Sunday 21 January 2018

After rain, manna on primrose hill

Love potion: Pleasant primroses also uplift the spirit
Love potion: Pleasant primroses also uplift the spirit

Joe Kennedy

"On the banks of sweet primroses my love and I sat down/And he took out his fiddle to play his love a tune/In the middle of the tune she sighed and she said, 'Arragh, Johnny, lovely Johnny, don't you leave me'."

Tunes and more tunes - and a change of tune. She tells him: "Stand-off, stand-off, you are deceitful. It is you that has caused my poor heart to wander, and to give me comfort it's all in vain."

Folk songs, folk memories - and where are the banks of sweet primroses? I looked over a wall at these 'firstlings' of John Donne in a garden that was once a field and saw those pale cheeks pushed out after rain by a force of resolute nature. To children. I pointed out the bounty spread before them but they thought I had spotted a fox.

Visits to other sites of the past in sheltered corners revealed plants that seemed to have flowered overnight. John Donne again: "Upon the primrose hill/Where of heaven would distil/A shower of raine, each several drop might goe/To his own primrose and grow manna soe."

The appearance of prima rosa is a reassurance of seasonal change. There are weather improvements -even temporary - and longer stretches of sunshine. Primroses are love potions - so folklore has it - and are found on roadsides, older gardens, on stray sods, laneways and glimpsed through a gap in a hedge of memory.

This first of roses is not a rambler. Dispersal seems to be a matter of chance. The naturalist Richard Mabey says the plants have to rely on "rain-splash or the pack-horse labour of ants" to make any territorial advances. Primroses, and their cousins, cowslips, produce two kinds of flower, but because they bloom when there are few insects about there is often no pollination. Shakespeare wrote in The Winter's Tale of "pale primroses that die unmarried". The ones that produce seed attract the ants seeking food.

Primrose searching means returning to locations dictated by memory. To come upon them again in those less-trodden ways reaffirms a continuance of the past, an uplifting of the spirit. The flowers were always picked by children, wrapped in small bouquets of leaves for displays in home and classroom. They were once also gathered for market stalls and for Easter brides, the poet Philip Larkin's girls in, "parodies of fashion, heels and veils all posed irresolutely", which he viewed from a train window. That was for Whitsun, but the picture is clear.

There are flower hybrids and colour variations from deep yellow to pale cream, to rhubarb-and-custard. The bird's-eye is pink and where primroses and cowslips grow together may be found a false oxlip, hairier-stemmed and paler. John Clare, poet of the English countryside, called the jiggling, egg-yolk flowers "cowslip-peeps". Shakespeare thought the orange spots at the base of the petals were the source of the dill-like scent: "In their gold coat spots you see/Those rubies, fairy favours/In those freckles live their savours." Was he thinking of a strong country wine, made robust by cowslip ingredients?

Sunday Independent

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