Lily of the Valley

photoOne of the rituals of fending off the dregs of winter’s chill is to linger in the hothouses and aisles of flower shops and every place that stocks us up with ideas and plants as we rejuvenate the landscape for the year. A splash of heated color draws the eye; the flash and gleam of leaves caught in each little draft pulls us in, from some pale-margined broad-leafed plant off to some lacy other. The faint sound of their fluttering evokes both sylvan breeze and birdsong and reminds us, beyond those, of springs and fountains drawn to life as winter thaws.

Perhaps the most evocative and pleasing sense that spring and summer lie in wait somewhere not far at all: perfume–the heady redolence that wafts from hyacinths and jasmine blooms, from sweet Viola odorata, from each little honeyed heart that says that life will soon return to earth. One of my favorites for sheer intensity and unstained loveliness of scent is Lily of the Valley–those clean, brilliant bells that cloister in the moss and keep their meditative calm a little secret ’til I’m close enough to catch their drift and see their whiteness glinting in the green. It may be, too, that breathing that intensity of air when these petite white satin blooms nod in the breeze calls up an atavistic searching in my blood. I start to hear that most beloved of Swedish songs (forgive me, my Norwegian forebears–but we were still ‘run’ by our cousins the Swedes until we parted ways in the early 20th century) resonating somewhere in the distance of earth’s slow axial turn, tolling in a sweetly sorrowful voice the tale of the grieving Lily King. Spring is like that–pierced with the lingering poignancy of winter’s deadly grip, but with an insistent, gorgeous urge to let earth be reborn; no matter the loss, the sorrow and the bygone things, to carry forward with what perfumed sweetness it can find.

The Romantic Nationalism that has periodically gripped the music world and produced such pleasures as David Wikander’s exquisite melody for poet Gustav Fröding’s Kung Liljekonvalje is that way too: longing for the old, but wanting something new raised up in it, like the rebirth that comes with spring. Sorrow and joy can mingle then, glowing with possibility and pain, with hesitation and with hope.

The text is sorrowful but evocative, I think, of the intensely bittersweet beauty of the Lily of the Valley; it isn’t hard to see how this must have captured the dark imaginings of many a Northerner in a Romantic frame of mind. I’ve included a translation of my own, meant not as a literal one but rather an attempt to understand something more of the character of the tale and perhaps, indeed, how it grew out of dreaming over the bowing bells of a tiny blooming thing, searching in its ice-white blossoms for promises of better and brighter things.

Kung Liljekonvalje                                  King Lily of the Valley

Kung Liljekonvalje av dungen                  King Lily-of-the-Valley’s in the green-wood,
Kung Liljekonvalje är vit som snö             King Lily-of-the-Valley, who is white as snow,
Nu sörjer unga kungen                            The young king now mourning his maiden,
Prinsessan liljekonvalje mö                      Princess Lily-of-the-Valley, in woe

Kung liljekonvalje han sänker                  King Lily-of-the-Valley now lowers                  
Sitt sorgsna huvud så tungt och vekt      His heavy head so burdened with grief
Och silverhjälmen blanker                       And on his silver helm gleams the sunset,
I sommerskymningen blekt                      Pale dusk that can bring no relief

Kring bårens spindelvävar                       Round her cold bier the cobwebs are woven,
Från rökelsekaren med blomsterstoft       And hang from censers flow’r-filled & spent,
En virak sakta svävar                               Their frankincense drifting down slowly,
All skogen är full av doft                          The forest all filled with the scent

Från björkens gungande krona                From birches’ swaying crowns to their bases,
Från vindens vaggande gröna hus          From winds that rock the green-wood’s home
Små sorgevisor tona                                Small tunes, songs of sadness and mourning
All skogen är uppfylld av sus                   Fill all of the woods as they roam

Det susar ett bud genom dälden             And rustle as wind through the glen; find
Om kungssorg bland viskande blad       The King all cloaked in whispering leaves
I skogens vida välden                              As full sorrow falls on the wood-world,
Från liljekonvaljernas huvudstad             The whole of the Valley still grieves . . .P&I drawing

19 thoughts on “Lily of the Valley

  1. Such a bittersweet poem, Kathryn, it made me pause as I had never really thought of the Lilly of the Valley this way.

    They represent in my mind the flowers that let me know Spring is here to stay. I also love their scent. Here it looks like we are still quite far from the arrival of Spring, even if only a few weeks back I thought it was already there..

    • We are being teased and toyed with by Mother Nature, as always, aren’t we!

      Yes, I can see why the composer was so compelled by the poem’s emotional depth to create the melody to fit it.

  2. I loved this one so much, Kathryn… it captured my senses.. evocative of beautiful sorrowful images and I could almost catch the fragrance of your flowers… I’m posting this on twitter so my other followers can come here and be inspired… xoxoxo Smidge

    • Thank you, sweet Smidge! Do check the links to the recordings. I wish there were one online of when Richard conducted the Swedish Radio Choir singing it, but the Dutch recording is pretty beautiful, and the other has the accompanying visual of the score, which is nice, and is a period-style recording too. In any case, you with your musical ear and romantic heart and love of things Scandinavian will certainly appreciate the song! 🙂

  3. I wish I could read the original poem – it looks so elegantly and thoughtfully written out. And the use of sounds…just perfect.
    Your translation provides such lucid, vivid imagery and enables me to picture this foreign world that somehow still contains traces of a world I do know.
    Oh Kathryn, this post is captivating – I read the poem over a few times just feeling the diction in my tongue.

    • You should definitely check the YouTube links above–you’ll appreciate the way the composer took advantage of the rich, pure, beautiful vowel sounds that are so characteristic of Swedish to make the song flow fantastically and romantically. 🙂

  4. Your translation may not have been literal but it did what it should. It conveyed the spirit and feeling of the words. Lilies of the Field are a favorite of mine and I’ll never look at them the same way again. I love when art does that. Thank you, Kathryn!

    • Very sweet of you, John. Of course, it’s one of the things the Italian gods of opera are so great at; hence, my love of some of their works, both full productions and individual arias and melodies. In fact, the beauty and inherent music of Swedish vowels is similar to that in Italian, so both languages lend themselves all the better to vocal and choral music.

  5. I clicked the link to the song and listened – haunting. Also, “sylvan” is a word I had to look up because it’s so pretty and evocative. I’ve learned something new from this post, so thank you! 🙂

  6. I know that the Lily of the Valley are quite invasive in one of my perennial beds (usually mid to late May)…but the other flowers don’t seem to mind growing “within” their delicate appearance and scent.

    I love your drawing and the song lyrics!

    • So glad you enjoyed these, my dear. Yes, lily of the valley are aggressive naturalizers indeed, but so far I’ve never seen them force out other plants. So I think they can be forgiven, as long as they keep being so pretty and evocative and sweetly-scented . . . 🙂

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