The Daffodil and the Preserved Prunes

Quote: His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes.

That’s Christopher Morley writing in his essay, Thoughts on Cider, taken from his collection of humorous essays, Pipefuls (1920). In the Quote, Morley is referring to a poet called Dove Dulcet. A bit of internet snooping suggests that Dulcet may have been Morley’s pseudonym, or that Dulcet may have been a literary agent. (Let me know in the comments if you know the answer.)

The Quote tickled my fancy in more ways than one. There’s the minor mystery of who Dove is; there’s the minor question of what exactly is meant by a girded spirit; there’s the poor daffodil with unrest in its soul, and the poor tin of prunes brewing riot within its walls.

I sought to explain the girded spirit by referring to the context of the Quote.

Dove is one who has faced many and grievous woes. His Celtic soul peers from behind cloudy curtains of alarm. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago fume in the smoke of his pipe. His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes. He sees the world moving on the brink of horror and despair. Sweet dalliance with a baked bloater on a restaurant platter moves him to grief over the hard lot of the Newfoundland fishing fleet.

I was left with a sense of: spirit girded by sorrow and discontent.

But the daffodil! Yes, I agree, girded spirit or not, who could accuse a daffodil of such subversion? (Tinned fruit has always been suspicious, I’ll give him that.)

What makes the Quote quiver?

Shock tactic.

strawberry preserve

Strawberries and strawberry preserve at their most suspicious. Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer

The reader is taken aback, at first thinking this is nonsense, but then realising the value of the word sees. The quote does not actually claim the daffodil has unrest in its soul, no. The quote is not a statement about the flower, but about the person observing the flower. The difference is vast.

Recall the more famous line using the verb to see in this way. Here is William Blake in his Auguries of Innocence.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Blake is not claiming that a grain contains a world; he is discussing the ability to see a world within a grain.

 

What is at the core of the Quote?

Metaphor. (Or isn’t it?)

That’s the other quirky point. The daffodil cannot incite agrarian unrest, but who is to say that you cannot see (and believe you are seeing, literally, not metaphorically) whatever you want in the yellow flute of daffodil. And at that point, the debate turns academic.

 

PS I cannot resist quoting the remainder of the paragraph following the Quote. The emphasis is my own.

Six cups of tea warm him to anguish over the peonage of Sir Thomas Lipton’s coolies in Ceylon. Souls in perplexity cluster round him like Canadian dimes in a cash register in Plattsburgh, N. Y. He is a human sympathy trust. When we are on our deathbed we shall send for him. The perfection of his gentle sorrow will send us roaring out into the dark, and will set a valuable example to the members of our family.

Upon searching the internet for the exact phrase in bold, I found it to be unique to Morley except for a single other reference of something or other being call a human sympathy trust in a November 13, 1899 copy of the newspaper The Atlanta Constitution from Atlanta, Georgia.

Yet I feel that I have heard the line before and that I know people who are human sympathy trusts (collecting around themselves souls in perplexity). Do you know any such people yourself?

 


Reading recommendations

  1. PipefulsChristopher Morley. Because they’re delightful even if you don’t smoke. 
  2. Parnassus on WheelsChristopher Morley. Because it’s about a bookshop on wheels. Audio recording available for free on Librivox. (High quality, I’ve listened to it.)
  3. The Haunted BookshopChristopher Morley. Because it’s a sequel of 2. but can also be read as a standalone. Who doesn’t like a haunted bookshop? Librivox. (Likewise.)

One response

  1. IF the daffodil is metaphorical, perhaps it refers to its ephemeral appearance in late winter/early spring?

    I’m glad you continued the quote. I like the Canadian dime simile – mostly because I understand its meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

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