Bluebells and the Nascent Summer

Bluebells after rain - have you ever tasted that experience? In a greening woodland where the floor is a thick carpet of blue is a place to be at this time of year. It's like you've stumbled across some archetype of the nascent summer emerging from Spring. Sometihing which defines a particular moment in the year in all its enchanting sensuousness. And then rain ... clearing to sunshine. At that moment while the wood is still wet, then is the time to step inside and be touched by something that you never quite register as a reproducable experience, that you can never quite define. It has a hint of faerie about it, liminal as if touching another realm through a border that is porous but, still, cannot be crossed. So although this 'other' world is here all about you, a verifiable part of the natural world, it remains 'other'.

That is one way of writing about bluebells. Another is to explore their folklore and nomenclature. Many books still give their botanical name as Endymion non-scriptus which already opens up a treasure house of allusion. Endymion in Greek myth was beloved of the Moon goddess Selene who ensured that he could remain in his state of youthful beauty providing he remained asleep. Keats worked this up into a lengthy poem. Here is his Endymion meeting Selene (called Cynthia):

-yet she had,
Indeed, locks bright enough to make me mad;
And they were simply gordian’d up and braided,
Leaving, in naked comeliness, unshaded, 615
Her pearl round ears, white neck, and orbed brow;
The which were blended in, I know not how,
With such a paradise of lips and eyes,
Blush-tinted cheeks, half smiles, and faintest sighs,
That, when I think thereon, my spirit clings 620
And plays about its fancy, till the stings
Of human neighbourhood envenom all.
Unto what awful power shall I call?
To what high fane?—Ah! see her hovering feet,
More bluely vein’d, more soft, more whitely sweet 625
Than those of sea-born Venus, when she rose
From out her cradle shell. The wind out-blows
Her scarf into a fluttering pavilion;
’Tis blue, and over-spangled with a million
Of little eyes, as though thou wert to shed, 630
Over the darkest, lushest bluebell bed,
Handfuls of daisies. [.....]
She took an airy range,
And then, towards me, like a very maid,
Came blushing, waning, willing, and afraid, 635
And press’d me by the hand: Ah! ’twas too much;
Methought I fainted at the charmed touch

Why were the flowers named after Endymion? They were later reclassified as Hyacinthoides nonscripta, emphasising their place in the Hyacinth family. The nonscripta part of the name alludes to the grief for Hyacinthus from whose blood the hyacinth flower sprung. The markings on a hyacinth resemble the letters IA - IA ('alas') written there by Apollo as a lament but also the initial letters of Hyacinthus in Greek. But bluebells are hyacinths that don't have this inscription. In fact an even earlier name for them was Agraphis nutans ('no graphics' & 'nodding'). So here, again, they are liminal, both nodding a reference to Hyacinthus and not doing so.

But this flower does not grow in Greece. To return to early summer, the Welsh name of the flower - Clychau'r Gôg (Cuckoo Bells) - records the time of year when the first cuckoo is heard in North-western Europe where Bluebells are endemic, Britain being their stronghold. So remember when you walk in a woodland in Britain where the ground is a carpet of blue, there aren't many other places in the world where you can have that special liminal experience. They are as much a part of the Matter of Britain as Arthur a'e gydymdeithon y hela Twrch Trwyth. Tread carefully in the bosky glen for what you might discover.

For more on their distribution and botanical information go to:

1 comment:

Alice Kytler said...

Oh! Bluebells! It's been too long. I know exactly where I was the last time I saw a glorious woodland carpet of them. I was seven years old, in the woods behind a family friend's house. My first and last remembered British Spring. You've struck me with a sudden homesickness.