Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine.
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:'
from A Midsummer Night's Dream : Act 2, Scene 1 William Shakespeare
A few months ago I read Olivia Laing's first book To the River in which she describes her walk the length of the river Ouse in Sussex one scorching midsummer week in 2009. It is an enjoyable debut and one that is hard not to describe in riverine metaphors as it leisurely meanders through Laing's varied literary interests, mirroring her earthly journey. Chief among these is Virginia Woolf who drowned herself in the Ouse in 1941 and whose ghost stalks the author's footsteps over the course of the 42 miles from source to sea.
In a twenty-first century, urban Britain there is something mysterious and occult about flower names. Like the rivers whose margins they populate they have arcane and ancient origins mostly lost to us. They are words only half-remembered, harking back to a time of monastic herbalists and alchemists, pregnant with lore and liturgical significance. Aconite, agrimony, asphodel... they should be in every serious Scrabble player's arsenal! Shakespeare's fairies knew them all, as quoted above, where Oberon describes in floral terms to the mischievous Puck the place where he might find his Titania sleeping, in order to teach her a lesson about love. Equally, Macbeth's hags might have tossed them into their bubbling cauldron, cooking up a dark magic.