Fragrance in Literature-Mary Webb

Mary Webb (25 March 1881 – 8 October 1927), was an English romantic novelist and poet of the early 20th century, whose work is set chiefly in the Shropshire countryside and among Shropshire characters and people which she knew. Her novels have been successfully dramatized, most notably the film Gone to Earth in 1950 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They inspired the famous parody Cold Comfort Farm.

For those who wish to explore more about her life and writings they may wish to explore these web sites:
Wikipedia on Mary Webb
Literary Heritage of the West Midlands

Spring of Joy

As the colour-blind slowly learn to distinguish shades of blue and green, so the scent-clogged may explore the almost unknown delight of fragrance; until they can disentangle the ravelled sweetness in the air. We know by the colour of her burden under what friendly roof the bee asked alms this morning--whether she begged in the brown hut of the figwort or the rosy pavilion of the willow-herb. So when the wind comes along secret ways with the laugh of a naughty child who has found a treasure and will not tell of it, we know where he has been by the scents that cling to him like burrs to a truant lad. Here are the sharpness of bilberry leaves, the emanation of moss, the reek of a blue-spired bonfire, the resin of sticky poplar buds, the metheglin of white violets, and somewhere among them lingers the keenness of spray from the home of sea-mews.

The violet has long had such poor, negative virtues as modesty and self-effacement ascribed to her, because she stays in her hidden nook, apparently a very humble and unknown little creature. But from her quiet haunt she sends forth her fragrance like a voice into the world--the expression of a soul so rich that it cannot be contained within her narrow dwelling. She impresses it upon the gale; the wind becomes her henchman and carries it upon his shoulders. Then such as love violets travel up the strengthening sweetness and find this sleeping beauty in her fastness, tearing their hands and healing their hearts. So she finds her worshippers, her lovers.

Fragrance is the voice of inanimate things. The air is full of the cries of leaves and grass, softer than those of the flowers. In the dark night of the cedar there is a different atmosphere from that within the dusk of beeches or the green gloom of April larch woods. Sometimes, in places where there are no flowers, aromas dart upon one like little elves with sharp teeth, from corn and fir-cones, damp soil and toadstools, keen grass and pungent bracken. Even rock sends out a curious redolence in hot weather which unites with dried ling and herbs to form an undercurrent to the mellowness of gorse.

Down by a stream at dusk the water takes up into its freshness the breath of mallow, pennyroyal and willow-herb as they sway in their sleep. In a shower, unsuspected sweets rush out of ambush with a laugh, overpowering and imprisoning us. In the dewy summer dark, clover and night-flowering stock conspire with the campion and the sleepless honeysuckle to invade the drenched garden and to conquer and possess the dreaming house. Often in winter across leagues of snow a mysterious fragrance comes, inexplicable until we remember that snow itself has a faint emanation, and that the essence of pines, of last year's hay and far-off violets can wander across the pure air for long distances, treasured (like wine in a crystal glass) by the frost.

The fragrance of limes, when every honey-dripping tassel has its clinging bee, is like the hail of a friend. The poignancy of it and the deep note of the bees weave themselves into a circumambient peace, within which each tree dwells like Saturn in his rings. It is fainter in the outer precincts, deepening to such a breathless delight as one penetrates to the centre that it is difficult to remember which sense is in touch with the voice of the bees and which with the voice of the tree.

Insects are the artists of fragrance; they have a genius for it; there seems to be some affinity between the tenuity of their being and this most refined of the sense-impressions. Ghostly calls summon them to their banquets. The crane's-bill has a word for the gnat; the helleborine fills her goblet only for the wasp; the yellow iris calls to the honey-fly; the meadow saffron's veined cup is for the bee. Moths call each other by scent; so do bees; and probably the smallest ephemera follow the same law. These calls and answers cross the world continually, like a web of fine threads, most of them too slight for our comprehension.

Nature spreads her sweets for the poor: she gives them rosemary instead of sandal-buds, wild cassia instead of cinnamon, iris roots and ploughman's spikenard for these who cannot buy attar of roses. The nectar of full hives, warm wax, dry leaves, ripening apples--these are her commonplaces. The very beetle climbing a rough willow is redolent of flowers. On the darkest day of the year, with sleet in the air, you can find in the sombre shelter of a yew-tree a pale blossom scented like heliotrope. It is only the wild butterbur, yet its delicacy lifts the wintry day on to the steps of summer. Among the most desolate sandhills you may find in July acres of wax-white pyrola--like lilies of the valley splashed with pink--covering the plains between the lonely ridges of harsh, grey grass. The forlorn sigh of the grass is drowned by the humming of bees over the glistening carpet, and from every flower rises an intense fragrance.

On a certain day in autumn, when the herbs on either side were more pungently sweet because a frost had touched them, when the first winter violet appeared among its fresh leaves, a young thrush, stirred by some fragrance as of spring in the warm day, instinctively began to sing. But he did not know a song! He reasoned with himself doubtfully, tentatively, among the golden columns of the trees that upheld the low, grey sky; but no inspiration came to him; he was unready, as yet, for his true song--sure, unwavering, recklessly glad. There was sadness in the mellow morning, pathos in the low notes, because the trees must feel weights of snow and the thrush taste the bitterness of winter before the young leaves and the ecstatic song could spring up together into the light. On a chestnut bough, already bare, a young blackbird was shouting a stave. He had probably remembered quite suddenly the golden roundelay his father sang when he was only a quick-breathing bundle in the nest. With the touching hopefulness and arrogance of youth he thought he could sing it then and there. So he rushed into self-expression, and produced something faintly resembling the full, round call, but with a very humiliating rasp at the end. Misgiving crept into his soul, but he was determined, he went on; and his sisters, humbly perched upon a lower bough, listened with rapt admiration--for they, poor things, could not sing a note. The same quaint mixture of a laugh and a sigh comes when you hear a starling at his orisons. it is such a funny little hymn, and it trails off so queerly into a kind of--'I wonder whatever I can say next!' But he sings with uplifted head and quick spreadings of his wings; and though he is ludicrous, his earnestness is lovable. His song is not much, but it is his best.

The shadow of a tree upon any house blesses it, weaving with its cool, hypnotic gestures a soothing quiet; but the place, of all human habitations, where it best loves to linger is a village street. There each life is framed in garden and orchard; companies of spirit-shapes go trembling up and down the humble walls and roofs all day from the multitude of surrounding leaves; in the highway the sunshine sleeps by the shadow of an ivied wall--disturbed only once in an hour, and then simply turning in its sleep. If those other shades, the troubles of life, have become too dense and shouldered out the light, so that the sick imagination sees them as crouching beasts of prey, a pilgrimage to such a tranquil place in lilac time may help to set things right again. In that sequestered road, where the whirr of a linnet's flight is startling, before the first workman comes through the dew, you can hardly fail to gather some share of peace. There, where the wet lilacs fling their fragrance from garden to garden like bridges, and the pale images of their massed blossom and heart-shaped leaves lie all along the way, questionings will seem a little unimportant--the shade-strewn road preaches so sweetly the necessity of interspersed dimness and light. By and by a door opens, and a labourer goes whistling down the chequered track that is so like his life. Here, even death loses some of its grimness--its hideousness of association, which is so unnecessary. For the imagination sees the highway of mortal existence where it ends abruptly, penumbrous, flecked with shade from the heart-shaped leaves of the Tree of Life: and the shadow is the sign that we have come at last within the pale of the tree's mysterious whisperings.

However much we may learn of chlorophyl, chromogen, and colour-cells--the pigments of nature that are made from earth and rain, air and sun, somewhere in the dark habitation of the roots and the airy galleries of the leaves--we do not know why the same ingredients should clothe one petal with flame and another with blue. We do not know what impulse sends up the water-lily from the stagnant ooze in glistening white, and lays a mauve mantle over the wistaria that feeds upon corruption; nor why two plants of the same genus in the same conditions should be so differently coloured as are the blue and yellow gentian. Colour, like fragrance, is intimately connected with light; and between the different rays of the spectrum and the colour-cells of plants there is a strange telepathy. These processes, so little explored, seem in their deep secrecy and earthly spirituality more marvellous than the most radiant visions of the mystics.

For all who are cut off from complete spiritual intercourse with their fellows--who are in the world, but not quite of it--life is difficult and burdensome. But the loss of sight or hearing need not lessen their power of absorbing nature's messages and vitality; if they have lost the sunsets or the songs, these messages will be translated into a scent or a wave of sensation. One sense may bring dreams and echoes of another--you can see green water-shadows when the scent of meadow-sweet is in the air, and hear remembered music when a certain light is on the hills. The satin touch of a peony petal recalls its pink sheen, and the feel of a silken barley sheath brings the surge and murmur of the field. The blind will hear the faintest notes in the music of earth, will feel touches soft as a moth's wing on hand and heart, will live in a world of elusive fragrances from which others are excluded. The deaf will see farther into the rainbow than the rest of us; and the feel of water on the hand, air on the face, moss under foot, will be their service of song. Sweeter even than the exquisite things we know--transparencies, veins in leaves and flowers and in water where it bends over a fall, the cream and madder of pear-buds, the scent and music of rain--are the rare breaths and gleams that come only to a few. The blind and deaf can travel a long way, by the strength of their enforced concentration on the senses left to them, up the paths of light, scent and music, which seem to converge as they ascend, until they melt altogether in mystery. How far they will go and how much they will find out, no one can tell; but it is their benign work to show us the delicacy of creation--filling the spaces between the old, stable pleasures with these subtle new ones, like daffodils planted between apple trees.

She waited. What would come? Every bird in the wood had found its solace. Every flower beneath the hill had known the sun. Fragrance and music went together across the plain like lovers unveiled. Earth and sky were cymbals, striking out life.
No one had rebuked the aspen. Still she waited, trembled, sighed. The woman dipping from the well sighed also as she heard the voice of her lover calling the herd from cropping cool grass beneath the hedge. She trembled beneath the shaken tree and spilt the bright blue water among the large, spent anemones. The aspen recollected herself, ingathered. In all that musical sweet morning none had chidden her, nor at noon, nor when the shadows lengthened. When the crystal ball of the moon stood upon the hill and a clear light without colour tranced the plain, the cowman stole through the silence to keep his tryst. His cattle, wild with summer's glory, broke pasture and gambolled, soundless, on the moss with soundless shadows. And the aspen, aware of all, wrapt in all, knew that none would rebuke her, and lifting up her voice, silver with the green and white beauty of ten thousand leaves, tender and plashing and cool as crisp water over a fall, in the absolute, holy stillness, in the hush of heaven, she sang.

In a dim alley somewhere near Paternoster Row is a small window artlessly piled with bulbs and roots of those strange tints and textures in which these beings of the underworld love to wrap themselves. The owner of the shop has forsworn flowers. Instead, he sets forth mottled beans like jewels, ruby-tinted; many-coloured bulbs; the reserved but all-promising dahlia. And he is wise. A flower we see; we can touch its silk and smell its fragrance. But a root! A root is the unknown; it holds the future; it shares the allure of the horizon, where anything wonderful may haunt; it gives nothing, but it hints of untold gilts. The bulbs glow with a dim, rich lustre. There are brown tulip bulbs, dapper and well-found; straw-coloured narcissi; pale globular daffodils; autumn crocuses that will send up, naked and brave, their flowers to fill the September meadows with magic; tiger-lilies, wherein is caged savage colour; hyacinths, prophesying of their future tints by the red and rose and primrose of their crinkled tissue wrappings which are like the luminous paper of Christmas cards, that sheds on angels or Holy Families mysterious coloured lights; white lilies, their pale and flaking bulbs heavy with the June glories of great chalices and golden pollen, recalling in their stately promise a herd of white milch kine. There are the anemones, with tubers utterly reserved, unlovely, shrivelled; yet, like those unfortunate ladies of the old dangerous years, who were turned into hags by perverse wizards, they keep surprises of beauty hidden for him that has faith and gives them leave to bloom.

There is a more vital joy in dealing with the roots of plants than can ever be found in communion with the flower alone. What summer nosegay has the good smell of primrose roots or violet roots torn asunder for replanting, of bruised lilies, of ploughman's spikenard? It is not only the roots of the cedar that 'give a good smell'; dig up any root and you will have an earthy fragrance which is neither that of earth nor rain nor of the flower nor the leaf, but wholly individual. The marvellous sweetness in the air of an autumn day is not chiefly of late summer flowers, nor of wet earth, nor of fruits and fading leaves, nor of corn--though ripe corn does often steep the whole countryside in golden fragrance. It is the roots, delved for and bruised and subjected to the shock of air and sunlight, and pouring out their strange, heady fragrances on these autumn days only. It is a lesson in reality to see, when you have known all summer the ethereal beauty of white clematis or honeysuckle, the roots clutching with a hundred tiny hands the dark soil. Not the whitest rose, not the frailest lily can ignore the earth. There are curious plants that have a whimsey to deny earth, to touch it only at second-hand--the mistletoe, that prefers to touch earth only when it is transformed into apple wood or apricot wood; the broomrape, that goes to the broom and clover and ivy and says, 'Nourish me; I am too dainty for the crude earth.' But what are they? The mistletoe is a poor, colourless thing; the broomrape has not a leaf on it, and is as near ugliness as a plant can be. Even that most unearthly of flowers, the white water-lily, floating on deep water, is anchored far below in the black river-bed. Every one of those wide spreading leaves, those pure blossoms, has its long, swaying root going down into darkness.

The whole earth is a thurible heaped with incense, afire with the divine, yet not consumed. This is the most spiritual of earth's joys--too subtle for analysis, mysteriously connected with light and with whiteness, for white flowers are sweetest--yet it penetrates the physical being to its depths. Here is a symbol of the material value of spiritual things. If we washed our souls in these healing perfumes as often as we wash our hands, our lives would be infinitely more wholesome. The old herbalists were wise in their simplicity in the making of marigold potions, medicaments of herbs, soothing unguents from melilot and musk-mallow, elecampane and agrimony, pillows for, the sick from rosemary and basil, beech-leaf mattresses for the weary--for these things cleanse the whole being. 'Golden saxifrage for melancholy, blue vervain for working magic cures,' said the old physicians; and still the shining saxifrage shames the discontented, and the rare blue vervain diffuses magic. The pasque-flower--dark purple, sun-hearted, with its symbolism of the old grief and the young joy that the Christian mystic puts into the word Easter--was given for cataract: it cures a darkness worse than that of the eyes. The Arabs give a fusion of roses for phthisis; the aconite, under her cold, slaty roof keeps a simple for fevers; from the pink cistus, with its heart of five flames, comes the merciful labdanum. Such things are a cordial for body and soul.

The paralysed lad can send his heart with the gyrfalcon on a day's journey from blue-girdled Iceland to the Scottish homes of the rock-doves and back. Or he can go with the current of the great river that flows--like the rivers that watered Eden--with millions of side-channels and lesser streams but with ever undiminished velocity, from the uttermost point; of the April tree-root to the uttermost point of the leaf, flowing faster than the blood in the body, and bearing on its flood the colour of the leaf the scent of the flower.

On a bright, rook-haunted September morning, in the wide upland pastures where kestrels scream and the sheep cry across the dew, it is good to be astir very early. Then the rabbits and the young foxes are playing in the shadow at the wood's edge, magpies in the tall trees are calling to one another in their harsh voices, and the woodpecker's laughing note re-echoes. Every grass-blade and hedge, and the long, purple-jewelled blackberry vines are hung with white cobwebs sewn with diamonds, like elfin awnings. Even in October, when the last bee is gone and the fruits are sodden and frosted, the blackberry is lovely with leaves that burn from yellow to crimson. Not many scents are so rich, so racy of the soil, as the scent of blackberries and wimberries.

Now is the time when gardeners begin to 'delve and dyke, toil and sweat, turn the earth upside down and seek the deepnesse.' Now they begin to know their plants, not as summer acquaintances, but as friends. For the root is the plant. Into it is gathered the whole personality of the creature that slips up into the illuminated air every spring, and withdraws at the fall of the leaf, folding her beauty once more into that humble shelter where she subtly contrives her own creation. There lie, in tiniest miniature, in vaguest embryo, in secret recesses of nerve and fibre, the brittle or sappy stalks; the eager tendrils; the leaves of velvet or of silk, like fans or swords, hearted, pennoned, tented; petals ethereal or empurpled; nectary and filament and anther; golden bees' meat; mysterious ripening calyx and painted fruit. Therein is locked the very heart of spring, the scent that can enchant a summer night, the bread and wine of life's sacrament. A small seed rooted beneath the winter keeps in its silence the stir and murmur, the rustling music, the golden welter of harvest, with its heavy waggons, its shouts from the sacked field to the fragrant rickyard.

Whether those algae that cause the 'Breaking of the Meres' every year in Shropshire should be called plants or not the writer does not know; but these do seem to root in the water itself rising suddenly to the surface, flinging out filaments like roots, and thus causing a boiling in the lake which has been compared to the scriptural 'troubling of the waters.' But such things are the exception. The rule is that the more delicate and beautiful the flower and fruit the closer must be the union with earth. And the point of contact is the root. There colour and scent are made; there the hundred-foot tree lies in little; there the petal that a dewdrop almost destroys is held safe under the ponderous earth. In the root, when April comes, Someone awakes, rubs drowsy eyes, stretches drowsy hands, remembers a dream of light that troubled its sleep, and begins, with infinite precautions, finesse and courage, to work the miracle of which it has knowledge; 'eagerly watching for its flower and fruit, anxious its little soul looks out.'

Beauty and Joy and Laughter are necessities of our being, and nature brims with them. There are some things that always bring joy--a ripple of song in winter, the blue flash of a kingfisher down-stream, a subtle scent that startles and waylays. The coming of spring brings it--the first crocus pricking up, dawn a moment earlier day by day, the mist of green on honeysuckle hedges in February, the early arabis, spicily warm, with the bees' hum about it. The flawless days of May bring it--when big white clouds sail leisurely over the sky, when the 'burning bush' is in the height of its beauty, and white lilac is out, and purple lilac is breaking from the bud, and chestnut spires are lengthening, and the hawthorn will not be long. Out in the fresh, green world, where thrushes sing so madly, the sweets of the morning are waiting to be gathered--more than enough for all, low at our feet, higher than we can reach, wide enough even for the travelling soul. Joy rushes in with the rain-washed air, when you fling the window wide to the dawn and lean out into the clear purity before the light, listening to the early 'chuck-chuck' of the blackbird, watching the pulse of colour beat higher in the east. Joy is your talisman, when you slip out from the sleeping house, down wet and gleaming paths into the fields, where dense canopies of cobwebs are lightly swung from blade to blade of grass. Then the air is full of wings; birds fly in and out of the trees, scattering showers of raindrops as they dash from a leafy chestnut or disappear among the inner fastnesses of a fir. Pinions of dark and pinions of day share the sky, and over all are the brooding wings of unknown presences. The east burns; the hearts of the birds flame into music; the wild singing rises in a swelling rhythm until, as the first long line of light creeps across the meadows, the surging chorus seems to shake the treetops.

In summer the willows stroke the smooth water with their long fingers. The supple branches droop until they dip in the stream, and, as they sway, every thin leaf is followed by a vanishing hollow. One of the daintiest joys of spring is the falling of soft rain among blossoms. The shining and apparently weightless drops come pattering into the may-tree with a sound of soft laughter; one alights on a white petal with a little inaudible tap; then petal and raindrop fall together down the steeps of green and white, accompanied by troops of other petals, each with her attendant drop and her passing breath of scent. The leaves sit still and laugh, for they know that their time has not come, and the drops slide off shamefacedly and go elsewhere. The young buds laugh in their high places, strong in their immaturity; and all day the rain laughs among the thin, curved petals, till the descending drops are like silver wires from the treetop to the grass, and the petals slip down them like white beads.

Music expresses the other delights of nature and is intensified by them. So the calling of cuckoos completes the beauty of the grass fields--racing shadows, depths of green powdered with daisies, the scent of vernal grass, are all taken up into the haunting cry. So the blackbird gives to all the silent breaths and pulses of April a voice, and they give him a setting for his song. When the wych-elm sprays are crimson rosaries, set and ordered without fingers; when the pear-trees are hung with bright little globes that shine like raindrops, and are indeed drops from the great storm of life that is sweeping over all things--then the rhapsody of a blackbird says for us all the things that we feel. His is a magic melody, sweeter even than the singing of those wondrous birds of Rhiannon, whose song 'was at a great distance over the sea, yet appeared as distinct as if they were close by. And fourscore years passed as a day in listening to them, and there was no remembrance of sorrow whatsoever.' In every field are more magical songs than these; fourscore Aprils seem a very little time to spend in listening; and while you are in the charmed circle--though your eyes may be full of tears--there is no remembrance of sorrow at all.

As in some uncanny flowers and distorted trees there seems to be an evil influence, so in many cloying scents there is sorcery. Down where the pale turf is dank, among the harsh smells of yew-trees, laurels and Herb Paris, one almost sees the malevolent fair face of Vivian, as she passes--delicate and dishevelled--among the tangled shadows, weaving incantations with her wimple. Crush the purple orchis or berries of black bryony, and their necromancy brings dim thoughts of evil schemings, dishonoured deaths, unholy rites. Then gather a spray of wild artemisia; its sweet influence will exorcise the sense of brooding harm; it brings remembrance of well-being and well-doing, of love triumphant and dreams come true. When the honeyed wine of apple blossom is in the air and the freshness of dew is like a caress, we hear the youth of the world laughing--we see Perdita with her arms full of daffodils, and Atalanta coming through the meadows with wet, white feet.
These immemorial essences fill the mind with purple haze and auroral mist, conjuring impalpable visions of ancient things.

The origin of flower scents is full of mystery. Sometimes they seem to run through the minute veins like an ichor, as in wallflowers, with their scented petals; sometimes they are locked in the pollen casket, or brim the nectar-cup; sometimes they come from the leaf-pores, as in balm, and sometimes from the roots in addition, as in primroses and lilies. The essence lies in the arms of that small creature, the seed, who seldom tells her secret.

Flowers like the oxlip, with transparently thin petals, only faintly washed with colour, yet have a distinct and pervasive scent. Daisies are redolent of babyhood and whiteness. Wood anemones, lady's-smock, bird's-foot trefoil and other frail flowers will permeate a room with their fresh breath. In some deep lane one is suddenly pierced to the heart by the sweetness of woodruff, inhabitant of hidden places, shining like a little lamp on a table of green leaves. It is like heliotrope and new-mown hay with something wholly individual as well. To stand still, letting cheek and heart be gently buffeted by the purity, is to be shriven.