Human Flower Project
Sunday, September 26, 2004
And a Pink Carnation
The boutonniere that made Marty Robbins’s blues bluer is a show of adolescent daring in Robert Graves’s autobiography. In other words, “The Language of Flowers” doesn’t translate well.
Occasionally today you’ll hear mentioned “The Language of Flowers,” a system of symbolic reference that was popularized, but without much success, in 19th century Europe. In this language, for example, the lily “means” purity and mallow “means” forgiveness—so that, presumably, sending someone a bouquet of lily and mallow would mean, er, “Thank you for having the purity of heart to forgive me” or perhaps “I forgive you for being a puritan.”
Today’s florists sometimes reach for this system of significances, almost as a marketing technique. But they always fumble trying to connect each flower with the right virtue. Symbols can’t be decreed this way. Such associations must build over time and persist only because people continue to use and understand them. When you see a pansy, honestly, is the first—or the 80th—thing you think of “The Holy Trinity”?
Flowers communicate so powerfully not because they embody particular concepts or principles but because they are ambiguous. They invite us actually to look, smell, touch, wonder, reflect.
In his autobiography Good-Bye to All That , poet Robert Graves describes the vicious antagonism between the “Bloods” (jocks) and the scholars (“nerds”) at his English boarding school circa 1910.
These two gangs of boys clashed during Graves’s years at Charterhouse, a school whose strict social hierarchy had always permitted the athletes unmercifully to bully the rest of the student body. The nerds finally stood up to the Bloods in what Graves calls “the bravest deed ever done at Charterhouse.” They broke with a longstanding Sunday custom, where the “First Eleven” jocks had always asserted their power by daring to arrive for chapel after the rest of the students had sheepishly filed in.
With delight, Graves describes his scholar-friends’ historic entrance: “On this Sunday, then, when the Bloods had entered with their usual swaggering assurance, an extraordinary thing happened.
“The three sixth-formers slowly walked up the aisle, magnificant in grey flannel trousers, slit jackets, butterfly collars, and each wore a pink carnation in his lapel. Astonished and horrified by this spectacle, everyone turned to gaze at the Captain of the First Eleven; he had gone quite white.”
The Language of Flowers calls the carnation a symbol of “bravery, love and friendship.” Maybe the English school boys of 1910 really DID know and use this floral code, but a pink carnation? I translate this as “Effrontery,” “In-Your-Face-Sensitive.” Or how about just “Take That!”?
Though many an American florist has a mini-glossary taped to the front counter, “The Language of Flowers” never caught on in the United States. If it had Marty Robbins could never have written “A White Sport Coat, and a Pink Carnation.” No bravery here. Just a dope in a rented tux. He’s been stood up for the prom. Pink carnation ~ sucker.