Saturday, April 21, 2012

`And Honeysuckles Full of Clear Bee-Wine'

“So doth the woodbine, the sweete Honisuckle, / Gently entwist.”

As a country boy, Shakespeare knew his flowers and was understandably partial to honeysuckle. The vine-like shrub with fragrant blossoms shows up under that name three times in his plays. Above is Titania speaking in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and here is Hero in Much Ado About Nothing:

“And bid her steal into the pleached bower
 Where Honeysuckles, ripen'd by the sun,
 Forbid the sun to enter.”

Mistress Quickly, hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, throws a memorably inspired tantrum in Henry IV, Part II:

“Throw me in the channel! I'll throw thee in the
Wilt thou? wilt thou? thou bastardly rogue! Murder, murder!
thou honeysuckle villain! wilt thou kill God's officers and
King's? Ah, thou honey-seed rogue! thou art a honey-seed; a
man-queller and a woman-queller.”

Scholars of plants and plays have argued that “woodbine” in Shakespeare’s day was another name for honeysuckle. If so, the shrub shows up another three times in his work. Best of all is Oberon’s floral catalogue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:   

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell'd skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I'll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.”

In “Endymion,” Keats links two of Oberon’s flowers:  

“Its sides I’ll plant with dew-sweet eglantine,
And honeysuckles full of clear bee-wine.”

The fragrance of honeysuckle, its sweetly cloying scent, arrived earlier this month while I was sitting under a pergola in a friend’s backyard. I’d been vaguely aware of vines covering the wooden structure, dense enough to keep out the afternoon sun, but only the smell pierced my self-absorption. To a Northern nose it’s a Southern scent with a suggestion of corruption about it. Faulkner spritzes it liberally in The Sound and the Fury. In “Sweet Olive,” collected in The Muscled Truce (Louisiana State University Press, 2003), Catharine Savage Brosman, who lived in New Orleans for many years and has returned to Houston, writes:

“Again we stop, attracted
by perfumes that mingle in the moist and pulsing air
of the Louisiana summer night: the languorous odor
of Cape jasmine in a cypress planter, deadly oleander,
honeysuckle in cascades along a wall of mossy brick…”

Honeysuckle, the species Lonicera albiflora, covers a trellis beside our garage. As I open the gate to the backyard, the fragrance covers me like an invisible fog, and I sing Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” with lyrics by Andy Razaf:

“When I'm taking sips
From your dainty lips,
Seems the honey fairly drips,
You're confection, goodness knows,
Oh, honey! suckle rose.”

1 comment:

jdmccullough said...

Growing up in SC it was common practice to pluck a blossom, carefully snip the tip off the back end with our fingernails (taking care not to let the fingernails meet) and then pull the (stamen? pistil?) down the trumpet of the flower until a tiny drop of dew appeared. This we then "sucked" with the tip of the tongue for a joyous little taste of sweetness.