Time management: A Meditation Upon Flowers

tulips
Tulips pushing up through spring leafage

Bishop Henry King’s poem has a lot of offer the  contemporary blue-arsed fly.

I arrived home after nearly two weeks away in Sweden, where Spring is only just creeping into view. But here, in that short time,  much has changed. The magnolia flower on my new tree has been and gone.  The sweet-smelling viburnums are almost done.  Much lush green stuff has sprung and the (not ornamental but fruit providing) cherry is hung with its lacy, vulnerable blossom along the bough.

apple n cherry blossom .JPG
Cherry blossom behind the apple blossom

Against the kitchen wall there’s a red, red rose out in flower.

red rosebud
Red Rose in bud growing through mint

All this lovely energy makes me want to garden! And I did, a little, yesterday. And to read garden books, which I did last night. And to resolve anew, ‘This year I will garden every day. Oh, every week. Oh, OK, as often as possible.’

Yes and see my children and grandchildren, and my few beloved friends, and make time to be kind to my ancient mum and to read and  write every day and take exercise and eat ten portions of vegetables and makes sure I’ve done my prep for every meeting at work and I’m never going to get to a yoga class and the idea of ten minutes a day on the cello was crossed off years ago and even without those longed-for last two items my list of things is getting to the point where it begins to look undo-able.

I need to get some perspective  and where I go for that perspective is Bishop Henry King. Because the tulips in my garden, the orange pointy tulips which have appeared since I went to Sweden have reminded me of his poem, a long time favourite. Brave flowers, they look, gallant and doing what they can do, putting forth in the way they can put forth. But obeying a certain discipline, too. Here they are, shining out like hearts on fire in the morning garden, and reminding me of  the  planting of them, which I did very late, maybe late November. I’d bought them  full of good intentions and then forgotten to plant them and then found them beginning to moulder and thought, ‘What the heck, go and stick ’em in…’  And I had done so in a matter of minutes one Saturday morning in a frenzy of annoyance at myself for having forgotten to do them, but hoping they’d turn out ok, which, as I now see, they have. And the moral of this story is…

Bishop King is meditating on his own death. That makes my meditation on time management look a little trivial. But there is a relationship between the two. Part of my increasing desire for the thing I find hard to achieve – order – is to do with knowing death is coming, if not now, sometime. Like most people, for a very long time, I did not really believe that to be the case. When we are young we live – I lived – as if  life was for ever, which is a good thing when you are young. But now I am not young I know that life is short, and may end sooner than you think. As far as I know there’s nothing the matter with me – nothing that being thirty years of age wouldn’t cure. But I’m not thirty, I am sixty-one. I want to make some priorities because I don’t want to die thinking I did the wrong things with my time. I wouldn’t like to die thinking I wasted it. Therefore, given the limited resource of self, priorities must be made. I am going to ask myself to get into the garden for ten minutes a day.

 

BRAVE flowers—that I could gallant it like you,
And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless show,
And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud: you know your birth:
For your embroider’d garments are from earth.

You do obey your months and times, but I
Would have it ever Spring:
My fate would know no Winter, never die,
Nor think of such a thing.
O that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

O teach me to see Death and not to fear,
But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers! then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.

I love the fact that the ‘show’ the flowers make is described as ‘harmless’. The flowers. ‘brave’ and ‘gallant’ as they are,  are like men in fancy royalist hats  with ostrich feathers, rich velvet robes, colour. ( Have a quick look at the etymology of the word gallant here) You might call all that vain, and in humans perhaps it is so, but in flowers, no, this is not vanity:  flowers are ‘harmless’. That’s quite a leap from ‘vain’ to ‘harmless’. Of course vanity can be hugely destructive, can  be harmful. Humans come abroad flaunt themselves about and make a harmful mess… And when I say humans, Henry King says ‘I’.

BRAVE flowers—that I could gallant it like you,
And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless show,
And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud: you know your birth:
For your embroider’d garments are from earth.

It’s as if fancy clothes, those ’embroider’d garments’ (that surely Henry must have worn himself as a Bishop) are a potentially harmful show that can damage humans by causing pride and vanity. The flowers know their birth, know the ’embroider’d garments’, know they come up, and gallant it,  and then go down to earth again. We tend to forget that our embroider’d garments (whatever they are, beauty, status, power, money, ego) are also as earthy and as  temporally fragile. Whatever you got, it don’t last!

You do obey your months and times, but I
Would have it ever Spring:
My fate would know no Winter, never die,
Nor think of such a thing.
O that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

The reason Bishop King meditates upon flowers is to set aside time in which to think about death. His natural inclination would be never to ‘think of such a thing.’  Therefore he has to make the equivalent of a modern day ‘to-do’ list;

1. Think abut my own death.

He has to set aside specific time to do this because, left to himself,  naturally, he wouldn’t do it. Flowers are better at this than us. They are part of the natural rhythm of earth’s seasons, and they  ‘do obey … months and times.’  ‘Obey’ makes the flowers subservient to a law greater than themselves but Henry King, left to himself, doesn’t want to obey such laws;

… I
Would have it ever Spring:
My fate would know no Winter, never die,
Nor think of such a thing.

The pressing, unignorable reality of being a self-willed human creature is  – almost a law unto itself – and is held in place in this stanza by the double rhyme (I/die, Spring/thing are the line-ending rhymes but  look how they are  undercut by the internal rhyme of ‘ever’ and ‘never’). Bishop King, having set aside a little time in which to do it,  tries to imagine his death, his being dead and buried, but can’t seem to even see it, and if he could see it, knows he would not  be able to maintain a cheerful, gallant a brave composure;

O that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

That’s why the mediation ends with a resolve to try to learn;

O teach me to see Death and not to fear,
But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers! then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.

The word ‘truce’ in the second line here is a clue to the seriousness of the problem. He’s at war with his own mortality! Does the opening line of this stanza mean that he is so afraid of Death that he cannot even see it, or that he does see it and it fills him with fear?  Certainly King has seen flowers at many a funeral (the fragrance helpful in keeping the smell of mortality away). The breath that Bishop King hopes may ‘sweeten and perfume’ his death would be the breath of prayer or whatever words he might say at the end. They need to be good, strong, gallant words, not frightened battle cries. He and the flowers would be in harmony then, both in their different ways sweetening and perfuming his end.

Yes, it is a meditation on death, but I feel it is also a call to life.  To ‘come abroad and make a harmless show’ in the face of mortality and time-ah running out: it asks us to go on with the show (but also know what kind of show it is.)

Thank you Bishop King, thank you, tulips.

3 thoughts on “Time management: A Meditation Upon Flowers

  1. loubyjo April 17, 2017 / 6:41 pm

    Often less is more in this rush rush world if u lookat Dickens or Darwin they spent alot of doing what they liked to do walking sleeping (not to sure on that ) but relaxing is when the creative juices grow .
    often a world class performance does does not only come after 1000000 hrs of practice but need the 12, 5000 hrs of delibrate rest such as gardening whatever and then 30, ooo hrs of sleep not sure if got the maths or 00 ,s right on this but get the picture so important in life not GO GO Go and DO DO DO but also pause and relax says she who could win prizes for worrying !!!

  2. drjanedavis April 18, 2017 / 12:51 pm

    yes, sure you are right on this, and as you know, Lou, have been taking your advice on this for a number of years! Every time I garden I think you you.

  3. loubyjo April 18, 2017 / 3:06 pm

    thank you but surely not every time !!! ha my return serve is i love reading your gardening exploits – the rat !!!!xxx

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