“We Must Bring Her Forward”

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” ― Thomas Gray

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Today we take a short excursion of thought whereby Gray’s Elegy, Mrs. Elton, and my roses will be connected for the briefest of time.

You see, I can now say ‘my roses’. They are my cherry on the top of what has been a long —and long hoped for—move.

(The WordPress photo challenges are always fun to try and incorporate into a literary theme. This week’s challenge relates to ‘the cherry on the top’ motif; in other words, some extra nicety that makes a good thing even better.)

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The 1959 home we just moved into came with a garden that someone…years ago…once tenderly cared for. Sweet old shrubs and cherry trees; a plethora of apples and dreams of apple pie. This house would have been wonder enough. But the cherry on the top? Two little bedraggled rose bushes. In the words of the beloved garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder, my ‘thoughts are alight’ with them, my heart aglow with a surge of motherly feelings toward my new charges. They shall be given a bath, some nourishment, and a nice pruning. (I will also be adding to their ranks!)

These roses, blooming alone and lovely on neglected bushes for who knows how many years, brought to my mind the well known verse of Thomas Gray, quoted above from Elegy In A Country Churchyard.

Thomas Gray

One thing leads to another. As I can never think of those lines without thinking of Jane Austen’s character Mrs. Elton, there is another, even more subtle ‘cherry on top’ with this post.

We have, in large part, the memorable Mrs. Elton to thank for bringing Thomas Gray’s poetry into modern circulation.

In her novel Emma, Jane Austen created a small masterpiece within a masterpiece in this characterization. Every time Augusta Elton opens her mouth, she relates far more about herself than she intends.

‘Miss Woodhouse, we must exert ourselves and endeavour to do something for her. We must bring her forward. Such talent as hers must not be suffered to remain unknown.—I dare say you have heard those charming lines of the poet,

‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
‘And waste its fragrance on the desert air.’

We must not allow them to be verified in sweet Jane Fairfax.”

The intent of Mrs. Elton, as she addressed these words to Emma—her greatest rival for power in the social arena of Highbury, has been seen by scholars as a pointed insult. A slight taunt, a challenge, as it were, borne along by dulcet tones speaking ‘those charming lines‘. Of course there was nothing charming about Mrs. Elton, and of course Emma, as a cultured young woman of her day, would have been quite familiar with Thomas Gray. By Austen’s day he was considered The Poet of the English. And Emma the novel, is essentially, Austen’s paean to all English-ness.

The fact that Mrs. Elton mis-quoted (did Austen intend butchered?) such a well known, beloved poem of England hands the veiled insult right back to the giver. Jane Austen’s brilliance in characterization extended to even the slightest nuances of conversation.

In reading Jane Austen, there is always deliciousness to be found. Sometimes, though, she gives us that extra little cherry of genius on top.

And my two rosebushes will no longer blush unseen.


 

Scent, Senses, and the Sciential Rose

‘All seasons, and their change; all please alike.’ Milton

The roses of June are now gone.

We’re moving rapidly through July, with all its over-blown, heat saturated splendor. Soon this blog will be checking in with the seasonable Mr. White of Selborne to see what he’s doing with his whortle-berries in late July of 1781.

But that’s for later. Now it is still roses, a book by Diane Ackerman, and a Curious Word courtesy of Charles Lamb (‘sciential’).

The garden, where I took these pictures, is Heirloom Roses, of St. Paul, Oregon.

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Heirloom Gardens is no ordinary rose garden. It’s a wonderful resource for the rose connoisseur. For one thing, space isn’t really an issue. There are acres of roses to be seen in their display gardens. For anyone with a garden of normal proportions, who has ever wanted to see an old rambling species rose take over a pergola, or allow the mighty Kiftsgate to swathe an entire evergreen in its thorny embrace, you know that space is an issue. Few gardens have the room to indulge the passionate rose enthusiast with all the abundance of shape, size and drapery the world of roses can boast.

Rosa moschata, species rose

Rosa moschata, species rose

Thus, it is exciting to see species roses allowed to be all they can be.

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This giant climber is almost identical to the Kiftsgate climber, but its name tag was too obscured to see.

I say that in all sincerity. It really is exciting. ‘Here be fountains’, cascades, waterfalls and mountains of roses. The air is perfumed with a fragrance that the likes of Cleopatra might have worn.

The digital memory of my rose garden tour is now stored on, and perilously afloat, what I call the If and Ineffability of iCloud data storage. Download-able at any moment, and lose-able more often than that.

Just as precariously, the memories of my June rose adventures are now packaged in little quivery bundles of ephemera I house in my neurons. The wafting esters of scent, the tactility of petals, the rustle of sound as I moved my dreamlike tread over freshly mowed lawn; these impressions have been shelved in my mind alongside the enormous database of other neurons of memory.

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Fragrance, though, is the great fixative of memory. Scent fixes memory to an emotion and pins us to that place in time. It is the download button for instant retrieval of data, and an instant rush of accompanying sensations.

What is fixative? It is a term used in the perfume and fragrance industry. Every famous, lingering scent has a fixative. These began as natural substances—often animal derived, such as musky civet oil— that will preserve and stabilize that which is volatile. Fragrance on the skin can be volatile, as the accompanying look in the eye may well be. But the fragrance can be released into the air where it will dissipate quickly unless it is given staying power with a fixative.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman wrote:

‘Nothing is more memorable than a smell… [they] detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.’

Ackerman is called ‘the finest literary interpreter of science and nature’, and for good reason. Her work, A Natural History of the Senses is my go-to book whenever I want scientific answers to questions I never thought of asking, and poetic descriptions I never thought of writing.

Another great thinker, Virginia Woolf, wrote, in her ground-breaking work A Room of One’s Own:

‘We think back through our mothers, if we are women.’

This, in the light of current science and the unfolding mysteries of mitochondrial DNA, is a potential powerhouse of possibility. ‘A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth…’

For surely there is a dimensional quality to scent and fragrance that goes far beyond the physical aspects of touch or sight. There is so much in the physics and neuroscience of smell that scientists still don’t understand. It is likely that our mothers, and all the mothers of distant mothers who stretch back through the centuries, loved roses.

Is it possible that our own deep inhalations takes us back through those centuries of memory? Some roses are centuries old. We may not realize the process that is at work every time we take a breath, swill it through our own essence, and exhale it ‘gently altered for having known us‘; but our inner selves remember moments most vividly through the medium of scent.

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Diane Ackerman, not surprisingly, would reference Marcel Proust, ‘that great blazer of scent trails through the wilderness of luxury and memory’, as an example of a writer who captured ‘flights of comprehensive remembrance’ based on the power of a chance encounter with a smell.

Ackerman writes evocatively of the Song of Songs–The Song of Solomon–‘the most scent-drenched poem of all time’.

She relates her adventures tagging Monarch butterflies, studying Indonesian flying foxes in Texas, and interviewing that brilliant prodigy of noses, Sophia Grojsman— “For a world-class nose on a deadline she seems relaxed and alert”.

She takes us on an imaginary tour to the boudoir of an ancient Egyptian beauty, mixing and applying her fragrant unguents in preparation for a dinner party.

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And of course she writes about roses. In all of this she gives forth her observations and understanding in the most lyrical prose. It’s a beautiful book to read, whether you are strolling a rose garden with a parasol or striding about the Giza plateau in a pith helmet.

Since the time worn cliché has become more of dictum that resembles ‘call your Mother’.… We shall, instead, linger in our perambulations and breathe deeply of Milton’s roseate dews.

But go ahead and call your mother.

‘For we think back through our mothers if we are women’….said Virginia.

(began here, and to be continued)

 

Truth in Exhalation

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Fragrance doesn’t lie.

Whether or not we are conscious of it, perfumes of one sort or another affect us on every level.

Perhaps you never think of perfume. You only think of bacon. It is the oily, sweet effluvium of bacon on the grill that bespeaks rhapsody to your heart. Perhaps it is the rose.

We associate that which is fragrant with pleasantness, and that of effluvia with unpleasantness. Your fragrance may be my effluvia. Even the dictionary asserts this is so.

Fragrance is essence and what is essence but truth?

Shakespeare told us so in Sonnet 54, and used the rose as his fulcrum; fragrance is truth, fragrance is the beauty behind the rose. When beauty fades as even the rose must, fragrance remains…“my verse distills your truth.”

In this context, then, truth is often effluvia.

Roses without scent are unloved, un-wooed… “they die to themselves.”

old roses

That will not be our fate. All humans have an essence. We hear, smell, savor the rhythmic breathings of our loved ones…Each person’s scent is as distinctive as their fingerprint.

It is not the red rose that lingers in memory, but the fragrant one. It is scent that evokes memory and emotion. It is the oily, pungent power of scent that can drop us to our knees. Sometimes those memories will never die a ‘sweet death’. But they are truth. And still we inhale. For that is truth, too. We need to breathe. We need to remember.

What truth, what “sweet death” have we died for someone else? When we leave a room, when we end a phone call, when we shuffle off the mortal coil? Surely not the death of the Shakespeare’s ‘cankered rose’, for it leaves no olfactory trace; just a faint memory of dyed petals.

As to quality, shall we ask Napoleon?

“Don’t bathe”, wrote Napoleon to Josephine. Why? He wanted to enjoy her natural aromas. Who of us would think of preparing for a romantic encounter by not bathing for two weeks? Yet that is what Napoleon asked of Josephine. Culture, content, nurture—those things shape our views of exhalations. Odors emitted are opportunities, information and invitation. What Napoleon wanted was everything about Josephine. Nothing held back. He wanted her truth in exhalations.

Perhaps Josephine, with her passionate love for roses, exuded a sort of Chanel no. 5.

Can we think of Chanel no. 5 without thinking of Marilyn Monroe? Oh, what a curious, mighty example is she…in all her potent frailty. Fragrance as something we exude; an essence of personality that lingers long behind us. What Marilyn Monroe flippantly said she wore to bed—Chanel no. 5—has become as powerful an image of her as the diamonds she flaunted. No sparkle, no roundness of curve…just warm gusts of essence. We may have caught a whiff of this heady perfume as it wafted behind in the wake left by a Disgusted Rich Lady but for those who breathed it when exuded from Marilyn’s ardent skin? Truth.

Truth and innocence lost; John Milton used both odorous and odoriferous in the same strands of incandescent thought when he wrote Paradise Lost…oh he is fearless in imagery! He takes us on a sumptuous journey, fanned by ‘odiferous wings’ as we smell our way to our own paradise of assumptions.

“What in me is dark, illumin..”

Or, put another way; what oily pungence lurks, distill?

We find truth, when we read and we think and we choose to speak of what we have read and thought about. For we read of ourselves.

Thus we exude. We speak, we write. We affect. We find truth in our exhalations.

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Daily Post.