or is a principal element in, the expression. This connection, and the fact that the present subject was suggested and appeared almost an inevitable outcome of the one last discussed, must be my excuse for introducing a chapter on flowers in a book on birds—or birds and man. But an excuse is hardly needed. It must strike most readers that a great fault of books on birds is, that there is too much about birds in them, consequently that a chapter about something else, which has not exactly been dragged in, may come as a positive relief.

As the word expression which occurs with frequency in this chapter was not understood in the sense in which I used it on the first appearance of the book, it may be well to explain that it is not used here in its ordinary meaning as the quality in a face, or picture, or any work of art, which indicates thought or feeling. Here the word has the meaning given to it by writers on the ęsthetic sense as descriptive of the quality imparted to an object by its associations. These may be untraceable: we may not be conscious and as a rule we are not conscious that any such associations exist; nevertheless they are in us all the time, and with what they add to an object may enhance and even double its intrinsic beauty and charm.

I have somewhere read a very ancient legend, which tells that man was originally made of many materials, and that at the last a bunch of wild flowers was gathered and thrown into the mixture to give colour to his eyes. It is a pretty story, but might have been better told, since it is certain that flowers which have delicate and beautiful flesh-tints are attractive mainly on that account, just as blue and some purples delight us chiefly because of their associations with the human iris. The skin, too, needed some beautiful colour, and there were red as well as blue flowers in the bunch; and the red flowers being most abundant in nature and in greater variety of tints, give us altogether more pleasure than their beautiful rivals in our affection.

The blue flower is associated, consciously or not, with the human blue eye; and as the floral blue is in all or nearly all instances pure and beautiful, it is like the most beautiful human eye. This association, and not the colour itself, strikes me as the true cause of the superior attraction which the blue flower has for most of us. Apart from association blue is less attractive than red, orange, and yellow, because less luminous; furthermore green is the least effective background for such a colour as blue in so small an object as a flower; and, as a fact, we see that at a little distance the blue of the flower is absorbed and disappears in the surrounding green, while reds and yellows keep their splendour. Nevertheless the blue has a stronger hold on our affections. As a human colour, blue comes first in a blue-eyed race because it is the colour of the most important feature, and, we may say, of the very soul in man.

Some purple flowers stand next in our regard on account of their nearness in colour to the pure blue. The wild hyacinth, blue-bottle, violet, and pansy, and some others, will occur to every one. These are the purple flowers in which blue predominates, and on that account have the same expression as the blue. The purples in which red predominates are akin in expression to the reds, and are associated with flesh-tints and blood. And here it may be noted that the blue and blue-purple flowers, which have the greatest charm for us, are those in which not only the colour of the eye but some resemblance in their form to the iris, with its central spot representing the pupil, appears. For example, the flax, borage, blue geranium, periwinkle, forget-me-not, speedwell, pansy and blue pimpernel, are actually more to us than some larger and handsomer blue flowers, such as the blue-bottle, vipers' bugloss, and succory, and of blue flowers seen in masses.

With regard to the numerous blue and purple-blue flowers which we all admire, or rather for which we all feel so great an affection, we find that in many cases their very names have been suggested by their human associations—by their expression.

Love-in-a-mist, angels' eyes, forget-me-not, and heartsease, are familiar examples. Heartsease and pansy both strike us as peculiarly appropriate to one of our commonest and most universal garden flowers; yet we see something besides the sympathetic and restful expression which suggested these names in this flower—a certain suggestion of demureness, in fact, reminding those who have seen Guido's picture of the "Adoration of the Virgin," of one of his loveliest angels whose angelical eyes and face reveal some desire for admiration and love in the spectator. And that expression, too, of the pansy named Love-in-Idleness, has been described, coarsely or rudely it may be, in some of its country names: "Kiss me behind the garden gate," and, better (or worse) still, "Meet-her-i'-th'-entry-kiss-her-i'-th'-buttery." Of this order of names are None-so-pretty and Pretty maids, Pretty Betsy, Kiss-me-quick. Even such a name as Tears of the blood of Christ does not sound extravagantly fanciful or startling when we look at the glowing deep golden crimson of the wall flower; nor of a blue flower, the germander speedwell, such names as The more I see you the more I love you, and Angels' tears, and Tears of Christ, with many more.

A writer on our wild flowers, in speaking of their vernacular names of this kind, has said: "Could we penetrate to the original suggestive idea that called forth its name, it would bring valuable information about the first openings of the human mind towards nature; and the merest dream of such a discovery invests with a strange charm the words that could tell, if we could understand, so much of the forgotten infancy of the human race."

What a roll of words and what a mighty and mysterious business is here made of a very simple little matter! It is a charming example of the strange helplessness, not to say imbecility, which affects most of those who have been trained in our mind-killing schools; trained not to think, but taught to go for anything and everything they desire to know to the books. If the books in the British Museum fail to say why our ancestors hundreds of years ago named a flower None-so-pretty or Love-in-a-mist, why then we must be satisfied to sit in thick darkness with regard to this matter until some heaven-born genius descends to illuminate us! Yet I daresay there is not a country child who does not occasionally invent a name for some plant or creature which has attracted his attention; and in many cases the child's new name is suggested by some human association in the object—some resemblance to be seen in form or colour or sound. Not books but the light of nature, the experience of our own early years, the look which no person not blinded by reading can fail to see in a flower, is sufficient to reveal all this hidden wonderful knowledge about the first openings of the heart towards nature, during the remote infancy of the human race.

From this it will be seen that I am not claiming a discovery; that what I have called a secret of the charm of flowers is a secret known to every man, woman, and child, even to those of my own friends who stoutly deny that they have any such knowledge. But I think it is best known to children. What I am here doing is merely to bring together and put in form certain more or less vague thoughts and feelings which I (and therefore all of us) have about flowers; and it is a small matter, but it happens to be one which no person has hitherto attempted.

It may be that in some of my readers' minds—those who, like the sceptical friends I have mentioned, are not distinctly conscious of the cause or secret of the expression of a flower—some doubt may still remain after what has been said of the blue and purple-blue blossom. Such a doubt ought to disappear when the reds are considered, and when it is found that the expression peculiar to red flowers varies infinitely in degree, and is always greatest in those shades of the colour which come nearest to the most beautiful flesh-tints.

When I say "beautiful flesh-tints" I am thinking of the ęsthetic pleasure which we receive from the expression, the associations, of the red flower. The expression which delights is in the soft and delicate shades; and in the texture which is sometimes like the beautiful soft skin; but the expression would exist still in the case of floral tints resembling the unpleasant reds, or the reds which disgust us, in the human face. And we most of us know that these distressing hues are to be seen in some flowers. I remember that I once went into a florist's shop, and seeing a great mass of hard purple-red cinerarias on a shelf I made some remark about them. "Yes, are they not beautiful?" said the woman in the shop. "No, I loathe the sight of them," I returned. "So do I!" she said very quickly, and then added that she called them beautiful because she had to sell them. She, too, had no doubt seen that same purple-red colour in the evil flower called "grog-blossom," and in the faces of many middle-aged lovers of the bottle, male and female, who would perish before their time, to the great relief of their kindred, and whose actions after they were gone would not smell sweet and blossom in the dust.

The reds we like best in flowers are the delicate roseate and pinky shades; they are more to us than the purest and most luminous tints. And here, as with bird notes which delight us on account of their resemblance to fresh, young, highly musical human voices, flowers please us best when they exhibit the loveliest human tints—the apple blossom and the bindweed, musk mallow and almond and wild rose, for example. After these we are most taken with the deeper but soft and not too luminous reds—the red which we admire in the red horse-chestnut blossom, and many other flowers, down to the minute pimpernel. Next come the intense rosy reds seen in the herb-robert and other wild geraniums, valerian, red campion and ragged robin; and this shade of red, intensified but still soft, is seen in the willow-herb and foxglove, and, still more intensified, in the bell- and small-leafed heath. Some if not all of these pleasing reds have purple in them, and there are very many distinctly purple flowers that appeal to us in the same way that red flowers do, receiving their expression from the same cause. There is some purple colour in most skins, and even some blue.


The azured harebell, like thy veins,


is a familiar verse from Cymbeline; any one can see the resemblance to the pale blue of that admired and loved blossom in the blue veins of any person with a delicate skin. Purples and purplish reds in masses are mostly seen in young persons of delicate skins and high colour in frosty weather in winter, when the eyes sparkle and the face glows with the happy sensations natural to the young and healthy during and after outdoor exercise. The skin purples and purple-reds here described are beautiful, and may be matched to a nicety in many flowers; the human purple may be seen (to name a very common wild flower) in purple loosestrife and the large marsh mallow, and in dozens and scores of other familiar purple flowers; and the purple-red hue in many richly coloured skins has its exact shade in common hounds' tongue, and in other dark and purple-red flowers. But we always find, I fancy, that the expression due to human association in a purple flower is greatest when this colour (as in the human face) is placed side by side or fades into some shade of red or pink. I think we may see this even in a small flower like the fumitory, in which one portion is deep purple and all the rest of the blossoms a delicate pink. Even when the red is very intense, as in the common field poppy, the pleasing expression of purple on red is very evident.

To return to pure reds. We may say that just as purples in flowers look best, or have a greater degree of expression, when appearing in or with reds, so do the most delicate rose and pink shades appeal most to us when they appear as a tinge or blush on white flowers. Probably the flower that gives the most pleasure on account of its beautiful flesh-tints of different shades is the Gloire de Dījon rose, so common with us and so universal a favourite. Roses, being mostly of the garden, are out of my line, but they are certainly glorious to look at—glorious because of their associations, their expression, whether we know it or not. One can forgive Thomas Carew the conceit in his lines—


Ask me no more where Jove bestows
When June is past, the fading rose,
For in your beauty's orient deep
These flowers as in their causes sleep.


But all reds have something human, even the most luminous scarlets and crimsons—the scarlet verbena, the poppy, our garden geraniums, etc.—although in intensity they so greatly surpass the brightest colour of the lips and the most vivid blush on the cheek. Luminous reds are not, however, confined to lips and cheeks: even the fingers when held up before the eyes to the sun or to fire-light show a very delicate and beautiful red; and this same brilliant floral hue is seen at times in the membrane of the ear. It is, in fact, the colour of blood, and that bright fluid, which is the life, and is often spilt, comes very much into the human associations of flowers. The Persian poet, whose name is best left unwritten, since from hearing it too often most persons are now sick and tired of it, has said,


I sometimes think that never blooms so red
The rose as where some buried Cęsar bled.


There is many and many a "plant of the blood of men." Our most common Love-lies-bleeding with its "dropping wells" of crimson serves to remind us that there are numberless vulgar names that express this resemblance and association. The thought or fancy is found everywhere in poetic literature, in the fables of antiquity, in the tales and folk-lore of all nations, civilised and barbarous.

I think that we can more quickly recognise this human interest in a flower, due to its colour, and best appreciate its ęsthetic value from this cause, when we turn from the blues, purples, and reds, to the whites and the yellows. The feeling these last give us is distinctly different in character from that produced by the others. They are not like us, nor like any living sentient thing we are related to: there is no kinship, no human quality.

When I say "no kinship, no human quality," I refer to flowers that are entirely pure white or pure yellow; in some dull or impure yellows, and in white and yellow flowers that have some tinge or mixture of red or purple, we do get the expression of the red and purple flower. The crystalline and snow white of the whitest flowers do indeed resemble the white of the eyeballs and the teeth in human faces; but we may see that this human white colour by itself has no human association in a flower.

The whiteness of the white flower where there is any red is never unhuman, probably because a very brilliant red or rose colour on some delicate skins causes the light flesh-tints to appear white by contrast, and is the complexion known as "milk and roses." The apple-blossom is a beautiful example, and the beloved daisy—the "wee, modest, crimson-tipped flower," which would be so much less dear but for that touch of human crimson. This is the herb-Margaret of so many tender and pretty legends, that has white for purity and red for repentance. Even those who have never read these legends and that prettiest, most pathetic of all which tells of the daisy's origin, find a secret charm in the flower. Among other common examples are the rosy-white hawthorn, wood anemone, bindweed, dropwort, and many others. In the dropwort the rosy buds are seen among the creamy white open flowers; and the expression is always very marked and beautiful when there is any red or purple tinge or blush on cream-whites and ivory-whites. When we look from the dropwort to its nearest relative, the common meadow-sweet, we see how great a charm the touch of rose-red has given to the first: the meadow-sweet has no expression of the kind we are considering—no human association.

In pure yellow flowers, as in pure white, human interest is wanting. It is true that yellow is a human colour, since in the hair we find yellows of different shades—it is a pity that we cannot find, or have not found, a better word than "shades" for the specific differences of a colour. There is the so-called tow, the tawny, the bronze, the simple yellow, and the golden, which includes many varieties, and the hair called carroty. But none of these has the flower yellow. Richard Jefferies tells us that when he placed a sovereign by the side of a dandelion he saw how unlike the two colours were—that, in fact, no two colours could seem more unlike than the yellow of gold and the yellow of the flower. It is not necessary to set a lock of hair and any yellow flower side by side to know how utterly different the hues are. The yellow of the hair is like that of metals, of clay, of stone, and of various earthy substances, and like the fur of some mammals, and like xanthophyll in leaf and stalk, and the yellow sometimes seen in clouds. When Ossian, in his famous address to the sun, speaks of his yellow hair floating on the eastern clouds, we instantly feel the truth as well as beauty of the simile. We admire the yellow flower for the purity and brilliance of its colour, just as we admire some bird notes solely for the purity and brightness of the sound, however unlike the human voice they may be. We also admire it in many instances for the exquisite beauty of its form, and the beauty of the contrast of pure yellow and deep green, as in the yellow flag, mimulus, and numerous other plants. But however much we may admire, we do not experience that intimate and tender feeling which the blues and reds inspire in us; in other words, the yellow flower has not the expression which distinguishes those of other colours. Thus, when Tennyson speaks of the "speedwell's darling blue," we know that he is right—that he expresses a feeling about this flower common to all of us; but no poet would make so great, so absurd a mistake as to describe the purest and loveliest yellow of the most prized and familiar wild flower—buttercup or kingcup, yellow flag, sea poppy, marsh marigold, or broom, or furze, or rock-rose, let us say—by such a word—the word that denotes an intimate and affectionate feeling—the feeling one cherishes for the loved ones of our kind. Nor could that word of Tennyson be properly used of any pure white flower—the stitchwort for instance; nor of any white and yellow flower like the Marguerite. But no sooner do you get a touch of rose or crimson in the whitest flower, as we see in the daisy and eyebright, than you can say of it that it is a "dear" or a "darling" colour, and no one can find fault with the expression.

When we consider the dull and impure yellows sometimes seen in flowers, and some soft yellows seen in combination with pleasing wholesome reds, as in the honeysuckle, we may find something of the expression—the human association—in yellow flowers. For there is yellow in the skin, even in perfect health; it appears strongest on the neck, and spread round to the throat and chin, and is a warm buff, very beautiful in some women; but very little of this tint appears in the face. When a tinge of this warm buffy yellow and creamy yellow is seen mixed with warmer reds, as in the Gloire de Dījon rose, the effect is most beautiful and the expression most marked. But the expression in flowers of a pale dull, impure yellow, where there is an expression, is unpleasant. It is the yellow of unhealthy skins, of faces discoloured by jaundice, dyspepsia, and other ailments. We commonly say of such flowers that they are "sickly" in colour, and the association is with sick and decaying humanity. Gerarde, in describing such hues in flowers, was fond of the word "overworn"; and it was a very good word, and, like the one now in use, is derived from the association.

It will be noted by those who are acquainted with many flowers that I have given the names of but few—it may be too few—as examples, and that these are nearly all of familiar wild flowers. My reason for not going to the garden is, that our cultivated blooms are not only artificially produced, and in some degree monstrosities, but they are seen in unnatural conditions, in crowds and masses, the various kinds too near together, and in most cases selected on account of their gorgeous colouring. The effect produced, however delightful it may be in some ways, is confusing to those simple natural feelings which flowers in a state of nature cause in us.

I confess that gardens in most cases affect me disagreeably; hence I avoid them, and think and know little about garden flowers. It is of course impossible not to go into gardens. The large garden is the greatly valued annexe of the large house, and is as much or more to the mistress than the coverts to the master; and when I am asked to go into the garden to see and admire all that is there, I cannot say, "Madam, I hate gardens." On the contrary, I must weakly comply and pretend to be pleased. And when going the rounds of her paradise my eyes light by chance on a bed of tulips, or scarlet geraniums, or blue larkspurs, or detested calceolarias or cinerarias—a great patch of coloured flame springing out of a square or round bed of grassless, brown, desolate earth—the effect is more than disagreeable: the mass of colour glares at and takes possession of me, and spreads itself over and blots out a hundred delicate and prized images of things seen that existed in the mind.

But I am going too far, and perhaps making an enemy of a reader when I would much prefer to have him (or her) for a friend.

I have named few flowers, and those all the most familiar kinds, because it seemed to me that many examples would have had a confusing effect on readers who do not intimately know many species, or do not remember the exact colour in each case, and are therefore unable to reproduce in their minds the exact expression—the feeling which every flower conveys. On the other hand, the reader who knows and loves flowers, who has in his mind the distinct images of many scores, perhaps of two or three hundreds of species, can add to my example many more from his own memory.

There is one objection to the explanation given here of the cause of the charm of certain flowers, which will instantly occur to some readers, and may as well be answered in advance. This view, or theory, must be wrong, a reader will perhaps say, because my own preference is for a yellow flower (the primrose or daffodil, let us say), which to me has a beauty and charm exceeding all other flowers.

The obvious explanation of such a preference would be that the particular flower preferred is intimately associated with recollections of a happy childhood, or of early life. The associations will have made it a flower among flowers, charged with a subtle magic, so that the mere sight or smell of it calls up beautiful visions before the mind's eye. Every person bred in a country place is affected in this way by certain natural objects and odours; and I recall the case of Cuvier, who was always affected to tears by the sight of some common yellow flower, the name of which I have forgotten.

The way to test the theory is to take, or think of, two or three or half-a-dozen flowers that have no personal associations with one's own early life—that are not, like the primrose and daffodil in the foregoing instance, sacred flowers, unlike all others; some with and some without human colouring, and consider the feeling produced in each case on the mind. If any one will look at, say, a Gloire de Dījon rose (in some persons its mental image will serve as well as the object itself) and then at a perfect white chrysanthemum, or lily, or other beautiful white flower; then at a perfect yellow chrysanthemum, or an allamanda, and at any exquisitely beautiful orchid, that has no human colour in it, which he may be acquainted with, he will probably say: I admire these chrysanthemums and other flowers more than the rose; they are most perfect in their beauty—I cannot imagine anything more beautiful; but though the rose is less beautiful and splendid, the admiration I have for it appears to differ somewhat in character—to be mixed with some new element which makes this flower actually more to me than the others.

That something different, and something more, is the human association which this flower has for us in virtue of its colour; and the new element—the feeling it inspires, which has something of tenderness and affection in it—is one and the same with the feeling which we have for human beauty.

The foregoing has been given here with a few alterations, mainly verbal, as it appeared originally: something now remains to be added.

When writing about the wild flowers of West Cornwall in a work on The Land's End (1908), I returned to the subject of the charm of flowers due to their human colouring, and will repeat here much of what was there said.

Some of the readers of my flower chapter were not convinced that I had made out my case: it came as a surprise to them, and in some instances they cherished views of their own which they did not want to give up. Thus, two of my critics, writing independently, expressed their belief that flowers are precious to us and seem more beautiful than they are, because they are absolutely unrelated to our human life with its passions, sorrows, and tragedies—because, looking at flowers, we are taken into, or have glimpses of, another and brighter world such as a disembodied spirit might find itself in. It was nothing more than a pretty fancy; but I had other more thoughtful critics, and during my correspondence with them I became convinced of a serious omission in my account of the blue flower, when I said that its expression was due to association with the blue eye in man. The strongest of my friendly adversaries informed me that any man can revel at will among his own personal feelings and associations; that these were a "kind of bloom on the intrinsic beauty of things"—a happy phrase! He then asks: "What does blue suggest to a sailor? Sometimes the sea, sometimes the sky, sometimes the Blue Peter; but if you ask him what does blue paint suggest he would say mourning, that being the colour of a ship's mourning. Dr Sutton always called blue no colour, because it was the colour of death, the sign of the withdrawal of life."

This was interesting but fails as an argument since it was taken for granted in the chapter that blue in a flower or anything else, and in fact any colour, possesses individual associations for every one of us, according to what we are, to the temper of our minds, to the conditions in which we exist, our vocation, our early life, and so on. Blue may suggest sea and sky and the Blue Peter to a sailor, and yet the blue flower have an expression due to its human association in him as in another.

But my critic dropped by chance into something better, when he went on to ask, "Why shouldn't the heaven's blue make us love flowers? It does in my case I know, and I can feel the different blues of skies and air and distance in flower blue."

Undoubtedly he was right; the blue sky, fair weather, the open air, was a suggestion of the blue flower. It amazed me to think of the years I had spent under blue skies and of all I had felt about blue flowers, without stumbling upon this very simple fact. So simple, so near to the surface that you no sooner hear it than you imagine you have always known it! It was impossible to look at blue flowers and not be convinced of its truth, especially when the flowers were spread over considerable areas, as when I looked at wild hyacinths in the spring woods, or followed the interminable blue band of the vernal squill on the west Cornish coast, or saw large arid tracts of land in Suffolk blue with viper's bugloss.

Oddly enough just after the letter containing this criticism had reached me, another correspondent who was also among my opponents, sent me this fine passage from the old writer Sir John Ferne, on azure in blazoning: "Which blew colour representeth the Aire amongst the elements, that of all the rest is the greatest favourer of life, as the only nurse and maintainer of spirits in any living creature. The colour blew is commonly taken from the blue skye which appeareth so often as the tempests be overblowne, and notes prosperous successe and good fortune to the wearer in all his affayres."

In conclusion, after having adopted this new idea, my view is still that the human association is the principal factor in the expression of the blue flower, or at all events in a majority of flowers that bloom more or less sparingly and are usually seen as single blooms, not as mere splashes of colour. Such are the pansy, violet, speedwell, hairbell, lungwort, blue geranium, etc. It may be that in all flowers of this kind too an element in the expression is due to the fair-weather associations with the colour; but these associations must be very much stronger in the case of a blue flower always seen in masses and sheets of colour as the wild hyacinth. Among dark-eyed races the fair-weather associations would alone give the blue flower its expression. I shouldn't wonder, if some explorer with a curious mind would try to find out what savages feel about flowers, that he would discover in them a special regard for the blue flower.

W. H. Hudson