Monday, 26 August 2013
Gilly Flower, Gillyflower, Gillyvor
The name Gilly Flower leads naturally to Gillyflower or Gilliflower, a name for a wide array of spice-scented plants, including Carnations and Pinks, Wallflowers and Stocks. Gillyflowers (Gillyvors) are the subject of a famous - and famously obscure - passage between Polixenes and Perdita in Act 4 of A Winter's Tale:
Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer's death, nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest
flowers o' the season
Are our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,
Which some call nature's bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden's barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.
Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?
For I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.
Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.
So it is.
Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,
And do not call them bastards.
I'll not put
The dibble in earth to set one slip of them...
Reams of commentary have been written on this passage, which is clearly a version of the great Art/Nature debate. Perdita's negative view of Gilliflowers seems to be based on their being products of Nature and Art, but this feels like one of those Shakespeare passages where there's something going on that his audience would have readily understood - and been engaged by - but that we no longer have easy access to. But it begins beautifully.