Fragrance in Literature 11-E J Banfield




Edmund James Banfield(4 September 1852 – 2 June 1923) was and Englishman who came with his father to Australia as a boy. He became a journalist and worked various newspapers, in three eastern provinces until he went to North Queensland where he worked vigorously for 15 years during which he took only one break to visit England where he met his wife-to-be, Bertha Golding. She returned to Australia with him and they were married in Townsville.
In 1897 he resigned from his work as a journalist, as we was suffering from what had been diagnosed as tuberculosis. He determined to live out his remaining days on a beautiful island off the New Queensland Coast, Dunk Island, he had visited on an earlier occasion. Along with his wife he lived a solitary life devoted to studying the beauty of the simple world around him. He regained his health and lived there until his death in 1923. His writings are filled with a refined consciousness of the beauty surrounding him.

Those who wish to explore more about E J Banfield may like to visit these links:
Edmund Banfield's Paradise/Dunk Island
Wikipedia article on E J Banfield
Project Gutenberg's etexts of his works
Project Gutenberg Australias page on Edmund James Banfield

My Tropic Isle, by E J Banfield

If you would read the months off-hand by the flowering of trees and
shrubs and the coming and going of birds; if the inhalation of scents is
to convey photographic details of scenes whence they originate; if you
would explore miles of sunless jungle by ways unstable as water; if you
would have the sites of camps of past generations of blacks reveal the
arts and occupations of the race, its dietary scale and the pastimes of
its children; if you desire to have exact first-hand knowledge, to revel
in the rich delights of new experiences, your scope must be limited.


Apart from the tricks which memory plays upon the solitary individual,
inviting him by scents and sounds to scenes of the past, I find that the
moist unadulterated atmosphere is a most compliant medium for the
transmission of certain sorts of sound waves. The actual surface of the
sea--differing from its resonant bulk--seems to sap up, rather than
convey sounds, though on given planes above its level sounds travel
unimpeded for remarkable distances.

A mango might be designated the unspeakable eatable, for who is qualified
to determine the evanescent savours and flavours which a prime specimen
of the superb fruit so generously yields? Take of a pear all that is
mellow, of a peach all that is luscious, of a strawberry all that is
fragrant, of a plum all that is kindly, of an apricot all its aroma, of
cream all its smoothness. Commingle with musk and honey, coriander and
aniseed, smother with the scent of musk roses, blend with cider, and the
mixture may convey a dim sense of some of the delectable qualities of one
kind of mango. To do justice to the produce of the very next tree another
list of triumphant excellences might be necessary. A first-class mango is
compact of so many sensations to the palate, its theme embraces such rare
and delicate surprises, that the true artist in fruit-flavours is fain to
indulge in paraphrase and paradox when he attempts to record its virtues
and--yes, its vanities.


September is the season of scents. Partly as a result of the dryness of
the month, the mango trees continue to bloom as though each had
determined (for the time being) to abandon all notion of utility and to
devote itself solely to the keeping up of appearances. Appearances
are well worth maintaining, for however trivial from a florist's point
of view the flower of the mango in detail, yet when for six weeks on end
the trees present uniform masses of buff and pink, varied with shades
of grey and pale green, and with the glister of wine-tinted, ribbon-like
leaves, and the air is alert with rich and spicy odour, there is ample
apology ever ready for the season and the direct results thereof. The
trees are manifestly over-exerting themselves, in a witless competition
with others which may never boast of painted, scented fruit. There is
not a sufficient audience of aesthetics to tolerate the change of which
the mango seems ambitious.


The limes have flowered and scattered their petals; the pomeloes (the
forbidden fruit) display posies of the purest white and of the richest
odour, an odour which in its depth and drowsy essence epitomises the
luxurious indolence of the tropics; the lemons and oranges are adding to
the swectness and whiteness, and yet the sum of the scent of all these
trees of art and cultivation is poor and insipid compared with the results
of two or three indigenous plants that seem to shrink from flaunting their
graces while casting sweetness on the desolate air.

Just now, in some situations, the old gold orchid rivals the mango in
showiness and fragrance; the pencil orchid dangles white aigrettes from
the trunks and branches of hundreds of trees, saturating the air with a
subtle essence as of almonds and honey; and the hoya hangs festoons from
rocks and trees in such lavish disregard of space and the breathings of
less virile vegetation, that the sensual scent borders on the excessive.
On the hill-tops, among rocks gigantic of mould and fantastic of shape,
a less known orchid with inconspicuous flowers yields a perfume
reminiscent of the violet; the shady places on the flats are showy with
giant crinum lilies.


The most elemental of all incenses--that which arises from warm, dry soil
sprinkled by a sudden shower--is undoubtedly invigorating. The spirituous
scent of melaleuca-trees burdens the air, not as an exhalation but as an
arrogant physical part of the Isle, while a wattle (ACACIA CUNNINGHAMI)
shyly proclaims its flowering by a scent as intangible and fleeting as a
phantom.


"The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense." Not so in
respect of the organ of smell. The more educated, the more practised nose
detects the subtler odour and is the more offended by grossness. And upon
what flower has been bestowed the most captivating of perfumes? Not the
rose, or the violet, or the hyacinth, or any of the lilies or stephanotis
or boronia. The land of forbidding smells produces it; it is known to
Europeans as the Chinese magnolia. Quaint and as if carved skilfully in
ivory, after the manner of, the inhabitants of its countrymen, the petals
tumble apart at the touch, while fragrance issues not in whiffs but in
sallies, saturating the atmosphere with the bouquet of rare old port
commingled with the aroma of ripe pears and the scent of musk roses.

Oh, great and glorious and mighty sun! Oh, commanding, majestical sun!
Superfine invigorator; bold illuminator of the dim spaces of the brain;
originator of the glow! which distils its rarest attars! Am I not thy
true, thy joyful knight? Hast thou not touched my toughened, unflinching
shoulders with the flat of thy burnished sword? Do I not behold its
jewelled hilt flashing with pearls and precious stones as thou sheathest
it for the night among the purple Western hills? Do I not hail its golden
gleams among the fair-barked trees what time each scented morn I milk
my skittish goats?

Gaudy insects, intoxicated and sensuous, have feasted and flirted
throughout the hours of daylight, and certain prim moths, sonorous of
flight, find subtly scented blossoms keeping open house for them the
livelong night.

Shall not I, too, glory in the superb season, and its scented
tranquillity? Even though but casual glances are bestowed on the dainty
settings of the pages on which Nature illustrates her brief but brilliant
histories, understanding little, if aught, of her deeper mysteries, but
thankful for the frankness and unaffectedness of their presentation--shall
not I find abundance of sumptuous colour and grace of form for my
enjoyment, and for my pondering texts without number?

With this off my mind, let me return to the tenement sponges, which may
be likened to so many independent and flourishing manufactories of ozone.
Apart from the odour of brine common to every ocean and the scents of the
algae and some of the flowering plants of the sea, which are similar all
over the world, a coral reef has a strong and specific effluence.

Among such scenes do I commune with the genius of the
Isle, and saturate myself with that restful yet exhilarating principle
which only the individual who has mastered the art of living the
unartificial life perceives. When strained of body and seared of mind,
did not the Isle, lovely in lonesomeness, perfumed, sweet in health,
irresistible in mood, console and soothe as naught else could? Shall I
not, therefore, do homage to its profuse and gracious charms and exercise
the rights and privileges of protector?

There are silences which tinkle or buzz in the ears, causing them to ache
with stress and strain; silences dull and sad as a wad of wool; silences
as searching as the odour of musk--as soothing as the perfume of violets.
The crisp silence of the seashore when absolute calm prevails is as
different from the strained, sodden, padded silence of the jungle as the
savour of olives from the raw insipidity of white of egg, for the
cumbersome mantle of leafage is the surest stifler of noise, the truest
cherisher of silence.


How may one hope to externalise with astringent ink the aesthetic
sensation of the assimilation of gusts of perfume?

Month after month of warm days and plenteous rain during the early part
of 1909 produced an effect in the acacias which cannot be too thankfully
recorded. The blooming season extended from March 29th to July 17th,
beginning with ACACIA CUNNINHHAMI and ending with the third flush of A.
AULACOCARPA. During a third of the year whiffs of the delicious perfume
of the wattle were never absent, for two flushes of A. FLAVESCENS filled
in the brief intervals between those of AULACOCARPA. This latter, the
commonest of the species on the island, produces its flowers in long
spikes in the axils of the leaves on the minor branches, weighting such
branches with semi-pendulous plumes laden with haunting perfume. The
fragrance of the bounteous, sacrificial blooms saturates miles of air,
while their refuse tricks out the webs of spiders great and small with
fictitious favours, and carpets the earth with inconstant gold.

How entrancing these night-tinted sights and soft sounds! While I loll
and peer and listen I am alert and still, for the primitive passions of
the universe are shyly exercised. To be sensitive to them all the
faculties must be acutely strained. With this lisping, coaxing,
companionable sea the serene and sparkling sky, the glow beyond the
worlds, the listening isles--demure and dim--the air moist, pacific and
fragrant--what concern of mine if the smoky messenger from the stuffy town
never comes? This is the quintessence of life. I am alive at last. Such
keen tingling, thrilling perceptions were never mine before. Now do I
realise the magnificent, the prodigious fact of being. Mine not only a
part in the homely world, but a fellowship with the glorious firmament.

Lesser islands to the south are merely cloud-capped. This lower level with
blurred and misty edges may not be further compressed, but the air is
warm, thick, sticky, and so saturated with vegetable odours that even the
salt of the sea has lost its savour.