Language of flowers

Language of flowers

In Brief

After reading the letter to which Martha has pinned a flower, Bloom thinks, "Language of flowers. They like it because no-one can hear." Throughout the Victorian era people had used flowers as codes to communicate romantic feelings that could not be spoken aloud, and this one spurs Bloom to wonder which feelings Martha may have meant by it. Before reading the letter he muses, "A flower. I think it's a. A yellow flower with flattened petals." In Sirens he thinks, "Means something, language of flow. Was it a daisy? Innocence that is." He is correct about the daisy's significance, but not knowing whether he has received that or some other flower means that Martha's message must remain cryptic. Instead, the reader of Lotus Eaters gets Bloom's loose translation of her entire letter into flower language. His elaborations have darker overtones than the usual florigrams, more evocative of sexual desire and aggression.

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The Victorians were by no means the first to practice what is sometimes called florigraphy or floriography. The Song of Songs and other books of the Hebrew Bible suggest that something similar may have been known in ancient Israel. Japan has an art called hanakotoba that assigns particular emotions to different flowers. Ancient Greece and Rome identified symbolic meanings of flowers that were later revived in the iconography of medieval and early modern Christianity and chivalry. In Ottoman Turkey a tulip craze in the early 1700s, following the European one of the 1630s, inspired a passion for sélam, or flower-messaging, that became well-known in western Europe. There are probably many other examples around the world.

Shakespeare's Hamlet shows that the practice began in England even before the tulip mania. In her mad scene Ophelia hands out flowers and herbs to Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude: "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts....There's fennel for you, and columbines. [To Gertrude.] There's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace a' Sundays. You may wear your rue with a difference. There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither'd all when my father died" (4.5.175-85). Ophelia herself explains the significance of rosemary and pansies, and scholars have added that fennel signified flattery, columbine ingratitude, rue regret and repentance, daisies untruthfulness, and violets faithfulness.

After 1800 such codes became wildly popular first in France and then in Britain. Books on the subject, some of them simple dictionaries and others more discursive, included Joseph Hammer-Purgstall's Dictionnaire du language des fleurs (1809), Madame Charlotte de la Tour's Le Langage des Fleurs (1819), Henry Phillips' Floral Emblems (1825), Frederic Shoberl's The Language of Flowers; with Illustrative Poetry (1834), Robert Tyas' The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora (1836), John Ingram's Flora Symbolica; or, The Language and Sentiment of Flowers (1869), an anonymous volume titled Floral Poetry and the Language of Flowers (1877), and another anonymous book called The Language of Flowers (1884), illustrated by Kate Greenaway, that has been more or less continuously reprinted to the present day. Americans joined the craze and published still more books. The enthusiasm was no doubt fed partly by voyages of exploration which were bringing tens of thousands of species of exotic plants to western nurseries and greenhouses, sparking a boom in the flower trade.

As he re-reads Martha's letter, Bloom calls on his knowledge of the fad to generate a parallel string of thoughts in interior monologue: "Angry tulips with you darling manflower punish your cactus if you don't please poor forgetmenot how I long violets to dear roses when we soon anemone meet all naughty nightstalk wife Martha's perfume." Some of these details appear to translate Martha's thoughts into conventional floral idioms, though explanation of the associations is tricky for several reasons: the various compendia often disagreed with one another; flowers with multiple species or cultivars (e.g., roses and tulips) could have different meanings assigned to different colors; Bloom's florigraphic knowledge may be limited; and Joyce's artistry is always quirky, subtle, and multifarious. In some instances, moreover, Bloom seems to be deliberately ignoring the dictionaries and inventing his own symbols, which say as much about his states of mind as about Martha's.

Tulips were a vehicle for declaring passionate love, but Bloom takes Martha's language ("I am awfully angry with you") as a prompt to turn them into "Angry tulips." This association does not seem to come from the dictionaries. Anger was sometimes associated with petunias, and more often with gorse. (Gifford thinks that tulips could signify "dangerous pleasures," but he does not cite a source.) The "forgetmenot" symbolized just what its name suggests, a lover's plea to be remembered (Martha has called herself "poor me" and urged Bloom to "Remember"). The idea of faithfulness still inhered in "violets" as it did in Shakespeare's time, though they could also express modesty or watchfulness, and "roses" indicated love. Different kinds of "anemone" could symbolize sickness, expectation, withered hopes, or the fear of being forsaken—all appropriate to Martha's situation. In these five flowers Bloom seems to be recalling details of florigraphy that fit her feelings, with only slight elaboration.

But in three other flowers he appears to be thinking inventively of his own sexuality. Imagining himself as "you darling manflower" does not evoke a known botanical species, so it should probably be taken as an allusion to the name Henry Flower ("I often think of the beautiful name you have"). Bloom's pseudonym carries erotic implications, and at the end of Lotus Eaters his sexual organ will be called "a languid floating flower," so "manflower" may be read as a synechdoche associating him with his penis. The cactus may carry similar suggestions, given the tubular shape of many members of this family. It signified warmth in some of the compendia, but that would hardly explain the desire to "punish your cactus" (an echo of Martha's "I will punish you"). If Bloom is improvising, the cactus may be his representation of the sexual urges that led him to include a dirty word in his last letter, prompting Martha's faux anger. (In addition to the phallus, Gifford suggests that the cactus might refer to "touch-me-not," the Mimosa pudica plant whose leaves curl up when touched. I have not found any evidence of this identification, and the florigraphic meaning of mimosa, sensitivity, does not fit the context well.)

Finally, Martha's teasing adjective for her "naughty" darling Henry becomes associated with yet another plant that cannot be found in the dictionaries: "all naughty nightstalk." Gifford supposes that this refers primarily to the phallus, and secondarily to the large family of plants called nightshades, which could signify falsehood. (In the Greenaway book, by contrast, they mean truth.) The first meaning seems stronger. At night a man's penis becomes a stalk and then is very naughty indeed. If one accepts that Martha Clifford may be a veiled allusion to Margaret Clowry, "nightstalk" also suggests the sexual predation of a Dublin policeman named Henry Flower who in 1900 was accused of murdering a young woman, at night, along the riverbank where he had stalked her. (She had a flower pinned to her coat.) Such a reading would be consistent with the phallic suggestion and would cohere with Martha's wish to "punish" Henry.

In addition to this dense passage in Lotus Eaters, the language of flowers surfaces at least twice more in Ulysses. In Wandering Rocks Blazes Boylan takes "a red carnation" from a vase in Thornton's and asks the girl waiting on him, "This for me?" She says yes, and he puts the flower stalk "between his smiling teeth." Carnations of no certain color signified fascination as well as "woman love" or "women love," and red ones could mean admiration, or "my heart aches." This range of meanings seems consistent with the role that Boylan plays in the novel: loving and being loved by women, fascinated by them and also fascinating. As he puts the carnation between his teeth he is staring at the young woman's breasts and making her blush. When he next appears in Sirens he is wearing the flower on his coat and Miss Douce, who has been trying to catch his eye, wonders, "who gave him?" Molly wonders the same thing in Penelope: "who gave him that flower he said he bought"? In these chapters the carnation seems to function as a signifier of sexual interest—both Boylan's for any attractive woman he sees and competing women's for Boylan. 

In Penelope, just after remembering how she kept poring over Mulvey's love letter "to find out by the handwriting or the language of stamps" (two other kinds of decoding) and just before recalling how she told him that she was engaged "to the son of a Spanish nobleman named Don Miguel de la Flora" (one of her many mentions of flowers), Molly wonders, "shall I wear a white rose." She must be thinking of the next day, June 17, when she supposes Bloom may bring Stephen back to visit, because in the final section of the chapter she makes plans for the visit: "I can get up early Ill go to Lambes there beside Findlaters and get them to send us some flowers to put about the place in case he brings him home tomorrow today I mean no no Fridays an unlucky day first I want to do the place up someway the dust grows in it I think while Im asleep then we can have music and cigarettes I can accompany him first I must clean the keys of the piano with milk whatll I wear shall I wear a white rose."

White roses could symbolize innocence, charm, or "I'm worthy of you," suggesting that Molly is thinking of Stephen as a possible romantic partner. But at the very end of the chapter, as thoughts of Bloom proposing to her on Howth Head swirl together with Mulvey kissing her on the rock of Gibraltar, both memories sparking thoughts of herself as a "mountain flower," she reconsiders: "or shall I wear a red yes." Red roses spoke the language of love and desire. It would appear that Molly here abandons her virginal fantasy of becoming a young bride for Stephen and decides to present herself as she is, a married woman whose love for her husband has room to accommodate other passions as well.

In "The Language of Flowers: A New Source for Lotus Eaters," JJQ 26.3 (1989): 379-96, Jacqueline Eastman comes to many of the same conclusions that I have inferred in this note, though she bases her readings on only one of the compendia, Ingram's Flora Symbolica. (It is an especially complete, thoughtful, and retrospective production.) Eastman reasons that the long Lotus Eaters sentence symbolically renders "both the thoughts in Martha's letter and Bloom's unconscious responses as he rereads. With well known flowers—tulips, forget-me-nots, violets, roses, and anemones—Joyce evokes the conventional meaning while in some cases adding a more personal significance. Furthermore, he parodies the language of flowers tradition by inventing several erotically suggestive species of his own" (384-85). I am not convinced that "parody" is the right word here, but in general terms our understandings of the two groups of flowers agree.

Eastman makes a number of interesting observations about particular flowers. "Tulips" sounds like "two lips," she notes, suggesting an angry speaking mouth. The physical appearance of forget-me-nots perfectly conveys Martha's posture of weak, simpering dependency. The poetry of Robert Burns gives reason to suppose that violets symbolize modesty. The phrase "how I long violets" carries also the latent suggestion "How I long for violence." Love is the principal meaning of "roses," but the flower's association with thorns and pins a bit later in the chapter "underscores the connection between sexual pleasure and pain that exists in Bloom's subconscious" (387). And the fact that anemones come at the end of the sequence, shortly before the mention of Bloom's wife, tie Martha's anxiety about being forsaken to a very real concern.

Eastman argues that the cactus, which "functions clearly as a phallic symbol, and one whose thorny stalk evokes pain," also evokes the phrase coactus volui ("Having been compelled, I was willing") that is first uttered in the street by the mad Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell but is later used by the sexologist Virag in Circe to express "the overpowering strength of sexual desire" (388). (Joyce's notesheets, Eastman observes, suggest that it also made him think of the Italian word for penis, cazzo.) The "nightstalk," she notes, is echoed in Nausicaa by a reference to the "Nightstock in Mat Dillon's garden," and (detecting the same echo heard by Gifford) "inasmuch as the word reminds the reader of the 'deadly nightshade,' it evokes Bloom's earlier thought of 'a poison bouquet to strike him down'" (389). 

Two more arguments in Eastman's article deserve mention here. First, she relates Joyce's familiarity with the language of flowers (echoed at Finnegans Wake 96.11 as the "languish of flowers") to other forms of "language as gesture" in which he clearly took an interest. His notesheets show him playing with "the language of the parasol, of the umbrella, of the handkerchief, and of the fan," the last of which he brought to life in Circe (391). To this important observation of Eastman's it may be added that Joyce showed interest in many other nonverbal languages.

Other objects take life as characters in Circe, including the Cap which challenges Stephen to articulate his metaphysical understandings of the language of music: "The reason is because the fundamental and the dominant are separated by the greatest possible interval which...Is the greatest possible ellipse. Consistent with. The ultimate return. The octave. Which...went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself, God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller, having itself traversed in reality itself becomes that self." Earlier in Circe, Stephen has spoken to Lynch of still another nonverbal language: "So that gesture, not music not odour, would be a universal language, the gift of tongues rendering visible not the lay sense but the first entelechy, the structural rhythm." In Penelope Molly refers also to "the language of stamps." In Calypso Bloom interprets the language of his cat's meows. There are probably many other examples.

Eastman also remarks at the conclusion of her article that the language of flowers may account for passages not only in Lotus Eaters but "throughout the novel" (392). Her sole example is the "orangeflower" that goes into Molly's skin lotion and may possibly have some relation to two or three other passages in the novel involving oranges and orange blossoms. This is probably not the best example she could have chosen, as Molly merely likes the scent of these flowers. She does not pin them to her clothing or send them through the mail as a coded message signifying something to a special recipient. (The meaning of orange blossoms, according to Ingram, is chastity. Eastman can only remark that this is ironic when applied to Molly.) The examples I have mentioned here—the carnation that Boylan sports on June 16 and the rose that Molly plans to wear on the 17th—provide better examples of floral messaging. 

JH 2022
Language of Flowers, a color lithograph reproduced as plate 35 in Alphonse Mucha's Album de la Décoration (1900). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
An English postcard, date unknown, held in the Dunbarton Oaks Archives. Source:
Title page of Charlotte de la Tour's Le Langage des Fleurs (1819). Source:
Title page of Henry Phillips' Floral Emblems (1825). Source:
Cover of John Ingram's Flora Symbolica (1869). Source:
  Color plate before the title page of the anonymous Floral Poetry and the Language of Flowers (1877). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph by Simon Cooke of cover of Kate Greenaway's The Language of Flowers (London, 1884), engraved by Edmund Evans. Source:
  Two pages from Kate Greenaway's The Language of Flowers that show the many meanings attached to different varieties of roses. Source: