Proserpina, Volume 2 Studies Of Wayside Flowers

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1. Although I have not been able in the preceding volume to complete, in any wise as I desired, the account of the several parts and actions of plants in general, I will not delay any longer our entrance on the examination of particular kinds, though here and there I must interrupt such special study by recurring to general principles, or points of wider interest. But the scope of such larger inquiry will be best seen, and the use of it best felt, by entering now on specific study.

I begin with the Violet, because the arrangement of the group to which it belongs—Cytherides—is more arbitrary than that of the rest, and calls for some immediate explanation.

2. I fear that my readers may expect me to write something very pretty for them about violets: but my time for writing prettily is long past; and it requires some watching over myself, I find, to keep me even from writing querulously. For while, the older I grow, very thankfully I recognize more and more the number of pleasures granted to human eyes in this fair world, I recognize also an increasing sensitiveness in my temper to anything that interferes with them; and a grievous readiness to find fault—always of course submissively, but very articulately—with whatever Nature seems to me not to have managed to the best of her power;—as, for extreme instance, her late arrangements of frost this spring, destroying all the beauty of the wood sorrels; nor am I less inclined, looking to her as the greatest of sculptors and painters, to ask, every time I see a narcissus, why it should be wrapped up in brown paper; and every time I see a violet, what it wants with a spur?

3. What any flower wants with a spur, is indeed the simplest and hitherto to me unanswerablest form of the question; nevertheless, when blossoms grow in spires, and are crowded together, and have to grow partly downwards, in order to win their share of light and breeze, one can see some reason for the effort of the petals to expand upwards and backwards also. But that a violet, who has her little stalk to herself, and might grow straight up, if she pleased, should be pleased to do nothing of the sort, but quite gratuitously bend her stalk down at the top, and fasten herself to it by her waist, as it were,—this is so much more like a girl of the period's fancy than a violet's, that I never gather one separately but with renewed astonishment at it.

4. One reason indeed there is, which I never thought of until this moment! a piece of stupidity which I can only pardon myself in, because, as it has chanced, I have studied violets most in gardens, not in their wild haunts,—partly thinking their Athenian honour was as a garden flower; and partly being always fed away from them, among the hills, by flowers which I could see nowhere else. With all excuse I can furbish up, however, it is shameful that the truth of the matter never struck me before, or at least this bit of the truth—as follows.

5. The Greeks, and Milton, alike speak of violets as growing in meadows (or dales)....