Snapdragon: a Riddle for a Flower Book, Part 2

 

In the second half of  “Snapdragon: a Riddle for a Flower Book” Newman continues with a short catalog of “rarer”  or fancier flowers of favour (in contrast to the humble Snapdragon).

Life’s gay gifts and honours rare,

Flowers of favour! win and wear!

Rose of beauty, be the queen

In pleasure’s ring and festive scene.

Ivy, climb and cluster, where

Lordly oaks vouchsafe a stair.

Vaunt, fair Lily, stately dame,

Pride of birth and pomp of name.

Miser Crocus, starved with cold,

Hide in earth thy timid gold.

Travell’d Dahlia, freely boast

Knowledge brought from foreign coast.

Newman describes how roses have beauty and are wreathed in rings, while ivy climbs the trunk of the “lordly” oaks. Lily, symbol of purity, is known as a stately flower, while the gold colored Crocus, which, until it blooms, hides its “gold” flower beneath the snow, is called timid. The Dahlia, newly introduced in England in the 19th C, came from Mexico, hence “travell’d” bringing “Knowledge” from a “foreign coast.”

Newman next lists various earthly goods, which have accompanying floral symbols, or emblems, after which he will return to the Snapdragon.

Pleasure, wealth, birth, knowledge, power,

These have each an emblem flower;

So for me alone remains

Lowly thought and cheerful pains.

Be it mine to set restraint

On roving wish and selfish plaint;

And for man’s drear haunts to leave

Dewy morn and balmy eve.

Be it mine the barren stone

To deck with green life not its own.

So to soften and to grace

Of human works the rugged face.

Mine, the Unseen to display

In the crowded public way,

Where life’s busy arts combine

To shut out the Hand Divine.

Here the barren stone is decked by the Snapdragon, giving it green life … that is, “gracing” the stone, and softening the “rugged face” of the “human works,” the man-made walls. But then Newman has the Snapdragon claim something quite startling – the Snapdragon, while growing in stone walls, is displaying the “Unseen” to anyone who is in a  “crowded public way;” A busy life might keep a person from thinking of God. – This is an important line. The “Unseen” that the Snapdragon is revealing, is God, or God’s will –   Newman believes that Nature can point to the “Unseen” and participates by “beauty, grace, and perfection,” in God’s instrumentality, the dispensation of grace (PPS, 2:364).

Besides weaving in his philosophy of nature, Newman also does something metrically clever here in these lines, to add emphasis to what he is saying. The regular meter of this poem is broken in only one place, in all the over 60 lines – and it is here.  When the Snapdragon says that it can be found in other walls, that is the walls in crowded public places,  places where “life’s busy arts combine/ To SHUT OUT the Hand Divine”

SHUT OUT –  are the only words in the whole poem with two stressed syllables in a row – making them stand out dramatically, since the two stressed syllables, called a spondee,  are surrounded by trochees.

The final 8 line stanza of the poem contains the solution to the “riddle”

Ah! no more a scentless flower,

By approving Heaven’s high power,

Suddenly my leaves exhale

Fragrance of the Syrian gale.

Ah! ’tis timely comfort given

By the answering breath of Heaven!

May it be! then well might I

In College cloister live and die.

(Ulcombe.

October 2, 1827).

To understand  the riddle in the poem,  we must turn to Newman’s autobiography, the Apologia Vita Sua, in which he equates himself to the Snapdragon, when referring to his time at Trinity College:

“Trinity had never been unkind to me. There used to be much snap-dragon growing on the walls opposite my freshman’s rooms there, and I had for years taken it as the emblem of my own perpetual residence even unto death in my University.” (A, 183).

These verses are the expression of Newman’s desire to live and die at Oxford, in the simplicity of the life of a scholar, caring for the souls of his students. He thought for a time he would, since he was appointed a tutor at Oriel in 1826, a year before these verses.  Just as the list of all the flowers were symbols or emblems of something else – the Snapdragon is the emblem of himself. The riddle is solved. But what of the “fragrance of the Syrian gale”? The Snapdragon releases its scent with a passing breeze, which for Newman expresses both humility and the Unseen … an act of submission by nature which will give evidence by fragrance to the Unseen, another metaphor for what John Henry desired for his life, through the emblem of the Snapdragon.

We know Newman did not stay at Oxford; God had other plans. Later developments would take him from this life, to the greater glory of God and the world.

For further study: Newman, the Snapdragon, and Natural Theology Author(s): C. Stephen Finley Source: ELH, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 151-173 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

 

1 Comment
  • Fr. Juan Velez Posted July 17, 2017 4:48 pm

    The poems of John Henry Newman are often biographical, a fact which lends to poignancy to these verses. The backdrop to Snapdragon was his desire for academic distinction at Trinity College. After his failure to achieve this goal he gradually realized the importance of the virtue of humility, the simple role of a Snapdragon, able to display the Unseen in a crowded public way. For a while God answered his prayer allowing him to remain in the cloistered life of Oriel College as a tutor, before calling him to be a leading light in both the university education and religious life of Great Britain.

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