A Seasonal Collection: Tulips

“Contempt for flowers is an offence against God. The lovelier the flower, the greater the offence in despising it. The tulip is the loveliest of all flowers. So whoever despised the tulip offends God immeasurably.”

Alexandre Dumas

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‘Glas met vier tulpen’ by Ambrosius Bosschaert de Oude (1573-1621)

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Night, and beneath star-blazoned summer skies
Behold the Spirit of the musky South,
A creole with still-burning, languid eyes,
Voluptuous limbs and incense-breathing mouth:
Swathed in spun gauze is she,
From fibres of her own anana tree.

Within these sumptuous woods she lies at ease,
By rich night-breezes, dewy cool, caressed:
’Twixt cypresses and slim palmetto trees,
Like to the golden oriole’s hanging nest,
Her airy hammock swings,
And through the dark her mocking-bird yet sings.

How beautiful she is! A tulip-wreath
Twines round her shadowy, free-floating hair:
Young, weary, passionate, and sad as death,
Dark visions haunt for her the vacant air,
While noiselessly she lies
With lithe, lax, folded hands and heavy eyes.

Full well knows she how wide and fair extend
Her groves bright flowered, her tangled everglades,
Majestic streams that indolently wend
Through lush savanna or dense forest shades,
Where the brown buzzard flies
To broad bayous ’neath hazy-golden skies.

Hers is the savage splendor of the swamp,
With pomp of scarlet and of purple bloom,
Where blow warm, furtive breezes faint and damp,
Strange insects whir, and stalking bitterns boom—
Where from stale waters dead
Oft looms the great jawed alligator’s head.

Her wealth, her beauty, and the blight on these,—
Of all she is aware: luxuriant woods,
Fresh, living, sunlit, in her dream she sees;
And ever midst those verdant solitudes
The soldier’s wooden cross,
O’ergrown by creeping tendrils and rank moss.

Was hers a dream of empire? was it sin?
And is it well that all was borne in vain?
She knows no more than one who slow doth win,
After fierce fever, conscious life again,
Too tired, too weak, too sad,
By the new light to be or stirred or glad.

From rich sea-islands fringing her green shore,
From broad plantations where swart freemen bend
Bronzed backs in willing labor, from her store
Of golden fruit, from stream, from town, ascend
Life-currents of pure health:
Her aims shall be subserved with boundless wealth.

Yet now how listless and how still she lies,
Like some half-savage, dusky Indian queen,
Rocked in her hammock ’neath her native skies,
With the pathetic, passive, broken mien
Of one who, sorely proved,
Great-souled, hath suffered much and much hath loved!

But look! along the wide-branched, dewy glade
Glimmers the dawn: the light palmetto trees
And cypresses reissue from the shade,
And she hath wakened. Through clear air she sees
The pledge, the brightening ray,
And leaps from dreams to hail the coming day.

‘The South’ by Emma Lazarus

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 ‘Clouvre Tulip’ pattern  jug by  Clarice Cliff (c.1930)

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“I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace, and next to a hyacinth look like a wholesome, freshly tubbed young girl beside a stout lady whose every movement weighs down the air with patchouli. Their faint, delicate scent is refinement itself; and is there anything in the world more charming than the sprightly way they hold up their little faces to the sun. I have heard them called bold and flaunting, but to me they seem modest grace itself, only always on the alert to enjoy life as much as they can and not be afraid of looking the sun or anything else above them in the face.”

From ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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‘The Tulip Pickers’ by Harold Harvey (1874-1941)

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A tulip, just opened, had offered to hold
A butterfly, gaudy and gay;
And, rocked in a cradle of crimson and gold,
The careless young slumberer lay.

For the butterfly slept, as such thoughtless ones will,
At ease, and reclining on flowers,
If ever they study, ’t is how they may kill
The best of their mid-summer hours.

And the butterfly dreamed, as is often the case
With indolent lovers of change,
Who, keeping the body at ease in its place,
Give fancy permission to range.

He dreamed that he saw, what he could but despise,
The swarm from a neighbouring hive;
Which, having come out for their winter supplies,
Had made the whole garden alive.

He looked with disgust, as the proud often do,
On the diligent movements of those,
Who, keeping both present and future in view,
Improve every hour as it goes.

As the brisk little alchymists passed to and fro,
With anger the butterfly swelled;
And called them mechanics – a rabble too low
To come near the station he held.

‘Away from my presence!’ said he, in his sleep,
‘Ye humbled plebeians! nor dare
Come here with your colorless winglets to sweep
The king of this brilliant parterre!’

He thought, at these words, that together they flew,
And, facing about, made a stand;
And then, to a terrible army they grew,
And fenced him on every hand.

Like hosts of huge giants, his numberless foes
Seemed spreading to measureless size:
Their wings with a mighty expansion arose,
And stretched like a veil o’er the skies.

Their eyes seemed like little volcanoes, for fire,—
Their hum, to a cannon-peal grown,—
Farina to bullets was rolled in their ire,
And, he thought, hurled at him and his throne.

He tried to cry quarter! his voice would not sound,
His head ached – his throne reeled and fell;
His enemy cheered, as he came to the ground,
And cried, ‘King Papilio, farewell!’

His fall chased the vision – the sleeper awoke,
The wonderful dream to expound;
The lightning’s bright flash from the thunder-cloud broke,
And hail-stones were rattling around.

He’d slumbered so long, that now, over his head,
The tempest’s artillery rolled;
The tulip was shattered – the whirl-blast had fled,
And borne off its crimson and gold.

’T is said, for the fall and the pelting, combined
With suppressed ebullitions of pride,
This vain son of summer no balsam could find,
But he crept under covert and died.

The Butterfly’s Dream by Hannah F Gould’

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“Have you ever seen the “Tulips, I thought, staring at the jumble of letters before me. Had the ancient Greeks known them under a different name, if they’d had tulips at all? The letter psi, in Greek, is shaped like a tulip. All of a sudden, in the dense alphabet forest of the page, little black tulips began to pop up in a quick, random pattern like falling raindrops.”

From ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

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Tulips by Marie Laurencin (1885 – 1956)

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The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

‘Tulips’ by Sylvia Plath

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Embroidery by May Morris (c 1890)

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“The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, explode slowly, the petals thrown like shards.”

From ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

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8 thoughts on “A Seasonal Collection: Tulips

  1. Beautiful collection Jane – I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the Sylvia Plath poem, and also seeing the lovely Marie Laurencin image. I’ve only just discovered her work and I love it. Thanks for sharing these with us.

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  2. Another lovely collection, Jane. Thanks for sharing these excerpts and images. I have a copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden tucked away somewhere – maybe I should dig it out as it sounds perfect for this time of year.

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  3. I love tulips but never knew there were so many literary and artistic references to them. I really like the Clarice Cliff jug and the Harold Harvey painting. Also the Alexandre Dumas quote reminds me I really want to read The Black Tulip 🙂

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