Monday, May 17, 2010

So Beautiful, So Brief




I know the date the first flowers on the tree peony opened this year because it was my birthday. I appreciated the compliment. I knew the dark pink blossoms had swelled and were close to bursting their buttons but the day, a Monday, was a dark one and it surprised me the plant would choose that day to open the show. All the blossoms pretty much open at once, making for spectacular color. I remember that from last year, but this year there were about twice as many. The plant is growing.
Shooting your bolt all at once, it occurs to meis an expensive pleasure. As soon as blossoms that size open they begin to fade. We had a hot sunny day two days later, and I could watch them change in front of my eyes. They were all gone in a week.
One perfect week from a tree peony. It’s a metaphysical choice. Make a very big splash, or try to last. It seems an almost human dilemma. This peony is a Jimi Hendrix or a John Keats among flowering plants.
Keats wrote almost all of the poetry he would be remembered for in one year. Both is mother and younger brother had died from tuberculosis; Keats had cared for them both. He was not surprised when he began to show the symptoms of the disease he had seen in them.
William Wordsworth, on the other hand, another of my favorites, lived to the good old age of eighty. But all of his great poetry came in the first half of his life. Are the gifts of lyric poets like flowers?
Of course, these patterns of creativity are not really chosen by anyone. Poets, rock musicians, and plants are not fireworks planners, deciding whether to set off all their rockets at once or tease them out one or two at a time to make them last.
The peony tree doesn’t “plan” its flowering strategy, though I wonder if nature, or evolution, does in fact have a plan for it, since of course flowers are the reproductive organs of green plants.
And poets, whose greatest works are flowers of their human nature, have frequently remarked the fundamental truth that the most impressive phenomena don’t last. The perfect moment passes quickly; by definition. The perfect flower at its height begins at once to decline.
This was a great theme for the Elizabethans and Renaissance artists everywhere, who took the great risk of loving the world, instead of the otherworldly.
“When I perceive that men as plants increase,” Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 15, “Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,/ And wear their brave state out of memory…”
There’s another metaphor in Sonnet 23, which nails the transient nature of the perfect – a perfect moment, a dream come true – with the apt (not to say perfect) metaphor of a perfect sunny day, “Kissing with golden face the meadows green...” And then, little darling, here come the clouds.
The poem brings the metaphor home in its same half: “Even so my sun one early morn did shine…” We all have something, some prized moment, we can tie to the transient, beautiful “my sun” of Shakespeare’s poem. Something close to our heart. It might mean a peony tree. It really means some version of the way things oughta be.
But, “alack,” as the poet says, “he was but one hour mine.”
Here’s the whole of Sonnet 23:
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.