“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
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.)
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.
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.