Language of Flowers
From Dead Media Archive
Perhaps the most popular understanding of the Language of Flowers is that it was a practice during the Victorian era in which people sent flowers to each other – each flower coded in a specific emotion or message. It is also usually assumed that everyone in the Victorian era was fully knowledgeable and in complete agreement as to the specific meanings of each flower. In reality, however, the Language of Flowers was no less plastic than the spoken word. Additionally, there is little evidence that flowers were actually used by people to communicate secret messages (Seaton 2). It is clear, however, that flowers have been and continue to be containers of meaning for people. This page focuses on the history, myth, reality, uses, and remediations of The Language of Flowers during the Victorian era in France, England and America.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Seigneur Aubry de la Mottraye, two Europeans who visited Turkey during the early 1700s, are often cited by scholars as having introduced the idea of a language of flowers to Europe with their descriptions of the Turkish “sélam'. These descriptions were written in a series of letters from Lady Mary, which became very popular after being published in 1763. “Sélam” was described as a way for a girl in a harem to communicate in secret with her lover on the outside. A group of objects would be wrapped in a handkerchief and sent from the woman to her lover and vice versa. It was not so important what the specific items were, but the messages were supposedly derived from words that rhymed with the names of the objects. (Seaton 62)
The famous orientalist, Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall found many problems in the descriptions of this practice, which he wrote about in an article called “Sur le langage des fleurs”. He saw the drastic cultural differences between Montagu and Mottraye and what they were witnessing as holes in the credibility of their observations. He also noted the impracticality of trying to conceal a big collection of objects. Hammer-Purgstall's essay was useful in bringing to light a general misunderstanding about “sélam', which is that it was, in fact, not a symbolic language. This makes it an unlikely predecessor to floriography. Seaton perhaps rectifies this inconsistency by writing, “Thus, while the 'sélam' was not exactly like the language of flowers as it developed in the West, it did give the idea of a language of love conveyed by objects rather than words.” (Seaton 64)
Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall's "Dictionnaire du langage des fleurs"
Hammer-Purgstall includes his own language of flowers at the end of his essay and Seaton published some examples of them in her book. Derived from the “sélam”-esque tradition of rhyming, we are given an interesting and sometimes baffling range of emotions and messages contained within flowers.
“Floral examples from Joseph Hammer-Purgstall's 'Dictionnaire du langage des fleurs” (Seaton 64)
Jonquille - Guéris moi, ma fille
(Jonquil - Heal me, my daughter!)
Tubereuse - Crève, malheureuse!
(Tuberose - Die, unhappy one!)
Des lys - Je l'embrace, regarde, et ris
(Lilies - I kiss her, look at her, and laugh)
Des jacinthes - Nous exhalons en rossignols nos plaintes
(Hyacinths - We express our complaints with flutes)
Violette - Nous sommes de la même taille
(Violet - We are the same in stature)
Rose - Je pleure, ris, toi!
(Rose - I weep, laugh – you!)
Rose - Tes torments m'on réduit en cendres
(Rose - Your torments hve reduced me to cinders)
Du myrthe - Que le Seigneur vous donne à moi
(Myrtle - If only the Lord would give you to me)
Grenade - Mon coeur brule
(Pomegranate - My heart burns)
Jasmin - Aimez-moi bien. Mon amour est égal au tien
(Jamine - Love me well. My love is equal to yours)
Flowers in the Victorian Era
Flora and its surrounding disciplines saw a huge shift in importance during the Victorian era. There was a great inflow of new and exotic plants and flowers into Britain in the eighteenth century once “overseas trade treaties opened up unknown and romantic areas of the world” (Scourse 1). It's estimated that around 9,000 plants arrived in Britain during this time when there had been less than 1,000 during the 1600's. For the British, this was an immense source of pride, as it was seen as “tangible proof of Britain's expanding influence and wealth, and the glory of the monarch” (2). Because of this inundation of flowers, they were a much bigger part of everyday life during the Victorian era. Men and women often wore them on their clothes and interior floral decorating was extremely important.
By the eighteenth century there was also an increased interest in the science of botany. In America, Britain, and France, the connection between medical advances and botany made it a vital area of study. In Europe, the scholarship of Carl Linnaeus, which put humans and plants on the same biological spectrum, made its way into the public discourse and changed the the general view of nature to one more infused with empathy. The genteel woman had now also become a prominent figure of Victorian society. In an effort to become less domestic, women often sought education through a series of skills like learning how to draw or play music or speak in foreign languages. Learning the meanings of flowers was presented as another possible accomplishment for these women. All of these factors contributed to the popularity of the language of flowers and its products.
In “The Language of Flowers: A History”, Beverly Seaton writes, “To modern enthusiasts, no feature of Victorian popular culture appears more charming, more cozy, or more absolutely Victorian that the language of flowers. But, in reality, none is more obviously misunderstood” (1). She is referring to the romanticization of The Language of Flowers as one universal language across all of England, France, and America. The meanings of flowers, however, were actually products of a popular genre of book called the Flower Dictionary and floral significance often differed from book to book and author to author. (Seaton 2)
The flower dictionary arose as a sub-genre of what was called the “sentimental flower book” (Seaton, 2), which was extremely popular during the Victorian era. “The sentimental flower book is one that does not treat flowers in botanical (scientific) or horticultural (practical) terms, but rather in terms of sentiment, feeling, and association” (Seaton, 2). Some of these sentimental flowers book focused solely on flowers and their meaning, while others incorporated poetry or religious themes. Others still, sometimes had empty pages, so as to encourage the owner to personalize the book or record her own poetry. Almost all of these books were written for the female, genteel reader and feature introductions that aim to make the books' content accessible and easy to learn.
Surviving Flower Dictionaries
Despite the seeming proliferation of the medium of the floral dictionary, only a few have remained in the discourse as viable primary sources. For most scholars, the seminal floral dictionary is Charlotte de Latour's "Le Langage des Fleurs", which was first published in France in December of 1819. According to Beverly Seaton, this book's British and American equivalents are, respectively, "The Language of Flowers; With Illustrative Poetry" (1834) by Frederic Schoberl, and "Flora's Dictionary" (1832) by Elizabeth Gamble Wirt for America. "Floral Emblems" (1825) by Henry Phillips is another well-known English book, as is Kate Greenaway's much later "Language of Flowers" (1884). Authors of later flower dictionaries rarely came up with new floral definitions and copying among authors was commonplace. (Seaton 117).
As haphazard as some floral definitions might seem to us now, there were a few notable methods used when coming up with original ascriptions for flowers. One of the most common ways is to use mythology as a point of departure. For example, the hyacinth is often connected to the idea of a game "because it was while playing a game that Hyacinthus met his death and was changed into the flower". The flower narcissus is another example, which sensibly always means "egoism or self-love" (Seaton 119). Color was also extremely important to these authors. Take the rose, for example, which is generally connected to love, but to varying degrees depending of the color; “the strength of passion and love seems to diminish as one goes from red to pink to white” (Seaton 118). The scent of the flower is another strong determinant of its meaning. Because it has no scent, coupled with its color, the yellow rose is said to represent infidelity. (ibid) The manner in which flowers or plants grow is also taken into consideration, like in the orange tree. It usually represents generosity “because it is in blossom and fruit at the same time” (Seaton 119).
Language of Flowers and Literature
Language of Flowers and James Joyce
Much has been written about the use of flowers in literature and “Lotus Eaters” in James Joyce's “Ulysses” has garnered particular attention. Jacqueline F. Eastman writes about this in an article called “The Language of Flowers: A New Source for 'Lotus Easter'". The “Lotus Eaters” chapter of the book is about the character aptly named Leopold Bloom receiving a letter from Martha Clifford with a yellow flower pressed in it (Eastman, 379). James Joyce refers overtly to the language of flowers within this chapter of the book and writes, “He tore the flower gravely from its pinfold smelt its almost no smell and placed it in his heart pocket. Language of flowers. They like it because no-one can hear. (U5.260-66)” (ibid). It is argued that Martha's precocious inclusion of the flower is none other than a sexual advance.
This text becomes even more interesting in this context as it shows Joyce's use of the language of flowers both diegetically (as an actual part of the plot) and non-diegetically (in the form of a literary technique). Eastman continues, “Joyce's use of the language of flowers tradition is much the same as that of sending actual flowers – to imply without articulating" (Eastman 389). In this chapter, the cactus plant becomes prominent when it is uttered in the phrase “punish your cactus if you don't”. The phallic nature of this plant is, of course, important to Eastman's reading of this passage and is seen as a representation of Bloom's contemplation on male sexuality and foreshadows events dealing with androgyny that happen later on in the book. According to Eastman, this use of floral language “also parodied the tradition” (ibid).
Language of Flowers and Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde, a controversial character, artist, and trendsetter during the Victorian era, presents himself as a fascinating example of the uses, readings, and implementation of floral symbology during this time. He is most commonly known for wearing a green carnation in his lapel, which, interestingly enough, gave that flower meaning and significance as it is often still an important symbol for LGBT issues.
Additionally, the public's complicated relationship with Wilde was manifested in interesting ways, often using sunflowers. In many illustrations he is depicted as either surrounded by these flowers , or even anthropomorphized one. One reason for this is that Wilde took on the sunflower as a symbol for aesthetic goals and his call for beauty in art. But this is slightly complicated, both by the unflattering nature of the drawings, and the meanings given to sunflowers by his contemporary writers.
While a lot of writers tend to give the sunflower positive meanings because of its devotion to the sun, the most well-known writers of Wilde's era ascribed them with negative meanings. It may be coincidence, but the meanings fit perfectly with the public's ideas of Wilde's attitude. Latour gave the suflower the meaning of “'false riches,' because it is a false form of gold” and for Wirt, it means “pride or haughtiness” (Seaton 120).
Roses are still red...
A series of broad social changes led to the decline in popularity of flower dictionaries. First of all, as the book was intended mainly for women with arguably limited aspirations and social mobility, the rising trend of feminism made most of this demographic a thing of the past. There was also a shift in scientific ideas about nature. Linnaeus' theories became outdated and hobbyists grew less interested in botany. “In general culture the differences between life forms become more important than the similarities” (Seaton 150). This is, of course, not to say that flowers no longer hold meaning for us today. The rose is perhaps the flower that has done the best job of retaining its original connection to themes of love and passion. Even if we would like to divorce such meanings from these flowers, the symbolism is being constantly remediated in our popular culture across mediums.
Seaton, Beverly. The Language of Flowers: A History. Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, 1995.
Scourse, Nicolette. The Victorians and their flowers. London : Croom Helm ; Portland, Or. : Timber Press, c1983.
Eastman, Jacqueline F. "The Language of Flowers: A New Source for 'Lotus Eaters'" James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Spring, 1989), pp. 379-396.
Pickles, Sheila. The Complete Language of Flowers : A Treasury of Verse and Prose. London : Pavilion, 1998.