Thursday, 7 October 2010
Cowslips in and out of Literature
In Morris’s early short story, ‘Frank’s Sealed Letter’, the hero Hugh one morning remembers how, in the fields all about, "it was the cowslip time of the year”. This is a delightful phrase, and certainly cowslips do seem to be pervasive in Victorian literature. There are cowslips bound around the Maypole in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native; the children in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss drink cowslip wine; and Matthew Arnold has surely given us the most memorable cowslips in all nineteenth-century literature in his poem ‘Thyrsis’. He evokes the Oxford hills “With thorns once studded, old white-blossomed trees,/Where thick the cowslips grew”, and he notes of the goddess Proserpine that “of our poor Thames she never heard!/ Her foot the Cumner cowslips never stirred”.
The good news for us, in the early twenty-first century, is that cowslips are returning to the English countryside, after almost disappearing from British pastures because of intensive farming methods. Farmers who plant them are now paid a one hundred per cent subsidy, and companies like Emorsgate Seeds near Bath are making cowslip seeds available to British farmers in bulk. Whether the subsidy will survive current public spending cuts, I do not know; but there is at least a chance that, at some point in the not too distant future, we too will be able to celebrate Morris’s “cowslip time of year” again.