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The Fate of Flowers, A Centenary

Covering the years, 1922-2022

Henri Matisse, Flowers in front of a Window (1922). Oil painted on canvas, c. 82 x 66 cm. Private collection


‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’

—Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed’ und leer das Meer.

—T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land


[…] I love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God in heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying theres no God I wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why dont they go and create something I often asked him atheists or whatever they call themselves go and wash the cobbles off themselves first then they go howling for the priest and they dying and why and why because theyre afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience ah yes I know them well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they dont know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was the one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things […]

—James Joyce, Ulysses


About this time a firm of merchants having dealings with the East put on the market little paper flowers which opened on touching water. As it was the custom also to use finger-bowls at the end of dinner, the new discovery was found of excellent service. In these sheltered lakes the little coloured flowers swam and slid; surmounted smooth slippery waves, and sometimes foundered and lay like pebbles on the glass floor. Their fortunes were watched by eyes intent and lovely. It is surely a great discovery that leads to the union or hearts and foundations of homes. The paper flowers did no less.

It must not be thought, though, that they ousted the flowers of nature. Roses, lilies, carnations in particular, looked over the rims of vases and surveyed the bright lives and swift dooms of their artificial relations. Mr Stuart Ormond made this very observation; and charming it was thought; and Kitty Craster married him on the strength of it six months later. But real flowers can never be dispensed with. If they could, human life would be a different affair altogether. For flowers fade; chrysanthemums are the worst; perfect over night; yellow and jaded next morning—not fit to be seen. On the whole, though the price is sinful, carnations are the best;—it’s a question, however, whether it’s wise to have them wired. Some shops advise it. Certainly it’s the only way to keep them at a dance; but whether it is necessary at dinner parties, unless the rooms are very hot, remains in dispute. Old Mrs Temple used to recommend an ivy leaf—just one—dropped in the bowl. She said it kept the water pure for days and days. But there is some reason to think that old Mrs Temple was mistaken.

—Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room

David Jones, The Garden Enclosed (1924). Oil painted on wood, 356 x 298 mm. Tate collection, London. Copyright The Estate of David Jones

Editions quoted

T.S. Eliot, The Poems of T.S. Eliot. Volume one, collected and uncollected poems. Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. London: Faber & Faber, 2015.

James Joyce, Ulysses. The corrected text edited by Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior. New York: Random House, 1986.

Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room. Edited with notes by Kate Flint and preface by Frank Kermode. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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