Friday, 9 July 2010

Daisy, daisy: Jon Silkin and a floral tradition

This year is the eightieth anniversary of the birth of the poet Jon Silkin. These sunny summer spells when we sometimes find ourselves sprawled across a lawn - studying the ground-level flora a little more closely than usual and from some unfamiliar angles - never fail to remind me of his work. One of my favourite poems of his concerns a flower that blooms down there at lawn level and at this time, 'A Daisy'.

Despite this small and common flower being little valued - and when they crop up in the more carefully-tended lawns, enthusiastically eradicated - I predict you'll never look at them in the same way after reading Silkin's precise and yet uncanny description.

Uncanny partly because of the precision. He's studied them minutely; he's considered them meticulously. These familiar, everyday flowers are re-presented to us new and strange. (Observant and long-standing readers with good memories may remember this poem being posted around about this time last year. But, hey, it's a favourite - I may put it up this time every year.)
A Daisy

Look unoriginal
Being numerous. They ask for attention
With that gradated yellow swelling
Of oily stamens. Petals focus them:
The eye-lashes grow wide.
Why should not one bring these to a funeral?
And at night, like children,
Without anxiety, their consciousness
Shut with white petals;

Blithe, individual.

The unwearying, small sunflower
Fills the grass
With versions of one eye.
A strength in the full look
Candid, solid, glad.
Domestic as milk.

In multitudes, wait,
Each, to be looked at, spoken to.
They do not wither;
Their going, a pressure
Of elate sympathy
Released from you.
Rich up to the last interval
With minute tubes of oil, pollen;
Utterly without scent, for the eye,
For the eye, simply. For the mind
And its invisible organ,
That feeling thing.

Silkin's imagery seems wonderfully fresh to me. And yet, he was working within - and echoing - what we might describe without exaggeration as a tradition of daisy poetry. It may seem unlikely that such an unconsidered, everyday flower - weed, even - should support its own poetic tradition but it does. As literary environmentalist Bobby Ward wrote in his 'A Contemplation of Flowers' (a book I've recently discovered and something of a treasury):
After the rose and the lily, the daisy is probably the flower most often mentioned by poets. Chaucer was passionate for it, Shakespeare included daisies in the drowning Ophelia's 'fantastic garland' of flowers and Wordsworth wrote at least three poems to it. Robert Burns, Ben Jonson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Clare, and countless others referred to this simple but adored flower.
From early on the daisy had dual uses as an oracle and a herb. It became popular for telling prophesies because its composite form, or collection of numerous florets comprising the flower head, made the petals easy to pluck. Goethe supposedly gave Marguerite [incidentally, a French word for daisy] a daisy-like flower to determine Faust's love for her as she recited the now popular chant, 'He loves me. He loves me not.' Further, because the flower head looks much like an eye, herbalists using the ancient Doctrine of Signatures thought daisies could cure bloodshot eyes and various other eye problems.

So the daisy was being written about when the first recognisable English was being written. The 'passionate' fan, Chaucer, gave us an etymology:
That men by reason will it calle may
The daisie or elles the eye of day

Of Ward's other examples, Wordsworth and his 'To the Daisy' interests me as it seems so consciously to embed itself in this floral tradition. And it ends by bequeathing the flower to future poets. Its penultimate verse also appeals mystically, even magically, to what Silkin describes as 'that feeling thing':
When, smitten by the morning ray,
I see thee rise alert and gay,
Then, chearful Flower! my spirits play
With kindred motion:
At dusk, I've seldom mark'd thee press
The ground, as if in thankfulness,
Without some feeling, more or less,
Of true devotion.

And all day long I number yet,
All seasons through, another debt,
Which I wherever thou art met,
To thee am owing;
An instinct call it, a blind sense;
A happy, genial influence,
Coming one knows not how nor whence,
Nor whither going.

Child of the Year! that round dost run
Thy course, bold lover of the sun,
And chearful when the day's begun
As morning Leveret,
Thou long the Poet's praise shalt gain;
Thou wilt be more belov'd by men
In times to come; thou not in vain
Art Nature's Favorite.

It's a shame that Silkin - writing in 1965, so well before Ward wrote his book - wasn't included in 'A Contemplation Upon Flowers'. But then Ward's taste is traditional. Which also presumably accounts for Williams Carlos Williams' exclusion. He was an American admirer of Pound and his own daisy poem provides, perhaps predictably, a wilder, more expansive context for our little flower. I think it's rather wonderful that he begins it with a nod to Chaucer's 'the eye of day':

The dayseye hugging the earth
in August, ha! Spring is
gone down in purple,
weeds stand high in the corn,
the rainbeaten furrow
is clotted with sorrel
and crabgrass, the
branch is black under
the heavy mass of the leaves--
The sun is upon a
slender green stem
ribbed lengthwise.
He lies on his back--
it is a woman also--
he regards his former
majesty and
round the yellow center,
split and creviced and done into
minute flowerheads, he sends out
his twenty rays-- a little
and the wind is among them
to grow cool there!

One turns the thing over
in his hand and looks
at it from the rear: brownedged,
green and pointed scales
armor his yellow.

But turn and turn,
the crisp petals remain
brief, translucent, greenfastened,
barely touching at the edges:
blades of limpid seashell. 

'Turn and turn/the crisp petals remain'. Perhaps more so than he knew.


worm said...

wow, so much great stuff here!

The thing that I find most amazing about flowers is that for all the ways that we find them beautiful, their colours shapes and scents are not aimed at us at all; but at the insects who see and smell them totally differently. Their beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder

Brit said...

I'd love to contribute something here but unfortunately I suffer from flower-blindness. I can walk into a room and literally not notice them. I'm always staggered when I discover that people pay hundreds of pounds for bunches of the things.

Sophie King said...

The other day my daughter brought a couple of friends home from school. They are in many ways typical ten year old girls - desperate to grow up, keen on Lady GaGa songs, deeply involved with their Nintendo DS consoles and so forth. After the usual moaning about school they cast off their uniforms and went to play in the park before supper. Some time later they came back completely garlanded with daisy chains. They looked so sweet and adorably child-like I could have wept. Daisy chains are the reason daisies exist.

malty said...

Costs an absolute fortune, eradicating daisies from lawns, they eventually return, sort of prodigal flowers, purple clover in a lawn is fine, helps feed the grass, but daisies! At this time of year the honeysuckle is in mid glory, late evening the fragrance is overwhelming. Our pond is surrounded with red and orange candelabra primula, great swathes of them, wonderfull sight with a backdrop of flags and gunnera.
'Tis a pity the wind's howling again.

Sophie King said...

Without wishing in any way to sound genderist, Malty, what is it with men and lawns? My husband is similarly down on daisies.

malty said...

Lawn mowing Sophie, is far cheaper than the psychiatrist's couch, aggression suppressor par excellence, if only they made one that looked like Julia Roberts.

Gaw said...

Worm: I thought the insects were only there to pollinate the flowers so they can continue to look nice for us?

Brit: You're like my wife. I'll have been admiring a bloom for a few days outside our back door stopping to look every time I pass. But when I mention how lovely it's looking she won't know what I'm talking about, not having noticed it at all. Not sure how that works.

Sophie: That's a wonderful, heartening story. I have lovely memories of watching the girls make daisy chains on the meadow at primary school.

Malty: Lord knows why you'd want to get rid of daisies. But the fragrance of flowers is a wonderful thing. Intoxicating. But we're probably past the peak - last month we had the aromas of jasmine, honeysuckle, orange blossom, lavendar, roses and stocks to enjoy.

malty said...

Daisies grow at the base of car wash walls, even in Bristol. DH Lawrence used to have a thing about 'em, daisies that is, not car wash.