Alfred Lord Tennyson
Many, many welcomes,
Ever as of old time,
Coming in the cold time,
Prophet of the gay time,
Prophet of the May time,
Prophet of the roses,
Many, many welcomes,
The days are getting longer and the afternoons are getting brighter, but winter retains a hold on the northern hemisphere with incredible reports this week of snow and sub-zero conditions in places as diverse as Texas and southern Greece. South of Watford we’ve had blasts of arctic temperatures like most of the UK, and flurries of snow, but the prevailing winter conditions are usually rain, wind, and gloom.
But the snowdrops are out. Little clumps of white flowers have appeared in the most unlikely of places. Walking during lockdown is opportunity to find them making their presence felt. They’re not native to the UK and might have been brought here by the Romans in about AD 600, maybe to brighten the winter gloom. It’s their fearless reappearance each year at a time of seasonal hardship that appeals to our appreciation of their brave display in the face of adversity.
The flower acquired a further significance in the the 19th century when its appearance on the battlefields of the Crimean War (1853-1856) during April (spring coming a little later in that part of the world) caught the imagination of soldiers, who often included the tiny flowers and their bulbs in their letters home; similarly, many years later in the First World War, the poppies appearing on the battlefields of Flanders also took on an iconic significance. One of Tennyson’s more well known poems, The Charge of The Light Brigade, described that event during the Crimean War in 1854, and I’m inclined to think that The Snowdrop predates that, although I don’t know for certain. It’s just that he often addressed death and mortality in a thoughtful and sensitive manner (Queen Victoria was said the be comforted by his verse after the death of Prince Albert) and if he’d been aware of the connection with the Crimea it’s likely he would have referenced it.
The snowdrop as the subject of verse is not unique to Tennyson, and there other eminent poets of that era to be struck by its symbolic emergence at the beginning of the year: writing several years before Tennyson, William Wordsworth, for example, didn’t just limit his attention to daffodils.
Lone flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eyed May
Shall soon behold this border thickly set
With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing
On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;
Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!
As he says, the snowdrops were there first, and he’ll remember them later after they’ve been replaced by smothering banks of jonquils (daffodils). Coming after Tennyson too, in the 20th Century, Walter de la Mare made similar observations:
Walter de la Mare
Now – now, as low I stooped, thought I,
I will see what this snowdrop is;
So shall I put much argument by,
And solve a lifetime’s mysteries.
A northern wind had frozen the grass;
Its blades were hoar with crystal rime,
Aglint the light-dissecting glass
At beam of morning-prime.
From hidden bulb the flower reared up
Its angled, slender, cold, dark stem,
Whence dangled an inverted cup
For tri-leaved diadem.
Beneath these ice-pure sepals lay
A triplet of green-pencilled snow,
Which in the chill-aired gloom of day
Stirred softly to and fro.
Mind fixed, but else made vacant, I,
Lost to my body, called my soul
To don that frail solemnity,
Its inmost self my goal.
And though in vain – no mortal mind
Across that threshold yet hath fared! –
In this collusion I divined
Some consciousness we shared.
Strange roads – while suns, a myriad, set –
Had led us through infinity;
And where they crossed, there then had met
Not two of us but three.
A curious final stanza, in which he reimagines a Trinity not of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost but as a fusion of a poet, his soul and the snowdrop.
Snowdrops have become an iconic symbol of the approaching spring and the renewal of life and growth, featuring not just in literature but also in art: the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portrait of the goddess of spring, Proserpina (for the Romans, Persephone for the Greeks) has her holding a snowdrop; children’s art and literature frequently features imaginary fairies representing various plants and creatures, with an example her by Cecily Mary Barker. Other notable snowdrop images are to found on those cigarette cards that were widely issued about 100 years ago at the beginning of the 20th century (a clever marketing ploy – keep buying our ciggies until you’ve collected the whole set!)
Lets get back to out into nature, enjoy their spectacle while we can, and anticipate the crocus, the daffodils, the tulips, and the primroses to follow.
Footer image of Snowdrop Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973)