Literary Lavender

Posted on May 12, 2011 by Lavender World

This is
simply the first of what I hope will be many selection of quotations from writers – any writers – who mention Lavender, together with my brief comments on each.

Please, feel free to bring your own quotations to this: it is not by any means a definitive selection.

Such a selection must start with these words from deaf and blind Helen Keller, who once observed that people were surprised that she could enjoy nature.


1           It is really they who are blind, for they have no idea how fair the flower is to the touch, nor do they appreciate its fragrance, which is the soul of the flower.”


Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume 1984 gives another explanation of why it is that we love garden scents so much and with such poignancy:


2           with immediacy and ntensity, smell activates the memory, allowing our minds to travel freely in time.”


John Seymour (an English naturalist born in 1914) is sensible in reminding us that not quite everything in the garden is lovely – indeed, that so often a garden’s beauty consists
of enclosing and affecting the full range of our senses:

3              How
miraculous that growing on my own little plot of land are plants that can turn the dead soil into a hundred flavours as different as horseradish and thyme, smells ranging from stinkhorn to


This letter, written on 14 January 1801 from novelist Jane Austen in Steventon, to her elder sister Cassandra at Godmersham: shows plainly how Lavender Water was – at one and the
same time – something quite ordinary, and yet far enough out-of the-ordinary to be an occasional treat, perhaps in the way we would regard expensive ice-cream, savour or a malt Whisky as
opposed to a blended Scotch.

4        &bbsp;     Martha left you her best Love; she will write to you herself in a short time;
but trusting to my memory rather than her own, she has nevertheless desired me to ask you to purchase for her two bottles of Steele’s Lavender Water when you are in Town.”


Almost 20 years later John Keats wrote a long poem (look at the stanza numbers) called The Eve of St Agnes which describes the difficulties faced by a young couple whose families
are deadly foes to each other. The legend is that a young girl might hope to see a vision of her loved one on the night of St Agnes’ Eve. Porphyro has made his way to
Madeline’s bedchamber, with the connivance of an elderly, sympathetic maid-servant. She is rather like the Nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
– and she too has provided all the props of food, drink and seductive scents. There he finds his girl…



still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,

In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,

While he from forth the closet brought a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;    

With jellies soother than the creamy curd,

And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;

Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d

From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,

From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.



These delicates he heap’d with glowing hand

On golden dishes and in baskets bright

Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand

In the retired quiet of the night,

Filling the chilly room with perfume light –

“And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!

“Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:

“Open thine eyes, for meek St. Agnes’ sake…

“Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache.”


John Clare, writing at about the same time, describes here a scene less obviously intensely passionate, a scene of apparently ordinary herb-gathering from the herb-garden of a fairly ordinary
village house:


6      &bbsp;   …                     where they yet  grow wild;

With marjoram knots, sweet-brier, and ribbon-grass, 

And lavender, the choice of ev’ry lass,

And sprigs of lad’s-love—all familiar names,

Which every garden through the village claims.

These the maid gathers with a coy delight,

And ties them up, in readiness for night…


But look again at those two herbs which the maid gathers with most enthusiasm. The maid is gathering lavender for the household pillows so that everyone sleeps well – and
so that everyone sleeps through her seduction of the boy for whom she also gathers lad’s-love (Southernwood).


I hope you have enjoyed these: there are more to come…

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