In contrast to cheery Johnny Jump-ups and bold-faced pansies, there’s an introverted branch of the Violaceae family. Violets, true violets, are modest and demure. They shelter underneath their heart-shaped leaves, and even great masses of them never seem to call attention to themselves. Unless you really look, you don’t realize quite how beautiful violets are. They shrink from the public eye, the origin (I suppose) of the descriptive phrase, “a shrinking violet.”
But there have always been some who have valued the reticent beauties.
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
Does that have a familiar ring? It’s from a poem by William Wordsworth, the English nature poet, and it begins “She dwelt among the untrodden ways…” The poem is one of five that collectively are called the “Lucy” poems. In them, the poet tells of his unrequited love for an idealised girl, Lucy, who died young. Whether or not there ever was a real Lucy, or she was simply a poetic device, no one knows for sure. But since a romantic story trumps a poetic device any day, there is much speculation about who she was, and the circumstances of Wordsworth’s loss, if there really was a loss.
In the world of the poem, no one noticed Lucy, just as no one notices violets. They hide wherever they can, even in the grass.
No one noticed her, except the poet who loved her. And when she was gone, still no one noticed. Except the poet. Just three stanzas of limpid simplicity, with a final line that is one of the most moving in English lyric poetry. You can read them here. Better still, though, for those of you who love poetry, you can hear Sir Andrew Motion, an English poet, novelist, and biographer, who was Poet Laureate of the U.K. from 1999 to 2009, read it aloud, with an intelligent and enlightening discussion that, for once, doesn’t detract from the poem itself! Here’s the Youtube, if you have the time and inclination:
And in the springtime, all of you, when our fancies sometimes turn to thoughts of love, don’t forget to look out for the beauties that dwell, unnoticed and unsung, among us.
(I wonder: is there something you love in the same way in which Wordsworth loved Lucy?)