In the beautiful Spanish language, a language close to my heart, the word Primavera can be used to translate our English word Springtime, but also is used to describe the primrose flower. This was the case in Old French too, although nowadays Primevère has been replaced by Printemps.
Primroses have always been synonymous with Springtime for me. Somewhere in my childhood I remember being told that they were very precious – an endangered species – and that we shouldn’t pick them from the places in which they grew. Perhaps people loved the arrival of the primrose so much that they wanted to gather them all and take them home, in a misguided effort to hold on to their beauty and freshness and promise.
Seamus Heaney’s description of the rural place in which he grew up, in his essay ‘Mossbawn’, depicts the Northern Irish countryside in Spring perfectly: ‘The sides of the lane were banks of earth topped with brooms and ferns, quilted with moss and primroses. Behind the broom, in rich grass, cattle munched reassuringly. Rabbits occasionally broke cover and ran ahead of you in a flurry of dry sand. There were wrens and goldfinches’. This year, I had been looking for the new primroses along our quiet roads and lanes here in County Antrim when I was out walking during lockdown, but I couldn’t find any. Then I went for a walk at the beach.
It was there on the dunes that I saw what was for me this year the very first primrose of Spring. The sight that day of this pale and fragile flower was a truly uplifting gift. Here is a poem I have written in response:
Every year the tiny buds uncurl
in silent quilted beds of velvet green
revealing to a weary watching world
in virgin morning light the dew of Spring.
This year their absence I had keenly felt
on banks of grass and on the mossy hill.
Resigned, I thought that we would have to wait
for endless days and weeks to pass. Until
where water meets the land beneath the skies
when walking to the sea across the dunes
I heard their quiet song of joy arise.
Towards the towering rock through palest hues
my tired head and eyes were lifted up
to find a lovely star: the flower of hope.
Yesterday evening I decided to seek out poems written about primroses. There is the great Michael Longley’s gorgeous poem ‘Telling Yellow’ in which he describes an attempt to brighten up his writing desk on a dull, damp day, by gathering yellow flowers. Dull, damp days are frequent here in Northern Ireland. In Longley’s poem, it wasn’t until the contrast of bright pink was added into the mix that the illuminating effect he sought after could be felt. And how brightening that achieved moment is:
And all my yellows broke
Orange and gold
And primrose each
Singing its note.
Continuing on my search for primrose poems I found John Clare’s ‘Evening Primrose’, a lyrical evocation of the flower’s pale fragility:
The pale brimstone primroses come at the spring Swept over and fann'd by the wild thrushes wing Bow'd down to the leaf cover'd ground by the bees Who sing their Spring ballads thro bushes and trees
I wondered why Clare used the adjective ‘brimstone’. Its associations with burning sulphur seem far removed from the fresh appearance of the primrose flower in the cool Spring air. I learned that the brimstone is a lemon-coloured butterfly that, just like the primrose, appears in Spring. Perhaps this sheds a little light in turn on Michael Longley’s enigmatic reference to burning primroses in his poem ‘Gorse Fires’:
I am travelling from one April to another. It is the same train between the same embankments. Gorse fires are smoking, but primroses burn And celandines and white may and gorse flowers.
In my explorations I read also a wonderful account about Coleridge and the Wordsworths, out walking in the Lake District, also on a wet day. As Dorothy Wordsworth noted in her diary entry for 24th April 1802, the little group was transfixed by the sight of a persistent, fragile primrose plant clinging high up onto a great rock by the roadside. A few years earlier, in 1796, Coleridge had a written ‘To A Primrose’ to mark his first encounter with the flower that season:
Thy smiles I note, sweet early flower, That peeping from thy rustic bower, Thy festive news to earth doth bring, A fragrant messenger of Spring!
William Wordsworth would write a poem inspired by the group’s sighting of the flower during their walk together in 1802. He gave it the title ‘The Primrose of the Rock’. Some thirty years later he returned to the piece again to write a second part. In the early section of the poem Wordsworth points to the dependence of the flower to the rock to which it was bravely clinging; to the the dependence of the rock to the earth; and finally to the dependency of the earth to God who ‘upholds them all’. In the later part of the poem he alludes to the Christian hope of resurrection:
Sin-blighted though we are, we too, The reasoning Sons of Men, From one oblivious winter called Shall rise and breath again; And in eternal summer lose Our three score years and ten.
In Scripture, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah reminds us that the beauty of flowers, and of all temporal things, is fleeting: ‘The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever’. God is the true treasure that temporal beauty gives us just a tiny glimpse of. The only thing that really matters is eternal life. These thoughts are reflected in the lyrics of the song ‘My Worth is Not in What I Own’ by Graham Kendrick and Irish hymn writers Keith and Kristyn Getty. This song would be a valuable travel companion through Lent as we approach Easter. You can listen to it here, beautifully sung by Fernando Ortega and Kristyn Getty
As summer flowers we fade and die Fame, youth and beauty hurry by But life eternal calls to us At the cross.