"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sweet Basil Evermore

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1846
by English Pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt (1827 - 1910)

Stanzas #32 and #53
from Isabella, or the Pot of Basil
by John Keats, English Romantic Poet (1795 - 1821)

In the mid days of autumn, on their eves
The breath of Winter comes from far away,
And the sick west continually bereaves
Of some gold tinge, and plays a roundelay
Of death among the bushes and the leaves,
To make all bare before he dares to stray
From his north cavern. So sweet Isabel
By gradual decay from beauty fell,
Because Lorenzo came not. . . .

And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.

Lorenzo and Isabella, 1849
by English Pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896)

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1879
by English Pre-Raphaelite, John Melhuish Strudwick (1849 - 1937)

Poor Isabella, left with nothing but a pot of fragrant, flourishing basil to show for her devotion to honest Lorenzo. Wrapped in a fine cloth and buried deep within the skull - embellished urn is the severed head of Isabella's murdered lover. Not only do her heartless, jealous brothers kill Lorenzo, but they further deprive their distraught sister of the pot of basil, her only remaining connection to the love of her life, her sole tenuous link to sanity.

In Millais's portrayal of happier times (except for the presence of that grim waiter who appears to be in cahoots with the conniving brothers), the pot of basil can be seen behind the lovers, blooming on the garden wall. In Strudwick's more somber portrayal, you can see the ornate, but empty plant stand to Isabella's left and the evil brothers outside the window, sneaking off with the morbidly treasured pot of basil.

In this poem, Keats veers away from his lush autumnal imagery of "mellow fruitfulness," focusing instead on the death and decay of the season's end. The breath of winter is sickly and bereaved, rendering the landscape as hopeless as Lorenzo's head, as barren as Isabella's heart. A sad story. A beautiful plant (Ocimum basilicum).

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907
by English Pre-Raphaelite, John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917)
O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,
Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us - O sigh!
Spirits in grief, lift up your heads . . .
And make a pale light . . .

Sound mournfully upon the winds and low;
For simple Isabel is soon to be
Among the dead
from Stanzas #55 and #56


The esteemed essayist E. B. White (1899 - 1985) writes admiringly of his aging wife sitting in the autumnal garden:

" . . . hour after hour in the wind and weather . . . the small hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection."

from E. B. White's Introduction (xix)
to Onward and Upward in the Garden
by Katharine S. White (1892 - 1977)
long-time fiction editor for the The New Yorker magazine

Plotting the resurrection.

Or to put it another way:

" A garden is evidence of faith.
It links us with all the misty figures of the past who also
planted and were nourished by the fruits of their planting."

~~Gladys Taber~~
American naturalist and columnist (1899 - 1980)
Author of the Stillmeadow Journals

For us as well, the chilly autumn breezes have begun to blow. The basil needs bringing in. Always one of our more successful crops, half will be hung to dry, the other half processed into pesto for freezing. It's thinning now, after several summer cuttings; but here's how it looked back in mid-July:

"Nothing can replace the shock of pleasure given by a small mountain of fresh basil in the summer kitchen."

~~Eleanor Perenyi~~
American gardener and writer (1918 - 2009)
Author of Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT: "Isabella & the Pot of Basil"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Capturing the Ginkgo Light


Golden paintings, here and above, by Leonard Orr

Artist Leonard Orr says:
"None of my paintings are titled;
most can also be hung in any orientation
(there is no top or bottom, left or right;
I paint turning the painting again and again,
holding it up in the air and tilting the canvases
to let the wet paint flow in different directions;
I have ruined many clothes!)."

Looking at these paintings, I sense the ethereal light of the delicately ribbed, fan-like ginkgo leaf, that changes so suddenly from green to gold. Not only are the colors perfectly autumnal (as in "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness"), but the background textures, so much like a palimpsest, remind me of ancient Chinese calligraphy, fitting right in with the Oriental heritage and folklore of the ginkgo tree. Did the trees thrive naturally or were they planted and preserved for many centuries by Chinese monks who later introduced them to Japan?

I have long been an admirer of the Ginkgo biloba [i.e., bi-lobed], this unique species of tree with no living relatives and leaves like no other. Way back in the Spring of 1972, I pasted ginkgo leaves (found on the Lindenwood campus in St. Charles, Missouri) into the pages of my 9th grade leaf collection.

a page from my scrapbook
38 - year - old ginkgo leaf

page from Goethe's scrapbook
195 - year - old ginkgo leaf

The great Goethe also admired the ginkgo, and preserved yet today in the Goethe Museum in Düsseldorf are the above leaves that he himself dried and attached to his love poem "Ginkgo biloba" in 1815. Of the unusual bi - lobed leaves, Goethe has written:

This leaf from a tree in the East . . .

Does it represent One living creature
Which has divided itself?
Or are these Two, which have decided,
That they should be as One?

Wolfgang Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832)
Prolific German writer, poet, scientist, botanist, and philosopher

When living in Philadelphia, many years after my leaf collection, I encountered ginkgos at every turn: there were the stately, historical ginkgos on the grounds of Bartram's Garden, Woodlands Cemetery, and University City New School; the middle-aged ginkgos lining Lancaster Avenue; and the younger generation, visible from every window on the south side of our house.

Two Proud Ginkgos on Beaumont Avenue, Philadelphia

Not long ago I mentioned an old childhood classic, The Witch Family on my book blog. This little novel ~~ also an October favorite for Halloween ~~ contains the following descriptive ginkgo passage, which I can appreciate even more, now that I have lived in a tall brick city house, just like Amy's:

"Amy's house was a high red brick one. In front of it there was a tall and graceful ginkgo tree whose roots made the worn red bricks of the sidewalk bulge and whose branches fanned the sky. The ginkgo tree has little leaves shaped like fans that Amy and Clarissa liked to press and give to their dolls. The fruit of this tree is orange, but it is not good for eating. It has an odd fragrance that grownups do not like but that children do not mind, for it makes them think of fall and Halloween" (14, The Witch Family, Eleanor Estes).

Poet Eve Merriam also pays tribute to the urban ginkgo, in "Willow and Ginkgo," her poem of comparison and contrast:

"The ginkgo forces its way through gray concrete;
Like a city child, it grows up in the street.
Thrust against the metal sky,
Somehow it survives and even thrives.
My eyes feast upon the willow,
But my heart goes to the ginkgo."

by Eve Merriam (1916 - 1992)
American Poet
Winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, 1946

City Children
(Ben at the wheel / Sam, back seat driver)

Fallen Ginkgo Fruit [seeds, actually]
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

As little Amy observes, the large fleshy seed is indeed malodorous and not well-liked, certainly not something that you want to inadvertently squash and carry into the house on the bottom of your shoe! However, if you can live and let live, the plump, pungent little nuisance has its own peculiar charm and is not all that hard to abide. A common Chinese name for the ginkgo tree elevates the fruity seed to an object of beauty, translating poetically into English as Silver Apricot. How lovely!

In his mystical sonnet, "The Consent," American poet Howard Nemerov writes in wonderment of the quickly turning Ginkgos:

. . . on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

by Howard Nemerov (1920 - 1991)
American Poet
1978 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Another tribute to the tenacity and longevity of the ginkgo is Arthur Sze's seven - part, evocative poem about existence and endurance, "The Ginkgo Light." Inspired by the half dozen noble ginkgo trees to survive the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Sze writes:

A 1300-year-old lotus seed germinates; a ginkgo
issues fan-shaped leaves; each hour teems. . . .

love has no near or far

. . . a temple in Hiroshima . . .
disintegrates, while it's ginkgo

buds after the blast. . . .

As light skews across our faces, we are
momentarily blinded, and, directionless,

have every which way to go. . . .

and while we listen to our exhale, inhale,
ephemera become more enduring than concrete.

Ginkgos flare out. . . .

One brisk morning,
we snap to layers of overlapping

fanned leaves scattered on the sidewalk . . .
finger a scar on wrist, scar on abdomen.

by Arthur Sze, Chinese American poet (b. 1950)
from his book The Ginkgo Light

Goethe, Estes, Merriam, Nemerov, Sze -- what do all these writers have in common? Their hearts go out to the ginkgo, the tree of the ages; and so do ours. No wonder paleobotanist Albert Seward once said that the ginkgo "appeals to the historic soul: we see it as an emblem of changelessness, a heritage from worlds too remote for our human intelligence to grasp, a tree which has in its keeping the secrets of the immeasurable past" (British botanist and geologist, 1863 - 1941).

Additional links for more information on this fascinating tree:

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo history

FYI: The standard spelling appears to be GINKGO (with the "k" before the final "g"); but most dictionaries allow -- in fact practically encourage! -- use of the alternative GINGKO (with the second "g" before the "k"). You pick! See dictionary.com

Archived posts for further reading:
29 November 2009: Ginkgo Biloba
3 December 2009: Willow and Ginkgo

And there's always
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Next Fortnightly Post Topic:
Basil:Ocimum basilicum
Coming Thursday, October 28, 2010
See you then!