The Moral of Flowers: An Illustrated Victorian Encyclopedia of Poetic Lessons from the Garden
By Maria Popova
“In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens,” the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in contemplating the healing power of gardens.
More than two centuries earlier, gardening had taken on a new symphonic resonance with the psychological and physiological score of human nature when the philosopher Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, published The Botanic Garden — a book-length poem using scientifically accurate verse to enchant the popular imagination with the scandalous new science of sexual reproduction in plants. Botany was suddenly both sensual and poetic, seeding a new genre of literary botanica in the early nineteenth century. Crowning it is a book of especial loveliness — the 1833 gem The Moral of Flowers (public library | public domain) by the poet, painter, and self-taught naturalist Rebecca Hey.
Perched partway in time and sensibility between Elizabeth Blackwell’s illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants and Emily Dickinson’s wildflower herbarium, this illustrated encyclopedia presents a singular fusion of Hey’s original verse, poetic prose, and perfectly selected quotations from celebrated poets about each flower, coupled with beautiful engravings drawn from life by William Clark, former draughtsman and engraver of the London Horticultural Society.
The unexpected success of the book — all the rarer in an era when hardly any women were published authors — emboldened Hey to learn to paint and pursue an improbable dream that became, fifteen years later, the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of trees, featuring her own original art.
From fragrant favorites like the honeysuckle and jasmine, to humble beauties like the daisy and wild wallflower, to literary symbol-corsages like the violet, which Emily Dickinson cherished above all other flowers for its “unsuspected” splendor, and the almond blossom, on which Albert Camus predicated his timeless metaphor for strength through difficult times, Hey’s catalogue of blooming splendor traces the etymologies of flower names, describes their habitat, and invokes Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth to explore their cultural symbolism, aiming to “pursue such a train of reflection or draw such a moral from each flower that is introduced as its appearance, habits, or properties might be supposed to suggest.”
Flowers of the field, how meet ye seem,
Man’s frailty to pourtray,
Blooming so fair in morning’s beam,
Passing at eve away;
Teach this, and oh! though brief your reign,
Sweet flowers, ye shall not live in vain.
Just as poet Jane Hirshfield would draw, nearly two centuries later, a buoyant lesson in optimism from a tree, Hey draws on flowers to contemplate questions of mortality, grit, adaptability, how to find beauty in melancholy and cheerfulness in solitude, how to live “heedless of all obstacles.”
There is a flower, a little flower,
With silver crest and golden eye,
That welcomes every changing hour,
And weathers every sky.
It smiles upon the lap of May,
To sultry August spreads its charms,
Lights pale October on his way,
And twines December’s arms.
In vain I searched the garden through,
In vain the meadow gay,
For some sweet flower which might to you
A kindly thought convey.
One spake too much of hope and bloom
For those who know of man the doom ;
Another, queen of the parterre,
Thorns on her graceful stem did bear;
A third, alas ! seemed all too frail
For ruder breath than summer gale.
I turned me thence to where beneath
The hedgerow’s verdant shade,
The lowliest gems of Florals wreath
Their modest charms displayed.
Lured by its name, one simple flower
From its meek sisterhood I bore,
And bade it hasten to impart
The breathings of a faithful heart,
And plead — “Whatever your future lot,
In weal or woe — Forget-me-not.”
Complement with The Spirit of the Woods — Hey’s poetic encyclopedia of trees, illustrated with her own paintings — and 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s trailblazing natural history illustrations of exotic, endangered, and extinct animals, then revisit a 17th-century English gardener on what fruit trees can teach us about human nature and relationships.
Published February 7, 2020