Poetry Friday: The Camellia

I have been admiring our 80 year-old +  camellia bushes lately, which have been blooming for about two weeks now, and I must say that they are truly magnificent and such a joy during our rainy season.  Even when my shoes are caked with mud and I hear that  squishy, sloshing sound wherever I walk (which is so charming when you first come to Portland from Los Angeles and are not used to “seasons” and so much rain but now grates on your ears), if I see blooming camellias, I feel instantly happier, no matter the dreariness outside.  So, in honor of Poetry Friday, I searched far and wide for a poem honoring camellias, yet instead I found this fascinating book from 1847 called, The Flowers Personified: Being a Translation of Grandville’s “Les Fleurs Animees.”

The book begins in the land of the “Flower Fairy,” who rules over all of the flowers of the world.  The narrator poses the following proposition:

“Does anyone think that a flower can never be unhappy? It would seem to be impossible- yet nothing is more certain.  One fairy found this by her own experience.”

Is it just me, or does this sound like a fabulous first line to a novel??

The story continues with a procession of numerous flowers who wish the Flower Fairy to turn them into humans.  A hellebore addresses her with this statement from all of the flowers.

“Your Majesty:

The flowers here present beg you to accept their homage, and to lend a favorable ear to their humble complaint.  For thousands of years we have supplied mankind with their themes of comparison; we alone have given them all their metaphors;indeed, without us poetry could not exist.  Men lend to us their virtues and their vices; their good and their bad qualities; and it is time that we should have some experience of what these are.  We are tired of this flower life.  We wish for permission to assume the human form, and to judge, for ourselves, whether that which they say above, of our character, is agreeable to truth.”

I am in love with this premise!  The book then goes on to tell the stories of the flowers in their human forms, and quite a lot of them end up being depressing, including the one for the camellia.  But since I found this idea so interesting, I wanted to share the story of the camellia with you even though it is not a poem.  I am just intrigued with the idea of these flowers wanting to know about our lives, after we humans have used them as our metaphors in our poetry!

Here in all its glory is the story about the camellia.  I do wish it was a bit more cheerful, but it’s at least fascinating nonetheless.

(For more fabulous poems, Poetry Friday is being hosted by Liz in Ink.  Enjoy!)

 

CAMELLIA’S REGRETS

I.

IMPERIA.

There was nothing in Venice so much talked of, as the attractions of the Countess Imperia.

Her proud and majestic beauty struck every one with admiration. Her white, velvet-like complexion, slightly shaded with rose-tints, was the envy of all the Venetian ladies. The most distinguished of the nobility gathered round her – a brilliant and numerous court. The illustrious husband of the sea, the doge himself, remarked, on the day of his coronation, that had he been free to choose, the Adriatic would not have received his nuptial ring.

The gondoliers of Venice were admirers of her beauty; and at evening, on the shore, when the improvisator, as he recited stanzas from the Jerusalem Delivered, spoke to the crowd of Armida, of Clorinda, and Herminia, he would add, in this enthusiastic excitement, that they were as beautiful as the Countess Imperia.

She received all this homage indiscriminately. The nobles were readily admitted to her presence – but there was no appearance of her favoring one more than another. Such virtue and beauty combined, made the countess an exception to her sex, and spread her fame through all Italy.

As it would be a splendid triumph to vanquish so stubborn a heart, the emulation of the young Venetians was intensely excited. The accepted lover of the beautiful Imperia, could succeed only against numerous and formidable rivals.

The impression had begun to prevail in Venice, that the countess had resolved never to marry, when it was announced that she had made her choice.

 

II.

STENIO.

Stenio was one of the youngest and most amiable of the Venetian cavaliers, – of high rank and of great wealth.

His success seemed so well deserved, that even envy was dumb.

To understand what were the feelings of Stenio, you need but glance at the following letter, written the evening before his marriage, to Paolo, the friend of his youth: –

“Dear Friend:

“She has consented to bestow on me her hand. Do you appreciate my happiness, Paolo? She loves me!
“There are moments still, when I doubt my good fortune. I sometimes say to myself, ‘It cannot be so. This noble and proud being could never love a mortal. And yet, why should she select me? What motive but love, could induce her to give up to me that freedom which she has held so tenaciously?’
“You know me, Paolo, and you know that my single ambition has ever been, to possess a woman’s affections; to reign there without a partner, and without control; to interchange my soul with hers; and to live in the delights of a mutual sympathy. This dream of earthly bliss I shall realize. God gave not beauty as a fruitless possession. In those whom he has endowed with power to inspire emotions of love, he has implanted the heart to feel them too.
“Thank heaven, Paolo, it has granted the wishes of thy friend.

“Stenio.”

 

III.

PAOLO’S ANSWER.

“Take care of thyself. Thou are a poet!”

 

IV.

AFTER MARRIAGE.

We shall say nothing of the wedding of Stenio and Imperia. All Venice remembers it. Enough to say that it was worthy of the bridegroom and the bride.

Stenio took his wife into the country.

He wished to spend the first period of the honey-moon, so sweet and delightful, in the midst of solitude – beneath the shade of trees, – where birds warble, and breezes murmur, and flowers perfume the air.

“How happy shall we be!” said he to his wife.

She answered by a sigh, and Stenio thought himself the happiest of men. That very evening, he started with Imperia for his country-seat.

 

V.

COUNTRY DIVERSIONS.

At the end of fifteen days, it appeared that the fair Imperia found the country somewhat monotonous.

After a few promenades under the old chestnut-trees, she became exceedingly fatigued.

When Stenio proposed that they should sit upon the grassy bank, she would pretend that the grass was damp, and that a good arm-chair was decidedly preferable.

In the evening, when the moon shed her saddening light on the terrace of the old castle, and Stenio asked her to go and listen with him to the melodies of the night, she would reply that she was apt to take cold.

One day she complained that the singing of the nightingales interrupted her sleep.

Clearly, the country did not suit Imperia. Her husband decided to return to the city.

 

VI.

THE SCENE LIES IN VENICE.

“After all,” said Stenio, “one can be as much alone in a palace as in a cottage. I have caused the old mansion of my ancestors to be renovated. It is now a nest of silk, and velvet, and gold, in which my dove will be very comfortable. We shall live for each other – far from bustle – far from society and festivity. To me alone will she disclose the treasures of her heart.”

As soon as she arrived, Imperia visited the palace. She examined successively all the apartments, and seemed satisfied with the taste and liberality which had directed the arrangements. In very decided language, she expressed to her husband the satisfaction which she felt.

“At length,” said he to himself, with a thrill of delight, “at length she understand me.”

Stenio, as the reader has doubtless discovered, was one of those persons who dream of an existence like that of the sylphs and the genii, – of a life which flows, ever and sweetly, in the midst of music and of poetry, – and in the spiritual interchange of the most tender emotions. He thought that his wife would have the same sentiments.

Unhappily, he was mistaken.

If, seated at the feet of the fair Imperia, he asked her to take her guitar, and sing to him some song of love, she would press her hand to her brows, and exclaim – “A dreadful headache!”

If he attempted to read to her a few pages from one of his favorite poets, she would stretch herself, with a yawn, upon the sofa, and curse the heat, and grumble at the sirocco.

As often as he attempted to be sentimental with her, Imperia used to cut him short.

“Is it not,” he would say, “my precious love, is it not delightful to –“

Never could he get any farther. As soon as she heard this phrase, Imperia would complain of a pain in her stomach, or remark on the danger of taking ices after dinner.

Stenio bore the evil patiently, and hoped that these indispositions would pass away. His illusions were never dissipated.

One day, Imperia came to him with a sweet smile, and the salutation, “My dear lord.”

“Now,” thought Stenio, “we are, at last, about to enjoy the delights of mutual sympathy.”

“Is it not, my precious love,” he hastened to reply, “is it not delightful to:” –

“To have festivities – to receive our friends – and to live in the world,” resumed Imperia. “Do you not mean soon to invite to a grand ball all the choice society of Venice? We ought, I think, now that we are married, to maintain our station respectably.”

To Stenio this was a clap of thunder. A few days afterwards, he thus wrote to his friend: –

 

VII.

THE SECOND LETTER TO PAOLO.

“I am the most unhappy of men. Imperia does not understand.
“You should have seen how brilliant she looked, as she presented herself before me, dressed for the ball. Alas! she cares for nothing but show, luxury, dress, and making a figure in the world. She is a heartless woman.
“Seeing her so fine and so gay, I determined to be revenged.
“’Madam,’ said I to her, ‘you are like that flower called the camellia, which a Jesuit has lately brought hither from China. It is delightful to the eye, but contributes nothing to the smell. You madam, are beautiful, but you lack that fragrance of beauty, which we call love.’
“Having pronounced these withering words, I looked steadily at her. She smiled.
“’You are not far from the truth,’ said she: ‘I am the Camellia,’ – and then she walked proudly into the ball-room.
“Yet before she went in, I thought she turned towards me a sad look. What could that look mean?
“Ah! My friend, pity me; and let me once more tell you that I am the most unhappy of men.”

 

VIII.

PAOLO’S SECOND ANSWER.

“Did I not tell you so?”

 

IX.

THE CAMELLIA.

One day, a black gondola stopped before the palace of the beautiful Imperia. The rowers knocked at the door, and then placed a dead body on the threshold.

It was the body of Stenio.

It had been found extended on the shore of Lido, pierced to the heart by a poniard. A scrap of paper lay near him, on which he had written these few words: – “She never loved me. May god have mercy on my soul.”

At the sight of this corpse, Camellia felt her eyes moisten. She looked long at the soiled hair, the sightless eyes, and the blood-stained breast of her youthful spouse; and then, imprinting a kiss on his pale brow, she exclaimed:

“Accursed be the day when I sought a life upon earth! Had the fairy said to me, “thou wilt have a heart without sensibility, and an unfeeling soul; thou wilt sit by, unmoved at the sight of calamities which thou hast caused; thou wilt shine with a fatal beauty, that shall reflect not one emotion of tenderness,’ – had she warned me of this, I would never have asked for a change of lot. The flower may exist without fragrance, but woman cannot live without love.

O fairy” added she, “restore my former shape. Let me be once more a camellia. There is no lack of heartless women her on earth.”

The Flower Fairy was prompt in granting her prayer. Once more a flower, Imperia remembered Stenio. A splendid camellia was soon seen to rise, as by enchantment, over the grave of the youth.

The suicide of Stenio, and the disappearance of his widow, which occurred soon after, were for a long time, the topics of conversation.

Nobody knew any thing concerning his death, – and when some one spake of it to Paolo, he replied: –

“I had warned him: but he was a poet!”

 

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