“I don’t have a particular preference for chrysanthemum, yet there are indeed no better looking flowers after it blooms”Yuan Zhen (779-831)
Chrysanthemum in China
The Chrysanthemum was cultivated in China as early as 15 century BC and quickly became a part of the cultural narrative. The chrysanthemum, along with the plum blossom, the orchid, and bamboo are known as the four noble characters.(1) Each character has its own meaning, and the chrysanthemum represents the “virtue to withstand all adversities”(2)
Poet Tao Yuanming built off this symbolism and added to the chrysanthemum’s importance in Chinese culture with the following poem.
I built my house near where others dwell. And yet there is no clamor of carriages and horses You ask of me “How can this be so?” “When the heart is far the place of itself is distant I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge, And gaze afar towards the southern mountains The mountain air is fine at evening of the day, And flying birds return together homewards Within these things there is a hint of Truth, But when I start to tell it, I cannot find the words. --Tao Yuanming as translated by William Acker
This poem was written about Tao’s time living as a hermit and has since linked the chrysanthemum to the hermit lifestyle in China.
Chrysanthemum in Japan
The chrysanthemum made its way to Japan during the Nara period (710 – 794 AD) and quickly found its place here. Its presence in Japan is so significant that it is incorporated into the emperor’s crest and the the emperor himself is often referred to as the “chrysanthemum throne”(3)
With such an important presence in Japanese culture, it was only a matter of time before the chrysanthemum found its way into the minds of the early haiku poets. Below are three examples.
Before the white chrysanthemum the scissors hesitate a moment -Buson
lighting the lantern — the yellow chrysanthemums lose their color -Buson
gazing intently at the white chrysanthemums -- not a speck of dust -Basho
This final haiku by Basho was written during a visit to his apprentice Shiba Sonome in 1694 shortly before his death. The general consensus is that Basho wrote this poem as a way to honor to his student and her purity.
Chrysanthemums in England
In 1901, Thomas Hardy published “The Last Chrysanthemum” in his book, Poems of the Past and Present. In this poem Hardy explores the relationship between nature and God through the imagery of the chrysanthemum.
Why should this flower delay so long To show its tremulous plumes? Now is the time of plaintive robin-song, When flowers are in their tombs. Through the slow summer, when the sun Called to each frond and whorl That all he could for flowers was being done, Why did it not uncurl? It must have felt that fervid call Although it took no heed, Waking but now, when leaves like corpses fall, And saps all retrocede. Too late its beauty, lonely thing, The season's shine is spent, Nothing remains for it but shivering In tempests turbulent. Had it a reason for delay, Dreaming in witlessness That for a bloom so delicately gay Winter would stay its stress? - I talk as if the thing were born With sense to work its mind; Yet it is but one mask of many worn By the Great Face behind.
The Poetry Foundation says, “Though frequently described as gloomy and bitter, Hardy’s poems pay attention to the transcendent possibilities of sound, line, and breath—the musical aspects of language.” I believe that both of these observations are evident in the poem. There is a sense of loss and despair, but also a lyrical tone to this poem.
I find it quite amazing that this flower has had such a significant impact on global culture and literature. From ancient China, to early Japan, to the England in the 1900s, this little flower shows up in writing and art of each area. It might be because of its unique growth cycle and its ability to bloom later in the year. It could also be because of its striking multi-petal design. Either way, the chrysanthemum is a flower that has managed captured the attention of poets and emperors and make its mark on human history.
Do you have a favorite poem about the Chrysanthemum? Let me know in a comment below.