I was out early today. Even before dawn’s first light, I was up and about and soon on my mission… to find the first bunches of lilac, and drink in their unmistakable scent with the pristine dew.
What passersby (not too numerous so early) must have thought to see the flowers held against my face, though gently so as not to crush them, I cannot say. I did not care. The lilacs that I love to excess have returned to Cambridge… and with them every memory of this most evocative of flowers and their flagrant, haunting fragrance.
Beloved of Russian empresses…
One day the great Empress Catherine of all the Russias (1762-1796) went walking in her garden of Tsarskoe Selo and found a branch of lilacs, so perfect she was sure it would be picked to amplify the bouquet of some lovelorn lad to his much desired lady… so she stationed a soldier next to this lovely branch. In 1917, a soldier was still stationed where the plant no longer flowered or even existed. But then Tsar Nicholas II wasn’t surprised… for his wife Alexandra, called “Sunny”, loved lilacs to distraction, too… and created a room in the most palatial of palaces where everything was in a shade of lilac. It became, in due course, the most famous room of the empire…
My grandmother Victoria had this same tendresse for her much loved and coddled lilacs. She craved their scent and their colors, too, in every shade of purple… heliotrope, mauve, violet, lavender, puce, and all the other variations. Even my grandmother’s perfume, Muguet de Bois by Coty (launched 1941) featured lilac… and lily-of-the valley. Proust-like, that scent brings her back… as does my mother’s Chanel. Lilac is like that. It will not be denied and can never be resisted.
And now the lilacs are in rampant bloom along Tory Row on Brattle Street, breathtaking, sensual, glorious. The Loyalists would have remembered them for all the rest of their long lives; the merest hint of their scent would trigger the painful memories that come with unending exile.
A few facts about lilacs.
You may be surprised to learn (I was) that syringa (lilac) is a genus of about 20 to 25 species of flowering woody plants in the olive family (Oleaceae) native to woodland and scrub from southeastern Europe to eastern Asia.
They are deciduous shrubs or small trees, ranging in size from 2 to 10 meters (6 feet 7 inches to 32 feet 10 inches) tall, with stems up to 20 to 30 centimeters (7.9 to 12 inches) in diameter.
The leaves are opposite (occasionally in whorls of three) in arrangement, and their shape is simple and heart-shaped.
The flowers are produced in spring and are bisexual, with fertile stamens and stigma in each flower. The usual flower color is a shade of purple (generally a light purple or lilac), but white, pale yellow and pink, even a dark burgundy color are known. Flowering varies between mid spring to early summer, depending on the species.
The fruit is a dry, brown capsule, splitting in two at maturity to release the two winged seeds that have within them everything that produces the lustrous magnanimity of the lilac and commands your eye and reverence.
The poets irresistible attraction to and understanding of lilacs.
Poets, including many notable poets, saw lilacs and wished, in words, to produce the lyric quality of their scent. The scent, the unforgettable scent, swept them away. It was exuberant, excessive, a warning to the dangers of immersion in a thing so powerful, so rich, so cloying; a thing that draws you away from the little duties and miseries of life and whispers of pleasures you want beyond reason. Too much of this unalloyed richness gives way to madness… and exultation.
Amy Lowell (1874-1925) knew the potency of lilacs. She wrote
“Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England…
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom….”
“You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.”
Lilacs know their power and seduce you with it, every wind wafting the scent into your brain and memory. They offer you the same terms that a beautiful woman offers the man distracted by her — none at all, just surrender. Lilacs are the sorceress of blooms, enchanting, elusive, sharing their magic for an instant… leaving you longing for what you fear you will never have again.
The flower of elegy, mourning, decay, death.
Lilacs are the flower of remembrance. After the fall of Tsar Nicholas II and the entire structure of tsardom, the ex-emperor and his wife Alexandra found themselves prisoners of the new regime, forbidden even to walk in the magnificent park at Tsarskoe Selo. Alexandra looked out upon an ocean of lilac, once hers, now as distant as the moon. Her haunted look, beyond mere dismay, touched the heart of a simple soldier. He gave her a sprig. His officer saw this as “fraternizing with the enemy” and had him shot.
Amy Lowell, too, saw lilac as an accoutrement of death.
“The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
and let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.”
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) also knew the immemorial association between lilacs and death, and he gave us the simple words that bespoke the greatest tragedy:
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”
He picked a sprig of lilac and thought of the passing into eternity of Abraham Lincoln, “Night and day journeys a coffin.” It is unbearably painful for him, only the simple words – and the lilac — with its promise to return — giving solace, for that is within the power of the lilac, too, which Whitman knew and relied on:
“Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.”
But this cannot be the last word on lilacs, not this.
Think instead of Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play “Green Grow the Lilacs”, the basis for the libretto of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” a musical about real people and their real concerns. They brought lilac seeds with them to beautiful their often difficult lives because they couldn’t bear the thought of life without its beauty, comfort and serenity. And I cannot either.