Poetry in Bloom

Poetry in Bloom

 Caccia, Orsola Maddalena. 1635. Flowers in a Grotesque Vase [Oil on canvas]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

The influence of flowers pervades across cultures and throughout history. They have been used to enhance and enliven ceremonies and rites of passage, to soften the anguish of a loss of life and to commemorate in physical form the bliss of a birth or marriage. As long as flowers have been plucked from their natural environments by humans, they have also been used as adornments — Athenian vase paintings depict young women wearing garlands and wreaths, priests wearing floral crowns and athletes and soldiers decorated with blooms. Brides in medieval Europe wore crowns of flowers that symbolized the transition of marriage, and oval boutonnieres were worn by men on their coats during the reign of Louis XIV. 

Tussie-mussies or nosegays were small “talking” flower bouquets exchanged by lovers, family members and friends to express messages of love, condolence, well wishes and a number of other sentiments. Inspired by the Turkish tradition of “selam,” a system of gifting objects of various materials and meanings selected to convey a coded message, the practice of giving and receiving tussie-mussies gained popularity in France in the 18th century. This increasing presence of talking bouquets was aided in part by a growing fascination with botany beginning in the late 18th century, as well as by the popularization of floral adornments by Marie Antoinette and Empress Joséphine, who were both infatuated with flowers.

Beginning in the late 18th century, dictionaries deciphering the “language of flowers” became widely popular. These floriographical dictionaries consisted of lists of plant names with corresponding sentiments, often illuminated with intricate illustrations, hand-colored plates and typographic decorations. Some books included a floral “clock” which invited users to tell time according to the time of day certain flowers open or close, or a floral “calendar” which ascribed a specific flower to each day of the year. Games played with real flowers or decks of cards featuring illustrations of flowers were used for amusement and fortune-telling.
Accessorizing with small floral bouquets became so common that 18th century France saw the introduction of posy holders — ornate gilded or silver cones that functioned as decorative handles for tussie-mussies. These handheld works of art could feature a number of lavish decorations, such as inset pearls, diamonds or rubies, as well as engraving, cameos, casting, embossing or repoussé.
Recipients of tussie-mussies would pore over their dictionaries to determine the intended meanings of their gifted bouquets. A bouquet of tuberose (dangerous love), nutmeg geranium (an expected meeting) and pennyroyal (flee) could convey an invitation to a secret tryst, while a tussie-mussie of forsythia (good nature), pussy willow (friendship) and blue hyacinth (kindliness) would indicate that the sender of the message was simply interested in a platonic friendship. A tussie-mussie composed of ardor-inflected blooms could convey a simple gesture of love, while a more varied bouquet could symbolize a complicated maelstrom of emotions — unrequited love, indecision or jealousy. Where a girl wore the tussie-mussie she received conveyed even further meaning — pinned to her hair it indicated “caution,” while near her bosom it symbolized “friendship.” A tussie-mussie worn over a woman’s heart, however, was an unmistakable expression that feelings of love were mutual.

Tussie-mussies were discreet, coded gestures that suited the restrained, often guarded approach to courtship of Victorian England, and the principles of the era held the wearing of flowers to be more appropriate for young women than jewelry. Thus, tussie-mussies became the gift of choice between sweethearts and lovers, providing a cryptographic yet charming method of demonstrating emotions that may have been deemed impolite if spoken outright.

The meanings of individual blooms in the “language of flowers” originated from a number of sources. Some meanings were ascribed based on the physical characteristics of a plant — the strength of an oak, the fecundity of the many-seeded pomegranate, the walnut’s resemblance to a human brain (thereby symbolizing intellect) and so on. A flower’s scent also helped inform its meaning — mint was refreshing, while the gardenia came to represent the transport of ecstasy. The Western tradition of floral symbolism included classical Greek mythology (where narcissus stood for egotism and laurel for victory) and the Bible. Literature by Rousseau and Shakespeare also lent pairings of flowers and their inherent meanings. Plants’ uses in medicine and religious observance were another source of definitions that stood the test of time: yarrow, which helps cure fever and cold, symbolized health, while rosemary, which was traditionally packed around the dead waiting burial, was associated with remembrance.

Flowers and other botanical species express sentiments in ways that transcend human convention, and their impermanence and elusive scents move us as much as their colors and purity of form. Petals reach forth with sincerity and candor, entreating onlookers in displays of unbridled emotion created through exquisite physicality — the youthful innocence of a white lilac, the delicate sweetness of a delphinium or the rapturous joy of an exultant chrysanthemum. For admirers throughout history, flowers demonstrate with sublime power the aspects of the human condition that words may fall short of describing.

Image Credits:
1. Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1764. Anne Dashwood (1743–1830), Later Countess of Galloway [Oil on canvas]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
2. Caccia, Orsola Maddalena. 1635. Flowers in a Grotesque Vase [Oil on canvas]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. 
3. Issued by Duke Cigarette branch of the American Tobacco Company. 1892. Narcissus: Self Love, from the series Floral Beauties and Language of Flowers (N75) for Duke brand cigarettes [Commercial color lithograph]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
4. Bonvin, Léon. 1862. Bouquet of Small Chrysanthemums [Watercolor and gouache]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. 
5. Peeters, Clara. 1612. A Bouquet of Flowers [Oil on wood]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. 
6. Fragonard, Jean Honoré. early 1770s. The Love Letter [Oil on canvas]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. 
7. Brown, Ford Madox. The Nosegay. Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 00:13, February 1, 2022 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_Nosegay.jpg&oldid=527233470
8. Grandville, J. J. 1847. Les Fleurs Animées, Title Page [Hand-colored wood engraving]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
9. Mid-19th century. Posy Holder [Silver]. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA.