By Audrey Stallsmith
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T.S. Eliot--"The Wasteland"
There is always something wistful about lilacs. Their scent may be, as both Eliot and Louise Beebe Wilder seem to agree, "the most memory-stirring of all fragrances."
Because the flowers are frequently associated with the old home-place, perhaps they remind even modern generations of something important lost. In fact a persistent lilac is often the only domesticated tree remaining to mark the spot where a long-gone farmhouse once stood. Since it has been so loved by the common people, the bloom stands for "humility" in the Language of Flowers.
The lilac has lived close to man for centuries, with the common type introduced to Britain around 1560 and the Persian variety before 1614. Gerard called it "blew pipe privet" and described it as bearing "many smal floures in the form of a bunch of grapes. . .consisting of four parts like a little star, of an exceeding sweet savour or smell. . ." Any blossom that has five rather than four lobes is considered rare enough to promise good luck.
The official name, syringa, derives from the Greek syrinx or "pipe." As with elder, lilac has branches filled with soft pith that can easily be removed to create hollow tubes. The common name is a corruption of the Persian lilag, and the plant has also been known as duck's bill, laylock, lily oak, blue Persian jasmine, and--by Lord Bacon--as lelach. Although there are vague references to the use of the plant for treating malaria or as a vermifuge (killer of worms), its claim to fame has always been its starry flowers and intoxicating scent.
Since pale purple hues were once considered as appropriate as black for mourning attire, the flower and its color inevitably became associated with death. When Walt Whitman wrote his poem of lamentation for Abraham Lincoln, he chose to begin it with the lines:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. . .
There are, of course, many other colors of the flower. The wide-spread white-lilac-bearing bush on our farm was one of my favorite hideaways as a child-for reading or daydreaming. Although Eliot refers to April lilacs, here in Pennsylvania they usually bloom in May. In Blackmore's Lorna Doone, a character cradling the body of his young murdered wife, mentions that it was "Whit-Tuesday,and the lilacs all in blossom." (Whitsunday is the 50th day after Easter.)
Maybe it is the fleetingness of lilac's glorious bloom that sometimes makes us sad, because it reminds us of the briefness of youth. The purple lilac stands, after all, for "the first emotions of love" and the white for "youthful innocence." But, probably due to its association with death, the lilac was considered bad luck in affairs of the heart. "She who wears lilacs," an old saying goes, "will never wear a wedding ring." And a bouquet of lilacs from a lover hinted that he wished to break off the relationship.
I suspect the sweet pain that beauty sometimes inflicts on us is really a homesickness for Eden. Or, as C. S. Lewis put it "for that earlier music that men are born remembering." To him, the longing was actually a form of joy, because it reminds us of where we really belong. To me also, lilacs always speak of home!
Syringa vulgaris image is from Traite des Arbrisseaux et des Arbustes Cultives en France et en Pleine, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.