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Monday, 3 August 2009

The Perfume of an Evening Primrose


File:Plant 2008 1.jpg

"A lost sensation affects us in some such way as the accidental discovery of a store of gold, hidden away by ourselves in some past period of our life and forgotten; or as it would affect us to be met face to face by some dear friend, long absent and supposed to be dead"

I sometimes walk in a large garden where the evening
Is permitted to grow
, wrote Hudson
But only at the extreme end of the ground,
thrust away,
As it were, back against the unkempt edge

A religious ceremony of which I am scarcely conscious this approaching
And thrusting my nose into the primrose
I am reluctant to pass without so doing, as the great Doctor Johnson
Was to pass a street-post without touching it with his hand

I now hold an evening primrose in my hand
I turn it about this way and that
And though it pleases it does not delight
I do not think very highly of its beauty

But it is a link with the past
It summons vanished scenes to my mind
I first knew it as a garden flower
On summer evenings I was accustomed to watch its slim, pale yellow buds unfold

And called it, when speaking in Spanish
By its quaint native name of James of the Night
Came the time when I could ride
Out over the plain

It surprised me to discover
That this primrose unlike the four-o-clock and morning glory
Was also a wild flower

I knew it by its unmistakeable perfume
On those plains where the grass was cropped close
Flowers no bigger than buttercups
And after I met with it again in swampy woods and everglades along the Plata

There it grew tall and rank
Six feet high
A faint perfume
And then again I knew it as a tall slender plant growing grass-like

In extraordinary abundance among the tall grasses on the level pampas
And when now I approach the flower to my face
Inhale its perfume
A shock of keen pleasure

And a mental change
For a fraction of a second I am no longer in an English garden
Consciously thinking about the vanished past
But on the grassy pampas where I have been sleeping very soundly under the stars

It is the moment of wakening
My eyes are just opening to the pure over-arching sky
I am sensible of the subtle primrose perfume in the air
For leagues over that great level expanse

As if the wind had blown them out of the morning sky
And scattered them in millions over the surface of the tall sere grass
These pale yellow stars are all about me

File:Evening primrose - England - large.JPG

Text freely adapted and abridged from The Perfume of an Evening Primrose: W. H. Hudson (Idle Days in Patagonia, 1893)

English Evening Primrose (oenothera): photo by Tarquin, 2006
Evening Primrose
: photo by Loyna, 2008


Harlequin said...

I have found you via Timmie and Jon... this is a lovely site. I look forward to visiting often.

Anonymous said...

I find these wonderful words to be completely true. It does happen to me that the smell of certain flowers take me back to the days of childhood, especially jasmin. For me smelling jasmin is going back to Christmas at my mom's house, seeng my grandma in the kitchen baking chestnuts and waiting for midnight to open the presents under the tree.

And the image of the primrose, which "though it pleases it does not delight" is my favourite. I love people and things whose beauty is not usually considered to be high but simple and wild.

TC said...


Welcome and thanks. I've been to see your blog and am pleased to see that like your estimable friends (oops, typed "fiends" by accident... motor disorder...), you have the skill and energy and courage and generosity to post your poems. The more of us who are doing this the less strange any one of us has to feel about it. (But let me speak for myself with that feeling strange bit...)


A lovely memory about the jasmine...

I think that "simple and wild" or "common" quality about the primrose is one of the things that figured strongly in Hudson's attachment to it and to the memories of his youth in Argentina which the flower later stirred in him. His essay is a kind of Proustian investigation of the mnemonic effect of certain momentary sensations--Hudson's basic point is that smell is the most emotional of senses, in that it carries no intellectual baggage at all.
"My sole motive in smelling the evening primrose is the pleasure it gives me. This pleasure greatly surpasses that which I receive from other flowers far more famous for their fragrance, for it is in a great degree mental, and is due to association. Why is this pleasure so vivid, so immeasurably greater than the mental pleasure afforded by the sight of the flower? The books tell us that sight, the most important of our senses, is the most intellectual; while smell, the least important, is in man the most emotional sense. This is a very brief statement of the fact; I will now restate it another way and more fully..."

And so he goes on to make his wonderful case for the perfume of an evening primrose, and for all the worlds of the personal past it opens up to him. Which I have perhaps overboldly attempted to reduce to a sort of poetic essence, here.

Zephirine said...

Anyone who can write a book called Idle Days in Patagonia has to be special. And his response to the primrose is very thoughtful, observing how it turns up in different situations, sometimes a garden plant and sometimes a weed, and of course the power of its scent to evoke memory.

Tom, I like this way of singling out a passage of evocative prose and adapting it into a poem, re-interpreting it I suppose one could say. The ideas appear in a different environment but remain essentially the same, like Hudson's primrose.

TC said...


About Hudson, Joseph Conrad said:

"One cannot tell how this fellow gets his effects; he writes as the grass grows. It is as if some very fine and gentle spirit were whispering to him the sentences he puts down on the paper. A privileged being."

Much of his work can be found online.

Here is Idle Days in Patagonia--the text for each page can be found under the Tag Clouds:

Idle Days in Patagonia

This site has about ten of his other books online, including Far Away and Long Ago, Green Mansions, The Purple Land:

Other Hudsons

Project Gutenberg also has links to many of his books online:

More Hudson

The house where he grew up in La Plata has been made into a museum by the government of Argentina (though currently the site says visits are suspended due to swine flu!): here is:

Museo Hudson

TC said...

Sorry about that Project Gutenberg link, bleary eyes make for wobbly codes. Here it is done-up correctly.

More Hudson

(And by the by, bird lovers everywhere should be able to delight in Hudson's many writings about English as well as South American birds; he was the literary ornithologist supreme.)

TC said...

I'm told the link I've given to Idle Days in Patagonia doesn't work.

This one does.