Last night I dreamed there was a ‘green man’ on the wall inside this house, the shape of a portrait, made in relief, of red clay. The face had leaves for hair and leafy branches sprouting from his mouth. As I walked past looking, I recognised the clay relief as Ruskin, a Green Man, and the relief started trying to talk to me, but I could not hear what he was saying, for his words were muffled by the vegetation sprouting from his mouth.
Though I like the honeysuckle, Ruskin didn’t seem to. In The Stones of Venice, he first singles out the Greek ‘so-called honeysuckle ornaments’ as mistaken and impertinent, for their lack of truth in representation I think. Later, the honeysuckle seems to take on an altogether darker meaning. In Deucalion, he goes further than simply describing the honeysuckle as a plant of caprice, but likens it to a serpent. “nothing is more mysterious in the compass of creation than the relation of flower to the serpent tribe” he begins… “seven hundred years ago, to the Florentine, and three thousand years ago, to the Egyptian and the Greek, the mystery of that bond was told in the dedication of the ivy to Dionysus and of the dragon to Triptolemus. Giotto, in the lovely design, which is tonight the only relief to your eyes, thought the story of temptation enough symbolised by the spray of ivy around the hazel trunk, and I have substituted, in my definition, the honeysuckle…is an ‘anguis’ – a strangling thing.” He goes on… “That there is any essential difference in the spirit of life which gives power to the tormenting tendrils, from that which animates the strangling coils (ie of the serpent), your recent philosophy denies, and I do not take upon me to assert. The serpent is a honeysuckle with a head put on, and perhaps some day, in the zenith of development, you may see a honeysuckle getting so much done for it.” Of course, the association with feminine caprice Ruskin made in Proserpina, coupled with the serpent association in Deucalion (the serpent is associated with strangulation, temptation, and the fall of man), leads us into strange territory. Serpents formed a frequent and very dark theme of Ruskin’s dreams. And, of course, his pet name for Rose La Touche’s mother, for some time, was ‘Lacerta’, or serpent.
Everywhere I looked today, the beautiful honeysuckle begins now to look like a strangling serpent. Did Ruskin never look to the flower to forgive the stem? Or did the associations of the stem innevitably lead to the associations of flower? According to an (uncited) note on the honeysuckle in wikipedia, in Victorian times "teenage girls were forbidden to bring honeysuckle home because it was thought to induce erotic dreams." Ruskin never wrote about the flower.
Wives and children visited us here today, my daughters loved it and did some wonderful drawings. Bridie found a wonderful gift in the upper garden, a sparrowhawk feather, which put me in mind of Ruskin’s wonderful feather drawing. One could search for weeks to find such a feather. Ruskin’s drawing was a ‘falcon’s feather’, from a longer-winged hawk. But you would not see falcons in the Brantwood garden – the territory belongs to shortwinged hawks such as the sparrowhawk, able to navigate the dense woodland at speed. I wonder where his falcon’s feather came from?
Alex is reading ‘John Ruskin and Rose La Touche’ by Van Akin Burd. Ruskin spent nearly six months in Venice studying and copying Carpaccio’s St Ursula during the winter of 1876/1877. This painting began to take on huge symbolic meaning for him and St Ursula came to forever be associated with Rose La Touche. Two incidents occurred during the Christmas period in Venice – he was delivered some Dianthus (the pink, or carnation), the flower of Zeus, a plant painted into the windows of St Ursula’s sleeping chamber. This was sent by Lady Castletown, with a note which read “from St Ursula out of her bedroom window, with love” He was also sent a sprig of Vervain by a botanist friend, a sacred plant symbolising domestic purity – also painted into St Ursula’s windows by Carpaccio. These two gifts of plants had profound symbolic meaning for Ruskin, and precipitated a series of spiritual lessons or teachings – Ruskin believed he was receiving supernatural guidance from St Ursula. The Vervain and the Dianthus.
There is also the bouquet he received after his lecture in Ireland, presumably from Rose, a bouquet of Erba della Madonna (the Ivy Leaved Toadflax), which he first observed on the capitals of St Mark’s porch in Venice and “was always considered as my plant, at Harristown”. Within the bouquet were two other bouquets, “one a rose half open, with lilies of the valley, and a sweet scented geranium leaf”. Van Akin Burd goes on to say “A year later he was to classify these flowers as the fairest of a group whose spots suggest that they have been touched by poison, beautiful but capable of an ‘evil serpentry’.” The serpent, again.
On a note of trivia, or typical Ruskinian perlexity, the Erba Della Madonna, as is the common name in Italy, variously refers to Sedum dasyphyllum L., or Sedum telephium L. (Orpine/Livelong) But of course, neither of these plants look anything like the Ruskin Erba Della Madonna drawing reproduced in the Library Edition of The Queen of the Air. Ruskin calls the the 'Erba Della Madonna' Linaria Cymbalaria, which is in fact the Ivy Leaved Toadflax. A picture here, looks more like Ruskin's drawing. So his Erba Della Madonna is a different plat to contemporary references to it. I like the Ivy Leaved Toadflax much more.