One 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 . . .