I recognized fennel from a distance as we hiked the shore of Lake Washington – a watercolor wash of yellow and pale green. It’s an understatement among wildflowers, trailing much history, natural and human. A few days later I read this:
“Ophelia’s flowers: it is clear that rosemary is for remembrance and pansies for thoughts, because Ophelia says so (pansies are from French pensées). But the signification of her other flowers is left for the audience to supply. Scholars usually assume that rue is for the queen, fennel and columbine for the king, but some commentators propose vice versa on the grounds that fennel signifies flattery and is also associated with wanton and dissembling women, while the horned shape of the columbine suggests cuckoldry (a joke in Love’s Labour’s Lost turns on this association). Rue is for repentance, which is what Claudius has been trying unsuccessfully to engage in.”
This is from Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare (Random House, 2009). Bate is glossing Ophelia’s speech from Act IV, Scene 5:
“There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you, and here's some for me. We may call it herb of grace o' Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither'd all when my father died. They say he made a good end. [Sings] For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.”
Ophelia is sly in her madness. Her use of traditional herbal lore is complicated, as Bate’s acknowledges. Fennel derives from the Latin fenum, “hay,” and its scent recalls the smell of new-mown hay. The Greeks knew it as marathon, from which the scene of the battle in 490 B.C.E. derives its name (“place of fennel”). Bate doesn’t mention it but fennel also shows up in Henry IV, Part 2, (Act II, Scene 4) – as does his surname. The speaker is Falstaff:
“Because their legs are both of a bigness, and 'a quoits well, and eats conger and fennel, and drinks off ends for flap-dragons, and rides the wild mare with the boys, jumps upon join'd-stools, and swears with a good grace, and his boots very smooth, like unto the sign of the Leg, and no bate with telling of discreet stories; and such other faculties 'a has, that show a weak mind and an able body, for which the Prince admits him. For the Prince himself is such another; the weight of a hair will turn the scales between avoirdupois.”
“Bate” here means to reduce, to lessen in intensity (as in abate). The word survives thanks to the phrase “bated breath,” first used in 1596 –by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice.
My favorite use of fennel (not counting as a seasoning with pasta and mussels) is in Thom Gunn’s “Fennel.” A quintessential urban poet (he wrote San Francisco), Gunn returns occasionally to the countryside and celebrates it with wit and learning:
“High fog, white sky
Above me on the bouldered hill
Stumble between head-high
And scattered clumps of weed
--Fennel, of which I once thought seed
Made you invisible.
Each forms a light green mist
--Feathery auras, though the look deceives
For looked at closely they consist
Of tiny leading into tinier leaves
In which each fork in sharply separate.
Yet tender, touched: I pinch a sprig and sniff,
And it reminds me of
The other times I have pinched fennel sprigs
For this fierce poignancy.
I stand here as if lost,
As if invisible on this broken cliff,
Invisible sky above.
And for a second I float free
Of personality, and die
Into my senses, into the unglossed
Sweet and transporting yet attaching smell
--The very agent that releases me
Holding me here as well.”
With “tiny leading into tinier leaves,” Gunn might be illustrating fractal geometry. Lovely: “this fierce poignancy.” Also: “unglossed / Unglossable.” The scent of fennel triggers a psychedelic – or Proustian -- experience. Are other readers reminded by Gunn’s invisibility/"broken cliff” juxtaposition of Edgar and blind Gloucester at the Dover cliffs?