A 'pledge of spring'

Some flowers open everything they are to the sky, looking up with dazzled expectancy. Some -- the snowdrop, the fuchsia -- hang down like earrings, graceful but secretive danglers. The daffodil is neither of these. Its pursed bud comes up between the narrow leaves vertically, but before the flower pushes its way out of this bud's protective membrane, it bends its neck like a bird. The ''beak'' of this ''bird'' slowly widens until the flower's fullness is freed -- the central trumpet surrounded by a decorative collar of radiating outer petals.

What other flower combines extroversion with obeisance so ingeniously? Its head is a miniature megaphone for proclamation, or at least a clarion; a form surely designed to give out sound -- though to us, not attuned keenly enough -- its voice is converted into the language of color, a clear, brilliant yellow. More accurately it should be called two yellows: one butter, one cream. At the same time, that nodding, slightly bowed head gives it an attractive diffidence, disarming whatever might be too military in its nature.

The similarity of a single daffodil to a bird is multiplied dramatically when it is found in crowds. They seem (particularly when self-propagated in the wild) like a feeding flock, each individual facing in a different direction as if excitedly and forever on the watch. Woodlands in spring encourage all sorts of shade-loving plants, rustling in the leafmould. None are as charming and spectacular as the common daffodil when it chooses to colonize an entire wood. ''Common'' is rather a misnomer for this plant: that scattering of hundreds of daffodils, at home under the silver birches and alders and oaks and hazels, seems to me to have amazing rarity. And its name, ''Narcissus pseudo-narcissus, '' is also a puzzle; what plant could have less of the pseudo or sham about it? It extends its territory in the friable, light earth with a quiet determination.

I remember vividly my first encounter with a wild daffodil wood twenty years ago, in Sussex. This small and original version was sturdy and short and self-possessed in a way that the hybridized garden daffodil was not, with its big show-off head and tall stems, weakened by breeding so that heavy weather snaps or bends them over too easily. But this hybrid was what I had been brought up to think of as a typical ''daffodil.'' Human beings had turned the natural plant into an expensive-looking but vulgarized cutflower for florists and drawing rooms. And here, instead, was the wild narcissus surviving - flourishing - in its native habitat, neatly designed, utterly beautiful, and strong.

I'm not sure that I realized then with quite the acuteness I sense now that wildflowers are living history. They are a significant link to the small but intense experiences of the past, with their persistent self-perpetuation. That Sussex wood carpeted with daffodils, which so stirred me, might have touched some medieval or Elizabethan wanderer with the same sense of poetry. These plants go back in the delight of man much further than the early 19th century, when Dorothy and William Wordsworth recorded their thrill at seeing them in ''a long belt along the shore, about the breadth of a country road'' by Grasmere. Shakespeare miraculously captured them in a quick phrase in The Winter's Tale:m ''daffodils,/That come before the swallow dares, and take/The winds of March with beauty''; (strange, perhaps, that birdsm should find their way in here again , for contrast).

Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues painted an excellent description of the daffodil's feel and texture as well as of its form and habits. But he painted more than that. He does not present simply a botanical specimen in ''Narcissus pseudo-narcissus,'' he offers his admiration.

This painter, who came to England from France ''for religion'' in the time of the first Elizabeth (he had earlier accompanied a Huguenot expedition to the New World), is a comparatively recent rediscovery. His rendering of quite usual plants with a telling aptness has persuaded one authority to call him a minor master of the Northern Renaissance. The wild daffodils shown here come from an album of his flower drawings acquired in 1961 by the British Museum. These drawings consistently indicate that they were made for no other reason than pure pleasure. It seems that De Morgues painted it as praise for the value and loveliness of the perfectly ordinary. And in fact there is a sonnet by this painter whose last lines, even awkwardly translated, support the notion: There is no fruit, or grain, or grub, or fly That does not preach one God. The least flower gives Pledge of a Spring with everlasting colors.

It's not quite The Winter's Tale, but it shows how he thought of the common flowers he painted as evidence of a great promise.

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