Lily Lore, by Harriette Wilbur

The lily, more than any other flower, appeals to the aesthetic, the spiritual, the religious side of man’s mind. The very word, used as an adjective, is always synonymous with pale, delicate, white, pure: “The earth was pushing the old, dead grass with lily hand from her bosom,” says Phoebe Cary in one of her poems, using the word with a pretty double meaning. The mental picture created by the word lily is always that of a white, trumpet-like blossom, shooting from its earthy-brown body and towering high above the green leaves surrounding it, typical of the human soul in its strivings heavenward, and universally accepted as the emblem of innocence and purity. This mental picture persists, in spite of the well-known fact that many members of the lily family are not white at all, but purple-spotted, orange-striped, yellow-tipped or red-leaved, the most garish and worldly flowers to be found anywhere. For the mind of man has intuitively idealized the large white species (Lilium candidum), originally from the Levant, but cultivated for centuries in garden-beds and flower pots; it is “the lily,” while the more showy species must be designated by specific names.

The Greeks and Romans regarded it as a symbol of purity, and among many nations it was the emblem of virginity and innocence. Because of its spiritual character, this flower is the one most frequently seen in religious paintings, being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, to many of the saints and to the Angel Gabriel and other heavenly messengers. As one writer has said: “It is especially fitting that the lily should represent the Virgin Mary, for as the venerable Bede pointed out long ago, the pure white petals signify her spotless body, and the golden anthers within, typify her soul sparkling with divine light. Hence, its common name of Madonna Lily. It is also the Annunciation Lily, because in Italian art the Angel Gabriel, when appearing before the Virgin, holds in his hand a branch of the blossoms. Because of its association with Annunciation Day, observed on March 25th, the flower naturally became used and cultivated for Easter decorations, the trumpet-shaped blossoms seeming particularly fitted for an nouncing spiritual tidings. Rossetti, in describing that handmaid of the Virgin, The Blessed Damozel, speaks of the lilies three, which “lay as if asleep along her bended arm.”

The lily is also dedicated to the service of Saint Swithin, who is called the “rainy saint,” because the pre-harvest showers are under his care. It was probably made Saint Swithin’s flower because of its large cup, which, however, as poets have observed, can be filled to overflowing:

And her head droop’d as when the lily lies
O’er charged with rain;
– Lord Bryon

My heart
Is little, and a little rain will fill
The lily’s cup which hardly moists the field.
– Edwin Arnold

You have been wretched, yet
The silver shower, whose reckless burthen weighs
Too heavily upon the lily’s head,
Oft leaves a saving moisture at its root.
– Wordsworth

As the symbol of purity, the white lily has received many lovely tributes from the poets. It is “the lily without stain,” “the lily, wearing the white dress of sanctuary, to be more fair,” “the lily, of all children of the spring the palest, fair est,” “the lady lily, looking gently down;” they are “lilies angel ical,” “pure lilies meet for a young virgin’s bier,” and “Mary’s lilies like virgins white and pure.”

and she that purifies the light,
The virgin lily, faithful to her white,
Whereon Eve wept in Eden for her shame.
– Thomas Hood

The nun-like lily bows without complaint,
And dies a saint.
– Susan Coolidge

The nobility of the flower has also become proverbial. Linnaeus speaks of the lily tribe as “nobles (or patricians) of the vegetable kingdom,” and Pliny remarks, “Lilium nobilitate proximum est – The lily is next in nobility to the rose.” In France, where the lily was largely employed as an emblem, it was regarded as the king of flowers, the rose being their queen:

Shining lilies tall and straight
For royal state.
– Christina G. Rossetti

However, one poet writes of “alabaster lilies” and calls them “graceful slave girls, fair and young, like Circassians.”

In German folk-lore, the soul is supposed to take the form of a flower; and from the grave of one unjustly executed, white lilies are said to spring as a token of martyred innocence. A legend current in Spain is to the effect that after a particularly devout inmate of a monastery near Seville was buried, a lily sprang from the grave, and, curious to know its origin, the abbot ordered the body to be exhumed, whereupon it was found that the heart of the good man had become the root of the flower.

Above his head,
Four lily stalks did their white honors wed
To make a coronal.
– John Keats

A natural reincarnation is hinted in the poetical line “drifts of lilies which mimic winter’s snows,” and beautifully described by Lucy Larcom in “Snow-Bloom:”

Where does the snow go,
So white on the ground?
Under Mary’s azure
No flake can be found?
Look into the lily
Some sweet summer hour;
There blooms the snow
In the heart of the flower.

In many rural districts in England, white lilies are believed to be a charm against evil spirits, and so are placed over doors and about the house, to protect a home and its inmates from witchcraft and such ill fortune. The Great White Lily (Lilium candidum) was believed by the Jews to counter act all witchcraft and enchantments, for which reason Judith is said to have crowned herself with a wreath of lilies before she went to the tent of Holofernes, to protect herself from the very evil she meant to inflict upon him. In Spain, it was long held powerful to restore human form to any who had fallen under enchantment and been changed to beasts. In a garden in that land, in 1048, an image of the Blessed Virgin was seen to issue from one of these flowers in the royal gar den, which restored the king, who lay ill of a dangerous dis ease. In recognition of the Divine help, the king organized the Knights of Saint Mary of the Lily, three centuries before a similar order was instituted by the ninth Louis of France. This idea has been used by Longfellow:

Bear a lily in thy hand;
Gates of brass cannot withstand
One touch of that magic wand.

Shakespeare has used the lily to point a moral, which he does with such brevity that it has much the nature of a proverb:

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
– Sonnet XCV

In Titus Andronicus, he has made good use of the observation that when drying, the flower exudes a sort of thick sap:

then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey dew
Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.

Omar Khayyam, too, found a moral in the lily, which might with profit be pondered by the Russian peoples while seeking democracy:

Know ye why the Lily fair as freedom’s flower is shown?
With ten well-developed tongues, the Lily never speaks.

Aside from any symbolical meaning, the lily has a physical beauty which has appealed to the poet as well as to flower-lovers everywhere. There are “gold-hearted lilies,” “lilies of the moorland, amber-eyed,” “pale hedge-lilies that round the dark elder wind,” “lily bells that trembling laughter fills,” “milk-white lilies, stately and tall,” “lilies crouched under the mossy-green parapet, rocking their white heads like mourners,” “tall June lilies in raiment white and gold,” “lilies in white veils,” “flashing lilies,” “tall white lilies gleaming athwart the dusk like spears of silver;” and

the milk-white lilies
That lean from the fragrant hedge,
Coquetting all day with the sunbeams,
And stealing their golden edge.
– Alice Cary

And the wand-like lily, which lifted up
As a Maenad, its moonlight-colored cup,
Till the fiery star, which is its eye,
Gazed through clear dew on the tender sky.
– Shelley

It is now commonly believed that the lily referred to in the Sermon on the Mount is some liliaceous plant, such as the wild tulip, or even that gorgeous member of the buttercup family, Anemone coronaria: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” It would be expected that the poets would make generous use of this beautiful parallel, yet two references to it by Alice Cary are the only ones I have found in a list of nearly ninety quotations:

The lily wears a royal dress
And yet she doth not spin.
– “Signs of Grace”

And the right royal lily, putting on
Her robes, more rich than those of Solomon,
Opened her gorgeous missal in the sun,
And thanked Him, soft and low,
Whose gracious, liberal hand had clothed her so.
– “Field Preaching”

And in these, particularly in the second quotation, some one of our native species is implied, such as the Canada Lily (Lilium canadensis) or the Red Lily (Lilium philadelphicum).

Leaving the White Lily, we find that the poets have not been blind to the colored members of the family, “like torches lit for carnival.” Robert Browning has devoted some half-dozen lines or so to a colorful description of the Garden Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium martagon) when he has Pippa exclaim with joy:

Oh, is it surely blown, my martagon?
New-blown and ruddy as Saint Agnes’ nipple!
Plump as the flesh-bunch on some Turk-bird’s poll!
Be sure if corals, branching ‘neath the ripple
Of ocean, bud there – fairies watch unroll
Such turban-flowers! I say, such lamps disperse
Thick red flame through that dusk-green universe.

The Tiger-Lily of the garden (Lilium tigrum) comes in for her share of praise, or of blame, according to the viewpoint of the poet observing her. Richard Henry Home, describing Orion’s hounds, speaks of their “skins, clouded or spotted, like the tiger-lily.” Another poet mentions a “sable butterfly, the tiger-lily’s knight, that flutters round her theft of evening sky.” Titus M. Coan mentions “the panthers of the meadows, tiger-lilies,” Austin Dobson speaks of tiger-lilies which “swayed, like courtiers bowing till the queen be gone,” and to Alfred Tennyson “heavy hangs the tiger-lily.” On the whole, she is much admired.

The California poets have noted that the “leopard lily lights the heather dun,” that “among the reeds and rushes wild leopard-lilies drop the while to hide their conscious blushes,” and the “late shorn meadow red with the leopard lily blossoms” – all referring to the Lilium paradalium, a western species having mottled orange flowers.

The Red Lily (Lilium philadelphicum) is one of the most beautiful of our midsummer blossoms, found rather plentifully in open copses and among bushes in the pasture lands of New England. Lucy Larcom writes of “red lilies blazing out of the thicket,” Lowell knew of a nook “where red lilies flaunted,” Paul Hamilton Hayne, in his poem, “The Red Lily,” compares a certain maiden he knows to this flower which “stands from all her milder sister flowers apart.” And Elaine Goodale, not to be outdone by her sister, has written a poem to this rival of the Canada Lily, entitled “Wood Lilies:”

Through trellised roadway edges
And open woodland range,
By ruined walls and hedges,
Laid low through endless change,
They kindle sparks of beauty,
Flow upward ever higher,
And break the moveless verdure,
With shifting lines of fire.

There are in all about fifty species of the genus Lilium, or the true lilies; but the poet has limited his observation to these half-dozen common species. To be sure, the name lily is applied to many other plants, members of the lily family which belong to different genera, such as Tulipa, Yucca, Hyacinthus, Fritillaria, and so on, and even to lily-like plants of different families, such as Amaryllis, Lily of the Valley and such “false” lilies. But to quote everything the poets have had to say of the lily’s kinsfolks, near and distant, would take us too far afield, so it is wiser to hurry back to our own home garden, from whence we started, where we may still

See the young lilies, their scymitar-petals
Glancing like silver ‘mid earthier metals;
Dews of the brightest in life-giving showers
Fall all the night on these luminous flowers.
Each of them sparkles afar like a gem,
Wouldst thou be smiling and happy like them?
– James C. Mangan