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Narcissus



Soon these bright trumpet-like blooms will be making a showing in the landscape. The shoots are already appearing in the north, on the hillside next to Freswick Castle, I am told.  A promise of Spring.


Here in Edinburgh they’ve been making an appearance at Sainsbury’s already.  For a burst of brightness, £1 seems very little to pay to help combat these dreich and windy February days.  I splashed out and bought two bunches.  Hitting the warmth of the interior space, they’ve already gone from tightly closed buds to full bright blooms.  Again, a nice counter colour to the heavy greyness that keeps sweeping across the Edinburgh city-scape.


Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of William, the poet, wrote in her journal about daffodils.

Her account of a walk taken on the shores of Ullswater on the 15th April 1802 reflects a conversation she must have had with her brother, William:

& at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of [daffodils] along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake…'


This is the background to Wordsworth’s poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, written in 1804 and first published in 1807. Its words reflect the language used by Dorothy in this journal entry: the dancing and laughing daffodils are present in both.


It’s nice to think about daffodils right now - and their persistence in pushing up through the earth in the wind, rain and cold, to eventually make an appearance.  They are certainly a hardy flower if I think how they get blown and tossed about by North Sea wind.


The other name for daffodil is narcissus.  I only just fully realised this.  It belongs to the amaryllis family.


Long celebrated in art and literature, narcissi are associated with a number of themes in different cultures, ranging from death to good fortune, and as symbols of spring.  Narcissi flowers are also seen to represent creativity, inspiration, awareness and inner reflection, forgiveness, and vitality.


Most of us have heard reference to Narcissus in the context of the classic Greek tale, where a young man falls so in love with his reflection it leads to his death.  The story has different interpretations - of unrequited love, and self-obsession - and the tragic result of these things. This is where the term ‘narcissism’ comes from - a word which is thrown around a lot these days in light of our selfie, me-directed culture.


The story of Narcissus was particularly appealing to artists according to the Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti who claimed that: "the inventor of painting ... was Narcissus ... What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool?"



This wonderful painting by Caravaggio is of an adolescent gazing at his own distorted reflection. It conveys an air of brooding melancholy: the figure of Narcissus is locked in a circle with his reflection, surrounded by darkness, so that the only reality is inside this self-regarding loop.


While the Greek myth has a somewhat downbeat interpretation, the Roman version is a bit lighter:  Ovid ends his treatment of the myth of Narcissus on a note of redemption. The Naiads cannot find his body. Where Narcissus once lay, they find “a flower, its yellow centre circled by white petals.” Known as a narcissus or daffodil, the flower blooms in spring, often around Easter, and is associated with rebirth or resurrection. Could this suggest that even those of us stuck in stasis are capable of transformation and change?


For some reason it brings to mind the passage in 1 Corinthians 13:11 - in the context of what is classically known as the love passage:

'When I was a child,

I talked like a child,

I thought like a child,

I reasoned like a child.

When I became a man,

I put the ways of childhood behind me.

For now we see only a reflection

as in a mirror;

then we shall see

face to face.

Now I know in part;

then I shall know fully,

even as I am fully known.'


and the passage in Matthew:

‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’


I think about the current months when the light is dim and the days are cold and how that can lead to a sort of rumination and introspection.  Cabin fever and anxiety can fill our hearts. But just as the environment, weather and mood changes with the onset of Spring, at some point we can move out of our introspection and direct it outwards, like the trumpeting daffodils.


‘For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils….’


Narcissus' reflection is only available to his own gaze, whereas Narcissus-as-a-flower can only receive the gaze of another person.


As I write, another downpour of rain sweeps across my view, bringing with it heavy clouds and low light. I’m glad I have my £1 bunches of daffodils.


---


I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

BY WILLIAM WORDSWORTH


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;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.


Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.


The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:


For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

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