Immortelles: Literary, Botanical, and National Memories
This article examines the history of the popular immortelle flower and its role in aesthetic and material culture from the period of 1780–1930 in England and the United States. The flower was often used and referred to in funerary and literary productions as a symbol of longevity, resurrection, and, of course, immortality (as its name suggests). Exploring the flower’s once far-reaching span reveals a rich memorializing tendency during this period that sought to challenge the anxieties of modernity.
Several years ago, a multimillion dollar French cosmetics company launched its line of anti-aging products made from an essential oil derived from the immortelle flower. Part of its advertising campaign still consists in describing the potency of this botanical wonder to rejuvenate the skin by restoring its elasticity. The skin often functions as an atlas of an individual’s experience, recording the physiological memories of that individual in the form of the scar, the wound, and the cosmetics company’s constant target, the wrinkle. And the company touts the benefits of the immortelle flower’s essential oil to combat the face’s line of demarcation between youth and old age by drawing upon a centuries-long history of the flower’s holistic uses. Yet, while skillfully deploying a narrative of the immortelle flower that includes the adventures of Ulysses, wherein the hero, shipwrecked on the island of Phaecia, is given a vial of essential immortelle oil by the king’s famously beautiful daughter in order to hasten his recovery, this company deftly ignores the flower’s more recent association with memorial practices: an association that spans a period from the late eighteenth to the mid twentieth century. It is an unfortunate omission, for the rich story of the immortelle flower from the period of about 1780–1930 is one that powerfully weaves personal memories into the narratives of nations.
Immortelles, small flowers growing around the Mediterranean, were known in the United States and England in the nineteenth century as “everlasting” flowers; both are somewhat general terms for any number of flowers classified under Xeranthemum or Helichrysum (chrysanthemums, amaranths, strawflowers, and asters, for example). Their petals, which neither fade nor wilt, make them particularly suitable for dried floral arrangements, and they remain popular choices for fall and winter ornamentation in England, France, and the United States today. Arrangements made from the immortelle flowers were common in the nineteenth century: they decorated chapels during the Easter season, evoking the Resurrection of Jesus—a connection that stretched beyond the walls of the church to inside the covers of various consolatory and poetic texts; they were also often favored to make up the funeral wreathes laid at the tomb of a departed loved one; or they were placed under glass domes left either at the gravesite or in the mourner’s home. Poet Laura G. Collins’s poem “Immortelles and Asphodels (Everlastings)” (1898) provides a succinct summary for how everlastings were used as memorial objects:
THESE, our Earth’s perennial flowers—
The fadeless blooms by Poets sung,
Songs, that from Homer’s Age till ours,
Down the aisles of Time have rung—
In many an emblem do we weave
For passionate Remembrance’ sake;
And howe’er we joy, howe’er we grieve,
Sacred pilgrimages make;
For Loss and Grief, the Asphodels
On our graves we mourning lay;
For Memory, the Immortelles—
Our loved ones live for us always.
Death in Life, Life in Death—how we
This, Love’s Faith, keep reverently.
Linking these flowers to the ancient and (obviously) the natural world, to poetry and song, to grief and mourning, and to notions of remembrance and immortality is typical of the kinds of ways in which this flower was adapted to speak to broader cultural concerns often inflected with the kind of anxiety critics have ascribed to the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The popular use of these flowers, particularly in funerary ornaments, highlights a desire to challenge the natural decay of the human body as it aged, fell ill, and passed away. Objects made from immortelles also suggest that the flowers served as markers of continuity in a world challenged by uncertainty and change. Ultimately, immortelles took part in an economy of memories, wherein the raw materials of the natural world and the grief of the personal mind came together to produce what might be called the commodities of passing on; this was especially so when the dried flowers were replaced with silk, ceramic, wax, and even silver reproductions toward the end of the nineteenth century, a development that further disconnected the flowers and those who purchased them from the natural world and its constant reminder of mortality.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, references to the flower pervaded the cultural, social, and material realms of European and American life, and my article will necessarily reflect the multinational presence of the flower as I explore its profusion in literary and visual culture. A key passage from Theodor Fontane’s (1819–98) novel Trials and Tribulations (first published in German in 1888, then translated in English in 1917), for instance, serves to introduce some of the varied perspectives on the popularity of this flower. In it, Frau Nimptsch is struck by the contemporary craze for funerary flowers that ignores the immortelles: “every one is wild about ivy and azaleas,” she says, “but I am not”:
Ivy is well enough when it grows on the grave and covers it all so green and thick that the grave seems as peaceful as he who lies below. But ivy in a wreath, that is not right. In my day we used immortelles, yellow or half yellow, and if we wanted something very fine we took red ones or white ones and made a wreath out of those, or even just one color and hung it on the cross, and there it hung all winter, and when spring came there it hung still. And some lasted longer than that. But this ivy and azalea is no good at all. And why not? because it does not last long. And I always think that the longer the wreath hangs on the grave, the longer people remember him who lies below. And a widow too, if she is not too young. And that is why I favor immortelles, yellow or red or even white, and any one can hang up another wreath also if he wants to. That is just for the looks of it. But the immortelle is the real thing.
This passage records a number of significant points about the immortelle flower in the late nineteenth century: first, it had achieved cultural status as a funerary floral icon that spanned nations; second, its longevity had become synonymous with many processes of commemoration; third, it elicited nostalgic contrasts among members of older and younger generations; and fourth, it unwittingly became part of a system of cultural critique and valuation.
For the popularity of the immortelle flower was not without its detractors. American author Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) (1835–1910), for instance, rejected romantic notions about the flowers, finding their placement at gravesites an expression of almost lazy affect. In his Life on the Mississippi (1883), he sets up a powerful dynamic between fresh flowers and the dried immortelles, which speaks in direct opposition to Frau Nimptsch’s preferential feelings toward the authenticity (“the immortelle is the real thing”) shown by the flower’s everlasting quality. “Fresh flowers,” he writes,
in vases of water, are to be seen at the portals of many of the vaults: placed there by the pious hands of bereaved parents and children, husbands and wives, and renewed daily. A milder form of sorrow finds its inexpensive and lasting remembrancer in the coarse and ugly but indestructible “immortelle”—which is a wreath or cross or some such emblem, made of rosettes of black linen, with sometimes a yellow rosette at the conjunction of the cross’s bars—kind of sorrowful breast-pin, so to say. The immortelle requires no attention: you just hang it up, and there you are; just leave it alone, it will take care of your grief for you, and keep it in mind better than you can; stands weather first-rate, and lasts like boiler-iron.
From Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain], Life on the Mississippi
The illustration accompanying this passage reveals some of the more common appearances of the immortelle crosses and wreathes of immortelles against which Clemens writes. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, artificial flowers were frequently used instead of natural blossoms. The author’s cynicism is a response, in part, to the perceived complacency of the bereaved in letting these artificial versions of the flower do the work of mourning. The debate regarding the appropriateness of placing fresh flowers instead of dried and then artificial flowers at gravesites was well rehearsed by the 1880s. Mrs. Elizabeth Stone, author of God’s Acre, or Historical Notices Relating to Churchyards (1858), found the conventional arrangement of immortelles to appear too contrived rather than to express a sense of affective naturalness when she wrote of “wreaths, or rather circlets of the yellow flower, the French immortelles, of which the common English country name is ‘everlasting.’ All these circlets were of precisely the same size, shape and colour; a perfect resemblance which evidenced one hand in the preparation” (121). Contrived or no, the permanency of such funereal adornment for many men and women disrupted socially normative beliefs about the otherwise natural processes of dying—from death to decay—and of mourning—from grief to resignation—by suggesting that the material object could forestall the act of forgetting.
In his 1875 poem “Immortelles,” the American poet and novelist Edgar Fawcett (1847–1904) attempted to sympathize with the flowers that he apostrophized, suggesting that they might have preferred a brief but glorious existence to their immortality:
Just as when summer laughed, they linger yet,
Here in my chamber, while the world is cold;
Their pale-gold, brittle petals primly set
About dry, brittle hearts of deeper gold.
Do I but fancy that an aching need
Lives in the wan, inanimate looks they lift,
And that Tithonus-like they dumbly plead
The awful goddess to revoke her gift?
Yes, if I read their joyless calm aright,
Mere immortality can ill repay
This sluggish veto of corruption’s blight,
This dull and charmless challenge to decay!
For surely these are flowers that well might sleep
Near Stygian waves, and shiver in the breath
Of long disconsolate breezes when they sweep
Out from the dreamy meadowlands of death!
Ah! where in this white urn they dimly smile,
Full oft, I doubt not, each poor bloom has sighed
To have been some odorous radiance that erewhile
Divinely was a rose, although it died!
407, ll. 1–20
Eternally out of season, Fawcett’s immortelles, in the speaker’s estimation, are condemned to joylessness; forced to signify the human world’s fear of dissolution and “of corruption’s blight” by retaining their almost preternaturally golden hues; and, ultimately, asked to signify the illusion of immortality.
It is the poet who most often draws attention both to the desire for and the impossibility of immortality—a paradox made powerful in Henry Ellison’s “‘Everlastings’ and Neverlastings” (1875), an instructive complement to Fawcett’s poem.
O ye “Immortelles,” flowers of heavenly bloom,
Ye Amaranths, that fade not aye, like our
Frail growths of Time, which spring up in an hour,
And pass like Jonah’s gourd, whose brief perfume
But hides awhile the odour of the tomb!
On which are writ (as on that fabled flower,
Dear to the Muses), woeful words and dour,
“Ai, Ai,” the wail of Nature o’er Man’s doom!
Ye are vouchsafed awhile, to charm Man’s sight,
With Eden-perfumes to intoxicate,
And steep him in oblivious delight,
Sweet dreams of Youth and Love, ‘bove Death and Fate;
Life, like the temple-incense, ye fill quite
For a brief while, then leave it desecrate.
The immortelle’s promise of continued remembrance for the dead and the hope for immortality both for those who had gone before and those who remained was a difficult one to maintain. The position of the immortelle flower as an icon for immortality, memory, and affect was often challenged in the nineteenth century by cultural assumptions about not only the conventional expression of grief by an individual but also the aesthetic treatment of emblems by society.
Nevertheless, as a popular and pervasive object, the immortelle flower performed its emblematic function at all levels of society, which included a role in representing national sorrow by taking part in the processes of commemorating the war dead of France, England, and the United States during the nineteenth century. The August 1863 issue of The lllustrated London News, for instance, featured an engraving that depicted a scene from the annual French “Emperor’s Fête,” during which “the procession of old soldiers of the First Empire—‘les vieux de la vieille garde’—to the Column Vendôme, [...] each year replace the crowns of immortelles upon the rails surrounding the base” (“Emperor’s Fête” 208) (see figure 2). Almost two decades later, in 1880, Queen Victoria laid a wreath of immortelles on the Queen’s Colour, 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, after the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The act partook not only in celebrating the rescue of the Queen’s Colour during the January 22, 1879 defense of Rorke’s Drift, in Natal Province, South Africa, but also in boosting the morale of the British following a particularly harrowing loss against the Zulu warriors at Isandhlwana. After laying the wreath, the Queen “command[ed] that a silver wreath shall in future be borne round the staff of the Queen’s colour of the 24th Regiment” (qtd. in Barfield para. 13). And the minutes of The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association reveal the annual placement of immortelle flowers on the tomb of George Washington, revered by men and women in the United States for his role not only as a former president but also as a great general.
“The Emperor’s Fête: Veteran Soldiers of the First Empire Placing Immortelles on the Railings of the Column Vendôme,” engraving in
The Illustrated London News (29 August 1863): 208
Immortelles were just one object in a system of remembering: urns, mourning jewelry made out of jet and hair, mourning clothing and stationery, mourning portraits and, later, mourning photographs all represented the ways in which the traffic in grief became increasingly embedded in a complicated social network linking sorrow, consumerism, and ideology—a network that expanded to include the publishing industry as well. For immortelles were not only flowers, and thus the subjects of social commentary, poems, and other texts, but also types of poems and prose pieces written about mortality, grief, and the afterlife. Additionally, the word served as a common label for anthologies and poetic collections. Original poetry collections with “immortelle” in their titles abound in the nineteenth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, from Immortelles (1887), by Cora M. A. Davis, to S. K. Phillips’s collection, Immortelles and Other Memorial Poems (1890), to Laura G. Collins’s Immortelles and Asphodels (1898). The term was a kind of catch-all for poetry anthologies down through the early twentieth century, with names of works such as Immortelles; Garnered from the Lyric Centuries (1927), edited by Wallace Alvin Briggs, reminiscent of the keepsake albums of the early nineteenth century. Often they also constituted selections (or excerpts) from prominent English (and French) writers, as in the 1856 collection Immortelles from Charles Dickens. When Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), one of the greatest Victorian poets of memory and grief, died, a selection of his works was gathered together in a commemorative collection entitled Immortelles, In Loving Memory of England’s Poet Laureate (1893). While many of the reviews suggested the collection could have been stronger, the general feeling was that it aptly served its role to impress the poet’s impact on the national memory of the English.
The mode of many of these collections is pedagogical. Maud Campbell Cotton, for instance, wrote the following dedicatory poem to the American Mutual Benefit Reading Circle’s compilation Immortelles: Being a Collection of Helpful Thoughts from Various Sources (1919):
Here on its way our little book we send—
Its errand plain, its purpose clear—
That which has grown to our hearts dear,
We gladly now unto the whole world lend.
Within its borders, drawn from near and far,
From mines of deep and earnest thought,
Are words with truth and wisdom fraught,
With inspiration high, and aim sincere.
Content are we if those who read but steal
Glimpses of great vision, courage fine.
Thoughts which link human with divine,
And life’s grand harmonies to them reveal.
The text opens with the biblical verse taken from Proverbs 22:6, which states the instructive use of the collected reading material more clearly: “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (8). The selections that follow combine the Circle’s pedagogical leaning with its belief that inspirational passages, “glimpses of great vision, courage fine” may be directly communicative of divine revelation in “life’s grand harmonies.”
Whereas the Circle’s text may have extended these passages to its readers for their general edification, many immortelle collections were compiled for consolatory purposes. Charles C. Conner’s A Pastor’s Immortelles: Or Tokens for the Bereaved, for instance, offered his funeral addresses from four years of pastoral service for the solace of his grieving readers, a purpose explained in his preface: “The grief of death is the common grief of man. However differently death’s face looks to us, the living are led forth first as disciples, and stand beside a narrow grave like unto every other. It is my prayer that these published words may minister to other than those whose dead are herein named” (3). And, published at midcentury, Bible Immortelles: A Textbook for Mourners, provides its readers with a beautifully illuminated, 31-day calendar of biblical passages meant to lift the mourner’s spirits (see figure 3). In the introduction, the author speaks directly to the immortelles, telling the flowers, “You have a teaching which is your own in ‘the language of flowers’” (1). That message, the author explains, is to console, and the introduction to the mourner’s calendar interweaves Christian, classical, and English references to the immortelle flowers to achieve this objective. Allusions to Homer’s treatment of the funeral of Achilles and Milton’s Lycidas, both of which feature immortelles, stress the desire of the living to know that in some way the dead are not fully gone. Bible Immortelles draws from the literary and spiritual worlds to reassure the reader that the promise of rebirth is paramount to the Christian faith. The compiler claims, for instance, that Christ’s statement “I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” is “the central flower of the amaranthine chaplet” (8–9). The immortelle flower is envisioned in much nineteenth-century consolation literature as a symbol of eternal existence, which provided the kind of spiritual support for a mourner faced with a world shadowed by increasing religious doubt.
From Bible Immortelles; A Text Book for Mourners.
Flowers have an ancient association with the tombs of the dead and an equally long connection to the discourse of poetry. Indeed, “Floral tributes have formed the love-language for the dead in all ages,” writes the author of Bible Immortelles (5). The elaboration of floral arrangements for middle-class funerals and the increased production of anthologies that used botanical references in their titles and commentary in the nineteenth century underscore the longevity of this relationship (Seaton). As Beverly Seaton, Leah Price, and Amy M. King have pointed out, flowers and the discourse surrounding them reached through the varieties of nineteenth-century culture, particularly literary culture: from sentimental flower books (Seaton) to anthologies (Price) to novelistic expressions of female sexuality (King). The profusion of poems and poetic collections known in their titles by the term immortelles suggests to today’s readers that, even beyond these examples of the ways in which the botanical and literary worlds intermingled, the interconnectedness of the processes of memorialization and the aesthetic usages of the natural world may be glimpsed.
The immortelle poems sit alongside the consolatory works mentioned above in their frequent reflections on the themes of renewal, regeneration, and Christian resurrection in the course of writing about mortality and mourning. Heavily endowed with references to the natural and classical worlds, these poems also speak about the cycles of birth and death. Yet despite social pressure on the individual in the nineteenth century to resign himself or herself to these cycles and to the grief and work of mourning they elicit, the authors of these collections often reveal extraordinarily intimate responses to the dead whom their works celebrate. And while the writers may seek to console their readers (or even, cathartically, themselves), many of the poems collected underscore the intense solitude and loneliness brought on by the loss of a loved one. In her 1899 collection A Bunch of Immortelles and Other Poems, Lila Sprague Frost speaks of this isolation:
I know it is the same to other eyes—
The sweet renewal of the miracle of life.
On other ears the melody of spring
Falls with no note of sadness.
But for me the beauty of the world is veiled.
The murmurs of the spring come sadly to my ears,
Longing for the music of thy voice.
The honey-suckles droop their heads,
The violets yield their incense up less gladly,
And there’s a shadow on the sun, to-day,
Because I walk alone.
Further in the collection, the poet writes of “A home, and the shadow of death drawing near, / A prayer for help, a cry of desolation; / A swift memory of the brightness past, / A wail for the loneliness to come” (6). The deep sense of isolation brought on by death is palpable and poignant. The poems in Frost’s collection, many written in response to the loss of a child, explore the private struggling of the mourner to come to terms with loss and to return to the social order.
The act of returning to the social order—ultimately, of resigning oneself to loss—was central to nineteenth-century texts on mourning, but in both England and the United States, this act stood in contrast to certain, powerful cultural images of passionate grief. In England, these were the twin images of the Queen in mourning and the Poet Laureate’s struggle to achieve resignation in his most famous text In Memoriam, A.H.H. (Indeed, it is difficult not to see the influence of Tennyson’s In Memoriam on many of these later nineteenth-century productions.) In the United States, resignation was made much more difficult by the devastation of the Civil War and the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65). In both countries, immortelles, in the form of tribute poems, prose pieces, and even illustrations, were often written, compiled, and composed for fallen soldiers and national leaders. These were print counterparts to the wreaths of immortelles laid at soldiers’ tombs. A May 6, 1865 illustration in Punch entitled “Britannia Sympathises with Columbia,” for instance, shows a sorrowful Britannia laying a wreath of immortelles on the corpse of Lincoln, with the figures of Columbia and an unshackled, freed slave weeping beside his body (183) (see figure 4). Nearly two decades after the assassination of Lincoln, a memorial album was compiled by Osborn Hamiline Oldroyd that solicited contributions from prominent Americans and Europeans regarding the deceased president. The Lincoln Memorial; Album Immortelles (1882) interwove these solicitations and Lincoln’s own speeches with the explicit purpose of preserving the president’s life and political influence for future generations. The album is a “who’s who” of nineteenth-century American and, to a lesser extent, European life. Tributes—from members of parliament and former U.S. governors to authors and poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and farmers and inventors such as Thomas Edison—all express enduring admiration for the fallen statesman.
“Britannia Sympathises with Columbia.” Illustration in
Punch, or the London Charivari (6 May 1865): 183
The text, dedicated to the American people, performs the necessary genealogical function of aligning Lincoln with great leaders of the past as well. Samuel Wells Williams, an important figure in U.S.-Chinese relations in the mid nineteenth century, wrote for the album that Lincoln’s “name is hereafter identified with the cause of Emancipation, while his patriotism, integrity, and other virtues, and his untimely death, render him not unworthy of mention with William of Orange and Washington.” And he suggested that the increased study of the president’s life would lead to an increased appreciation and admiration for his “character of mercy and firmness” (177). By linking the assassinated president to William III and George Washington, Wells Williams inserts the traditionally nationalist formula of war (or revolution) and reconciliation into the memorial process.
Oldroyd, the editor of the album, explains his own memorial process to his readers when he writes that he spent years collecting the “relics” of Lincoln’s personal and political life, material objects that he wished could be housed in some “Memorial Hall.” It was this desire to collect all things “sacred to Lincoln’s memory” that led him to seek the text’s contributions, a desire “to collect the opinions of the great men of the world” (v–vi). This manifestly nineteenth-century urge to collect and classify is echoed not only in Oldroyd’s museological desire to house Lincoln’s relics but also in the horticultural and botanical wish to gather the literary immortelles for posterity’s sake. One contribution highlights the role of the literary immortelle in the preservation of both national memory and history in the nineteenth century in its use of horticultural and funereal language. As prominent minister George W. Minier wrote, “I am glad to assist in embalming in the minds of his countrymen, the true history and eminent character of the greatest American President, before they are overrun with the weeds of fable” (190).
No less significant in the history of this flower is the cultural belief in its adaptability to new technological forms. Indeed, in one late nineteenth-century tribute album, the immortelle flower functions as a mediator between history and technological advancement. In 1894, William H. Allen published The American Civil War Book and Grant Album, “Art Immortelles,” a collection of photographs that recorded important moments in the life of recently deceased President and General Ulysses S. Grant. Taken from the “Grant Relics,” housed in the U.S. National Museum, the photographs are meant to serve, as Allen explains in his introduction, as an “art preservative” (3). Allen argues that “the art of truth […] belongs to the camera alone, whose swift, straight and nice pencils of light, write with the exact science of chemical reactions” (3). The photographic immortelles of this album speak vividly to the textual immortelles in the Lincoln Memorial: the process recounted by Allen of gathering and collecting negatives depicting the life of Grant is similar to the process explained by Oldroyd in compiling his tribute to Lincoln, and both texts reveal a public eager to preserve the memory of national figures. The album devoted to Grant is also important in recording significant developments in both historiography and funerary commemoration: “In the beginning,” he writes, “photography was only a portrait painter, but with the instantaneous process, a new historian was born. The art has hitherto been too young for this to be enough thought of, but in the work now offered, it makes claim of right to its higher office, for it has found a worthy subject” (Allen 3). Indeed, Allen makes the extraordinary claim that this collection of “art immortelles” offers a record of an entire civilization to its readers:
These plates are history; they not only show the manner of him, who was the foremost man of his time in the greatest republic of all time, but there are also shown his companions, the arms and enginery of war, the arts of peace, and even details of fashion and customs, which no mere writer would think to note. In short, the civilization of an age is, in one way and another, grouped around its central figure and photographed, and that too, in vivid scenes, of a whole people moved by deep feeling.
Allen’s introduction is clear that the “pictorial biography” serves an enduring function. The album is meant to enhance Grant’s reputation for future generations of Americans. He writes, “There is in them [the photographs], more of the immortality of fame for General Grant, than in all that now can otherwise be built or spoken” and “This is our offering—an everlasting wreath of art to fame” (4).
While these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collections reveal the unique position of the immortelles to participate in the shaping of literary and funerary culture, their easily identifiable, almost quotidian, presence makes them unusually poised to speak to other pressing themes during a period that spans more than a century. Reviewing the vastly diverse uses of the flower offers scholars one way, for example, in which to explore the triangulation of material culture, memory, and celebrity in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Two essays by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94) help to introduce and illuminate this relationship. In them, Stevenson first reinforces and then revises the critical and aesthetic judgments levied against the immortelle flower reflected in, among others, Clemens and Stone.
Stevenson saw the immortelle flower as a symbol of a changing Victorian world, marred by a widening gap between the poor and wealthy and complicated by the notion that progress led not only to evolution but also to decay. In his essay “The Wreath of Immortelles,” Stevenson observes that the domed flowers adorning a tomb in Old Greyfriars’ churchyard function both as a loving memorial laid down by mourners and as a sign of opulence and unnecessary expenditure to women of the working class whose close proximity to the cemetery is a marker of their poverty, not a sentimental desire to remain near to their dearly departed. In the essay, Stevenson, a young, melancholic man, finds the cemetery “if not an antidote [to], at least an alleviation” for his “fit of the blues” (471). Yet there is something hauntingly disturbing in how the houses of the poor intermingle with the tombs of the dead, a topographical connection made more apparent by the juxtaposition of the intermittent “town garden full of sickly flowers” and the immortelles atop a grave that draw the attention of two working women whom the author observes (473). Stevenson writes,
As they came down they neared a grave, where some pious friend or relative had laid a wreath of immortelles, and put a bell glass over it, as is the custom. The effect of that ring of dull yellow among so many blackened and dusty sculptures was more pleasant than it is in modern cemeteries, where every second mound can boast a similar coronal; and here, where it was the exception and not the rule, I could even fancy the drops of moisture that dimmed the covering were the tears of those who laid it where it was. As the two women came up to it, one of them kneeled down on the wet grass and looked long and silently through the clouded shade, while the second stood above her, gently oscillating to and fro to lull the muling baby. I was struck a great way off with something religious in the attitude of these two unkempt and haggard women; and I drew near faster, but still cautiously, to hear what they were saying. Surely on them the spirit of death and decay had descended; I had no education to dread here: should I not have a chance of seeing nature? Alas! a pawnbroker could not have been more practical and commonplace, for this was what the kneeling woman said to the woman upright—this and nothing more: “Eh, what extravagance!”
The essayist is drawn sentimentally to apostrophize against the nineteenth century, whose “stale and deadly uniformity” has led “castaways [to] kneel upon new graves, to discuss the cost of the monument and grumble at the improvidence of love” (474). Stevenson revisits the scene of the two women in a much later essay, “Old Mortality,” and, at the time of that writing, his scorn has become somewhat muted. While the immortelles at the churchyard are, in the first essay, used to underscore the realities of poverty, they are realities to which the young neo-Romantic does not, at least in his writing, wish to attend. In the latter work, the essayist returns to this scene and reflects not only on how he has matured to understand the role of destitution in these women’s lives but also on how his memory of this scene has evolved as he has grown older. The graveyard, a place he frequently haunted as a young man, holds these memories: “Pleasant incidents are woven with my memory of the place,” he explains (38–9). And the collection, Memories and Portraits, in which “Old Mortality” appears, is replete with examples of how memory evokes and is evoked by the sensual world, of which the immortelles are a part. As Ann C. Colley explains, “the nature of memory and recollection, [were] concerns that often dominated [Stevenson’s] imagination” (“Colonies” 73). For Stevenson, memory is closely tied to material objects.
The material book functions as one of these objects in his works. In “A College Magazine,” Stevenson reveals the power of the text to record memories of those who have gone before him. He writes that his book, perhaps when it ends up in a pawnshop, will alone serve to “preserve” the memory of his friends and colleagues (71). While books are often considered in terms of how they function as monuments or memorials to deceased writers, in many of Stevenson’s essays, the book more closely resembles a coffin in which the remains of the dead are revealed to be embalmed.
The desire for immortality once again emerges in this close connection among memory, its preservation, and the book. But as Stevenson, whose ill-health often led him to consider the place of immortality and fame in his own life, explains in “Old Mortality,” “To believe in immortality is one thing, but it is first needful to believe in life” (41). Elsewhere, he writes “I do not admit immortality, but I cannot believe in death ... Cease to live I may; but not cease to be: it can only be a change of function” (qtd. in Turnbull 230). For Stevenson and many of his contemporaries, the desire for immortality manifested itself in a desire for celebrity, a desire often in tension with the goal of creating so-called high art. And while individual authors debated the role of personal fame in their professional lives, the public took up the question of what kinds of art and literature should be collected for posterity’s sake, what kinds of literary flowers, in others words, were worth gathering and preserving. The anthology often revealed the tensions among these desires at the turn of the twentieth century (and even before), a point Leah Price so thoroughly documents in her work on the anthology.
Following the turn of the twentieth century, artists and readers were highly critical of the number and types of anthologies produced in the nineteenth century, and those popular collections known by the title of immortelles were not immune from the criticism. In her memoir of San Francisco, published in 1932, Amelia Ransome Neville wrote about some common household items found in nineteenth-century homes. Included among her list were not only pieces of furniture but also ubiquitous center-table books. As she explains, “‘Wreath of Immortelles’ was a favorite title, the ‘immortelles’ being sentimental selections of prose and verse suitable for the center table, not at all for reading” (50). Both ornamental and sentimental, these collections are retrospectively dismissed as little more than decoration in the nineteenth-century bourgeois home.
Nevertheless, immortelle collections were, in their time, popular markers of artistic success. In a piece in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Margaret Oliphant (1828-97), marking the death and reviewing the autobiography of the popular French poet and songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780–1857), brings together the floral and lyrical outpourings of affection for the poet by those who attended his funeral. “It is but a few months since this old man ended his long, honest, kindly, and sensible life,” Oliphant writes. “He had a public funeral, a long procession of mourners, and an unlimited shower of immortelles upon his pall and grave. He has had, besides, his share of those literary garlands, which are pretty much of the same character as the immortelles” (107). While the “literary garlands” here seem to be eulogiums for the poet, the immortelles also represent the coming together of the natural and cultural worlds in celebration of talent and popular affection. In his tribute to Beránger, William Cox Bennett (1820–95) echoes Oliphant, noting that despite his death and because of Beránger’s powerful voice for the French people, “France [shall] still bring / Immortelles to his tomb” (lines 85–86).
Poets, along with the reviewers who wrote about them, understood that the use of the term immortelles in conjunction with their poetry signaled the potential for posthumous longevity of their works. Gerald Massey (1828–1907), popular poet, freethinker, and Egyptologist, however, wrote in the preface to a late collection of his poetry that posthumous reputation was ultimately unpredictable. As he looked back on his poetry, he was grateful for the praise from critics but felt that in later life his verse could better serve him as a comfortable companion for old age rather than a compendium of his worth:
Some of the most generous critics of my early volumes prophesied that they contained immortal verse. Whether they did or not remains to be tested by that fierce furnace and crucible of the future, which await the work of all. Doubtless these will reduce to cinders much of the poetry of the present, and consume to ashes many of the artificial Immortelles that friendly hands have fondly placed upon the brows of the
"Immortals prematurely brought to birth."
On looking back at these Writings of my more youthful years, I cannot help wishing that they had been worthier, but I also feel thankful to find they are no worse. I am glad to know the ghost of my former self, now raised, is not appalling as it might have been. And after all the brooding patience of long research, and the painful labour spent in writing big books to stand on library shelves, I feel no shame in confessing the fact that it is very pleasant to come at last and nestle near the warm heart of one's lovers and friends in a Pocket Edition of one's poetry.
Massey suggests that the writing of poetry cannot compare to the rigors of scholarship; writing poems, in fact, provides one of the pleasures of his life against the more “painful labour” of producing his “big books” about Egypt and Spiritualism. Today Massey is probably known as much for his poetry as his scholarship and his political involvement. But by drawing attention to the “artificial Immortelles” in this passage, Massey alerts his readers to the literary critic’s potentially tenuous valuation of contemporary writing, a criticism many authors had of those who compiled anthologies.
Two anthologies of the works by two of the most popular writers in nineteenth-century England, Charles Dickens (1812-70) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, attempted to rehabilitate the image of the compiler: the 1856 publication Immortelles from Charles Dickens, by the compiler known only as “Ich,” and the posthumous publication Immortelles, In Loving Memory of England’s Poet Laureate (1893). While the latter is clearly an act of memorializing, the former has a more explicitly instructive goal: to reinvigorate critical appreciation of Dickens’s more serious writings. In his preface to Immortelles from Charles Dickens, the compiler explains that his purpose is “To group together some of the rarer beauties that we find so profusely scattered in the pages of our author, as we do fresh-gathered flowers, with all their exquisite tints and vital fragrance, as the objects of an affectionate regard; to preserve a pleasure which the younger mind shall not outgrow” (7). Using the language of gardening and horticulture, this compiler is tasked with the duty of gathering the best of Dickens’s writing, and in this case that means the passages that offer the most insight into human nature and social relationships.
Anthology, a term that derives from the Greek for a collection of flowers (OED), and immortelles, those symbols of everlasting life, are also drawn together here in the cultivation of future reading publics. The compiler argues, in fact, that Dickens should be remembered for more than his humor, noting that “The moralising of Dickens is worth more than all his farcical efforts, all his powerful comedy, and even all his wit” (3). Dickens is elevated as a voice for the nation, one who partakes of a tradition of national genius, which includes Shakespeare with whom the compiler often compares his subject.Immortelles from Charles Dickens, then, functions as more than just an ornamental collection of a popular author’s writing. This anthology is an important marker of the relationship between society and cultural production: it is used as a piece of literary criticism, a commentary on popular culture and taste, and a pedagogical tool for the instruction of a decidedly English audience—all functions, as Richard D. Altick and Leah Price have shown, that are shared by more general anthologies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
By the turn of the century, some compilers felt a sense of urgency to record and publish the works of the nineteenth century for the edification of the next century. The Ursuline nuns of New York City, for instance, drew together the voices (in poetry and prose) of American Catholic women writers in their remarkable compilation, Immortelles of Catholic Columbian Literature (1897). In her introduction to the text, Mother Seraphine Leonard informs her readers that the inspiration for such a collection came from an article in the The Home Journal and News, which bestowed praise upon American Catholic women. The author of the Home Journal article had written that the American Catholic woman “may not be crowned after death as one of Fame’s immortals; her memory and her writings may not long survive her own day and generation; but having done what she could in her time (and with it instructed many unto justice), she shall be crowned by the Lord God in His everlasting Kingdom as one of those blessed toilers ‘Whose works shall last, / Whose name shall shine as stars on high, / When deep in the dust of a ruined past / The labors of selfish souls shall lie’” (qtd. in Seraphine 13). Part of the Ursulines’ project, then, is to ensure some longevity of these works “with the hope,” in Mother Seraphine’s words, “that the people of the next century may emulate those of this and weave a yet brighter crown” (14). The language of horticulture is, as in so many works before, unmistakably a part of this project; yet the introduction to the text also suggests that the nineteenth-century obsession with botanical classification was no longer an issue. “In our collection,” Mother Seraphine writes,
no attempt has been made to classify, for, like one rushing into a garden filled with varied and beautiful flowers, exotics, field-flowers or cultured blooms of hot-house growth, or what you will, is entranced, not knowing which to choose, and seizes and appropriates indiscriminately, so have we simply culled and thrown together as they appeared to our eyes desirable, leaving the arrangement to other times and other hands, so anxious are we that the readers of to-day shall see the richness of our dear Mother’s [the Catholic Church’s] garden and know that loved flowers that have bloomed ere the dawn of another century”.
The urgent need to preserve these works may speak to a pressing anxiety at the turn of the century, but the alleged haphazard nature of compilation also suggests the nuns sought to make the experience of reading not only pedagogical but also pleasurable.
The “Victorian celebration of death,” to use James Stevens Curl’s phrase (194–5), is marked in many ways by what Curl identifies as funerary ephemera, what I would like to call the items of material mourning—those material objects often associated with funerary practices and the commodities of passing on, of which the immortelles are just one example. But death was not the only thing these small flowers embellished. Their role not only in marking the passing of the individual but also in signaling the popularity of nineteenth-century artists and other eminent individuals offers a powerful commentary on the connections between the material object and the search for immortality in a world constantly threatened by change and uncertainty. The everlasting flower thus offered some consolation not only for individual mourners that their loved ones would not be forgotten but also for a society that sought assurance that the progress of the present into the future would not lead to the erasure of the past.
By the early 1900s, the overwhelming popularity of the immortelles as commemorative emblems seems to have run its course. The House of Commons’s Annual Series of Trade Reports for Session 1911 noted that trade in the immortelle flowers had diminished by the early twentieth century, with most of the flowers being exported by France into the United States. Today the immortelle’s heritage is diffuse but, strangely, rather wide-ranging: from cosmetic lines to essential oil products, from poetic collections by writers in the American South to a French publisher’s collection of excerpts from famous philosophers, the flowers still show up in a multinational context. The history of the immortelle flower tells a remarkable story of how matter and memory commingle not only in the private and emotional lives of individuals but also in the public and symbolic lives of nations.
Kara Marler-Kennedy is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at Rice University, in Houston, Texas. She is currently working on a dissertation that examines the relationship among memory, affect, and historical fiction in nineteenth-century British literature.
While Collins makes a distinction between the immortelle and the asphodel at lines 9–12, the flowers were often interchangeably referred to as either “everlastings” or “immortelles.”
See also John Morley 30.
See also Wilkinson-Latham 25.
See James Stevens Curl; John Morley; Gary Laderman; and Martha V. Pike and Janice Gray Armstrong.
On keepsake albums, see Beverly Seaton and Leah Price.
For a rich discussion of Stevenson’s desire for recollection and its material connections to landscape and visual culture, see Colley, “Robert Louis Stevenson and the Idea of Recollection.” See also Colley, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination, 91–92. And on Stevenson and the nature of memory in Victorian theories of evolutionary psychology, see Julia Reid, “Stevenson, Romance, and Evolutionary Psychology.”
See Joseph Phelan for more on Béranger’s influence in Victorian England.
See Christopher Rovee 221n43. See also Price on various early anthology editors’ use of botanical or horticultural language in her chapter 2, “Cultures of the Commonplace” (67–104). William Taylor wrote in his review of Basil Montagu’s excerpted collection of writing by Bishop Hall in the Annual Review of 1805 that “It ought not to be supposed that any anthologist can strip this garden of its flowers” (651).
Shakespeare, as a number of recent critics have pointed out, was particularly important to Victorian notions of national literary memory. In a 1893 lecture given by Alfred Darbyshire at the Calvert Revivals at the Manchester Prince’s Theatre, the speaker makes the connections between Shakespeare and memory explicit: “If the grand old Greek who gave the Iliad to the antique world was dear to the sons of Hellas, should not the creator of Macbeth ever hold a place in the hearts and affections of Englishmen? Shakespeare is our own; he was ‘native and to the manner born’; and on this eve of St. George we gather round in his honour; we venerate his memory; and we celebrate the advent of that mighty genius which has ‘made the whole world wonder.’ Let us then (we of the Arts Club) place our laurel wreaths, and our immortelles, on the shrine of his memory, with thankful and reverent hearts” (101).
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