Humble and bold

Except, I suppose, for the rose, and possibly the lily, there is surely no flower that has been so persistently loved over the centuries as the violet, that neat little symbol of humility.

The Middle Ages linked it to the Virgin Mary. They also thought of it as growing in the Garden of Eden. And in Paradise. It appears in every one of the great medieval ''Unicorn'' tapestries now in New York. But the violet wasn't just irresistible to this period.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon, in his essay ''Of Gardens,'' seems unable to stop himself continually recommending the violet: it should be set in the ''heath'' (the wild part of the garden) because it is ''sweet'' and ''prospers in the shade.'' It should be planted on ''little heaps'' like molehills. It is valuable for the flowers it can produce as early as March. And when he talks of ''the breath of flowers'' which ''comes and goes'' . . . ''like the warbling of music,'' he writes: ''That which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air, is the violet.''

It is little wonder that poets down the ages, almost to a man or woman, have been smitten with the violet.

More definitely, John Skelton commands the virtues of one ''Mistress Jane Scrope'' with the simple statement, ''She is the violet.'' He needed no qualifying adjective, no extra build up of words.

Milton envisages ''a violet-embroidered vale'' as part of the great tapestry of his verse. Wordsworth, characteristically struck by the plant's shyness, likens his ''Lucy'' to it. She it was who ''dwelt among the untrodden ways.'' And she was also ''A violet by a mossy stone/Half hidden from the eye!''

Shakespeare's most evocative violets come at the start of ''Twelfth Night'' when Orsino calls languishingly for an excess of music. ''O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound/That breathes upon a bank of violets;/Stealing and giving odour. . . .''

It is interesting that the anonymous Venetian painting of a violet at Chatsworth House shares its sheet of paper with the far less heralded, but still immensely likable, periwinkle. Both belong to a long tradition of garden planting. Both were favourites in those amusing collections of medical and folkloric myth, the herbals. They associate happily in growth and flower, both flourishing in shadowy corners, on banks, along hedgerows, or on the fringes of woodland. Both keep close to the earth, sending out runners, effectively and quietly extending their territories. Periwinkle has even been appropriately nicknamed ''joy of the ground.'' Both plants have purple or bluish flowers, or white (though the violet can also contradict its name by being yellow or pink). Both are among the first flowers to bloom in the new year.

Not only does this unknown Italian artist (some historians have suggested he might have worked in the circle of Bellini) see fit to associate the two kinds of plant, but he is actually in line with a practice already two centuries old at least. In the thirteenth-century classic of love poetry Le Roman de la Rose are to be found growing together in the pleasure garden ''the violet, all too beautiful, and periwinkle, fresh and new.'' And right up to the present, the linking of the two can surface again, as if by some sort of absorbed tradition. Without conscious planning my own garden has them planted side by side, and I was amused to see that they are together yet again in a fine volume of British Wildflowers, photographed by Roger Phillips, a book arranged by season, not species or colour.

The differences between the two kinds of plant are, in fact, marked. The violet's leaves are enchantingly heart-shaped, and its flowers have the light delicacy of tiny moths. The periwinkle is a coarser plant, its larger flowers more obviously shaped with five more-or-less identical petals, its leaves dark green, shiny and pointed. And while the periwinkle, with its dense network of stems, is as evergreen and ground-smothering as ivy, the violet is more modest and self-contained, with leaves and flowers rising from a central base, like a rosette. It colonizes, but with less vigour.

The chief differences, though, are the perfume, of which the periwinkle has none and the violet has a unique endowment; and the fact that the first is rarely brought indoors, while the second is an old favourite among cut flowers. Like many particularly neat and small things, violet flowers take on a fresh entity when accumulated. The purple of a tight bunch of violets is intense, a fierce concentration of a single, vivid hue. What flower so unassuming in its growing stamps a more potently indelible after image on the mind's eye than the violet, crammed together, en masse, in the hand?

In the novel Lothair by Benjamen Disraeli, Clare Arundel has picked for Lord St. Jerome ''a rich cluster of violets.'' She says, ''These are for you, dear uncle. . . . Just now the woods are more fragrant than the gardens, and these are the produce of our morning walk. I could have brought you primroses, but I do not like to mix violets with anything.''

It is difficult to disagree with her.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.