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I came across a madrigal by William Drummond of Hawthornden (laird of the same) yesterday. It's an astonishingly beautiful poem, but I'm having trouble making sense of some of the phrases and allusions.

First Uncertainty

In Cyprus' gardens gathering those fair flowers
Which of her blood were born,

After some Googling, multiple websites tell me that, in mythology, Venus/Aphrodite created red roses by pricking her fingers on the thorn of a white rose bush, and spilling her blood on the petals. (I'm ashamed to say I hadn't come across that myth before.) However, I'm having trouble finding a primary source. Could anyone point me to a text from the ancient world in which this story is mentioned or related?

Second Uncertainty

And as their aspen stalks those fingers band,

I'm having great difficulty making sense, on a basic grammatical level, of that line. Could someone paraphrase it for me? Is 'band' being used as a verb here?

Third Uncertainty

That she might read my case,
A hyacinth I wished me in her hand.

This, thankfully, does make sense to me on a gramatical level. I'm still having difficulty making sense of it on a more semantic level, however. I can think of a few different meanings of 'read my case', but none of them fit as something which the speaker would want a beautiful woman to do to him. What am I missing?

  • 1
    A great poem! Ad 1: you could ask on latin.stackexchange.com Ad 2: the verb band could be read in two ways, one being that the stalks of the flowers for bands around her finger, the other that her fingers form bands around the flowers. Considering the final verse, where I wish to be a hyacinth in her hand, I incline towards the latter, her grasping or plucking the flowers. But I really don't know. Ad 3: I would read this as follows. The author is in love and would plead his case with Venus, asking her to grant reciprocation or consummation of his love for an unmentioned person. – Cerberus Aug 11 at 21:34
3

Venus and the rose

Bion’s ‘Lament for Adonis’ is the earliest surviving version of the myth of Adonis to mention the rose, and in this version Adonis’s blood becomes the rose:

‘Thou diest, oh thrice-desired, and my desire hath flown away as a dream. Nay, widowed is Cytherea,* and idle are the Loves† along the halls! With thee has the girdle of my beauty perished. For why, ah overbold, didst thou follow the chase, and being so fair, why wert thou thus overhardy to fight with beasts?’

So Cypris‡ bewailed her, the Loves join in the lament:

‘Woe, woe for Cytherea, he hath perished the lovely Adonis!’

A tear the Paphian§ sheds for each blood-drop of Adonis, and tears and blood on the earth are turned to flowers. The blood brings forth the rose, the tears, the wind-flower.

Bion (2nd century BCE). ‘Lament for Adonis’. Translated by Andrew Lang (1880). London: Macmillan.

* Aphrodite, so-called because Cythera was the first island she passed after her birth from the sea, according to Hesiod, Theogony, 190–200. † The Erotes, a group of winged gods in Aphrodite’s retinue. ‡ Another name for Aphrodite, because “she was born in billowy Cyprus”, again according to Hesiod. § Yet another name for her, after the location in Cyprus where she was said to have been born.

The Greek text is “αἷμα ῥόδον τίκτει, τὰ δὲ δάκρυα τὰν ἀνεμώναν”: Lang has chosen to translate “ἀνεμώνη” (anemone) as “wind-flower” because the word is etymologically “wind-daughter”.

Ovid’s ‘The Death of Adonis’ has a similar account, but he conflates the two types of flower so that Adonis’s blood becomes the anemone instead:

Cytherea, borne in her light chariot through the middle of the air, had not yet arrived at Cyprus upon the wings of her swans. She recognized afar his groans, as he was dying, and turned her white birds in that direction. And when, from the lofty sky, she beheld him half dead, and bathing his body in his own blood, she rapidly descended, and rent both her garments and her hair, and she smote her breast with her distracted hands. And complaining of the Fates, she says, ‘But, however, all things shall not be in your power; the memorials of my sorrow, Adonis, shall ever remain; and the representation of thy death, repeated yearly, shall exhibit an imitation of my mourning. But thy blood shall be changed into a flower. Was it formerly allowed thee, Persephone, to change the limbs of a female into fragrant mint; and shall the hero, the son of Cinyras, if changed, be a cause of displeasure against me?’ Having thus said, she sprinkles his blood with odoriferous nectar, which, touched by it, effervesces, just as the transparent bubbles are wont to rise in rainy weather. Nor was there a pause longer than a full hour, when a flower sprang up from the blood, of the same colour with it, such as the pomegranates are wont to bear, which conceal their seeds beneath their tough rind. Yet the enjoyment of it is but short-lived; for the same winds which give it a name, beat it down, as it has but a slender hold, and is apt to fall by reason of its extreme slenderness.

Ovid (8 CE). Metamorphoses, book X, fable X. Translated by Henry T. Riley (1893). London: George Bell & Sons.

Ovid does not explicitly name the flower, but it is clear that an anemone is intended, because the “winds give it a name”, as discussed above.

The version of the story alluded to by William Drummond appears in the Progymnasmata (“preliminary exercises”, a textbook of rhetoric) of Aphthonius of Antioch. The second example text is “διήγημα τὸ κατὰ ρόδον” (narrative concerning the rose):

Let anyone who admires the rose for its beauty consider Aphrodite’s wound. The goddess was in love with Adonis and Ares in turn was in love with her, and the goddess was to Adonis what Ares was to her: a god was in love with a goddess and a goddess was pursuing a mortal. The emotion was the same even if the species was different. Struck with jealousy, Ares wanted to do away with Adonis, thinking the death of Adonis would be the end of the love. Ares attacks Adonis. Learning what has been done, the goddess hurried to his rescue, and in her haste, falling on a rose, she stumbled among the thorns and pierces the bottom of her foot. The blood from the wound dropped on the rose and changed its color to the now familiar appearance; the rose, originally having been white, changed to the appearance it now has.

Aphthonius (4th century CE). Progymnasmata. Translated by George Alexander Kennedy (2003). Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric, p. 97. Leiden: Brill.

Aphthonius’s textbook was popular and his examples were much copied, for example his narrative of the rose is clearly the basis of this passage from the 10th century Geoponika, a Byzantine collection of agricultural knowledge:

Let him that admires the beauty of the rose, reflect on the wound of Venus, they say; for the goddess indeed loved Adonis, and Mars on the other hand loved her: but Mars in a fit of jealousy killed Adonis, thinking that the death of Adonis would put an end to her affection for him; but the goddess, having understood what had been done, hastened to be revenged; and throwing herself in a hurry on the rose, when without her sandals, she was wounded by the thorns of the rose in the sole of her foot; and the rose, which was before white, from the blood of Venus, changed into the colour in which it is now seen, and it became red and sweet-scented.

Anonymous (10th century CE). Geoponika, book XI, chapter XVII. Translated by Thomas Owen (1806). London.

A Latin version of this story is given by Thomas Moore in a footnote to his translation of the works of Anacreon:

In the following epigram this hue [that is, of the rose] is differently accounted for.

Ipsa quidem studiosa suum defendit Adonim,
    Gradivus stricto quem petit ense ferox,
Affixit duris vestigia caeca rosetis,
    Albaque divino picta cruore rosa est.

While the enamour’d queen of joy
Flies to protect her lovely boy,
    On whom the jealous war-god rushes;
She treads upon a thorned rose,
And while the wound with crimson flows,
    The snowy flowret feels her blood and blushes!

Thomas Moore (1800). Odes of Anacreon, p. 195. London: John Stockdale.

I haven’t been able to trace the source of this epigram, and I suspect it to be original to Moore. Nonetheless, the story in the version given by Aphthonius was evidently well known to the Elizabethans, for Spenser alludes to it:

White as the native rose before the chaunge
Which Venus blood did in her leaves† impresse

Edmund Spenser (1591). Daphnaïda. London: William Ponsonby.

† petals

Band

I think the most likely meaning here is:

band, v. 1. To bind or fasten with a band or bands.

Oxford English Dictionary.

That is, having picked the roses, the subject of the poem is tying them into a posy with a band or ribbon.

Hyacinth

This is an allusion to the myth of Hyacinthus, who was accidentally killed by his lover, the god Apollo, in a game of quoits. In Ovid’s version of the myth, Apollo declares his grief thus:

“And oh! that I could give my life for thee, or together with thee; but since I am restrained by the decrees of destiny, thou shalt ever be with me, and shalt dwell on my mindful lips. The lyre struck with my hand, my songs, too, shall celebrate thee; and, becoming a new flower, by the inscription on thee, thou shalt imitate my lamentations. The time, too, shall come, at which a most valiant hero† shall add his name to this flower, and it shall be read upon the same leaves.”

While such things are being uttered by the prophetic lips of Apollo, behold! the blood which, poured on the ground, has stained the grass, ceases to be blood, and a flower springs up, more bright than the Tyrian purple, and it assumes the appearance which lilies have, were there not in this a purple hue, and in them that of silver. This was not enough for Phœbus,‡ for ’twas he that was the author of this honour. He himself inscribed his own lamentations on the leaves, and the flower has “ai, ai,” inscribed thereon; and the mournful characters§ there are traced.

Ovid (8 CE). Metamorphoses, book X, fable V. Translated by Henry T. Riley (1893). London: George Bell & Sons.

Telamonian Ajax, the first characters of whose name are also “Αι”. ‡ An epithet for Apollo, literally “bright”. § “Ai, ai” was an ancient Greek expression of lamentation or grief.

In Drummond’s poem, the speaker wishes that his beloved might have a hyacinth in her hand, so she could “read his case” (“case” meaning “condition, mental state”) from the association between the hyacinth and lamentation. Presumably he laments because she does not return his love.

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