Monday 26 August 2013

Gilly Flower, Gillyflower, Gillyvor

As well as being the day on which my beloved son was born, today is also the 105th birthday of the beautifully named actress - alas, no longer with us - Gilly Flower. She is remembered for one role - one that conferred the nearest thing television has to immortality: Miss Abitha Tibbs in Fawlty Towers. The deaf, amiably bewildered Miss Tibbs was, with her friend Miss Gatsby,  a permanent resident, and strangely admiring of the appalling Basil Fawlty, despite the abuse and indignities he heaped on them - which in Miss Tibbs's case culminated in being locked in a cupboard with a dead body.
  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.

1 comment:

  1. A passage that was much used by me many years ago during my finals. It does my old heart good to see it again. There's also, of course, the dramatic irony that Polixenes is about to try to break up the union of his (noble) son and the (supposedly ignoble) Perdita which completely goes against what he is preaching concerning the flowers. In quite another context, gillies are mentioned with affection by the appalling Mrs Lovett in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.