Year in Sonnets

To a Hyacinth in January

In this sonnet Naden is, again, looking ahead to the coming of Spring. The hyacinth acts as a beacon of hope in the depths of Winter, since their bulbs are often kept indoors in the dark to force the plant into flower around Christmas and into January. Light has a key presence in the poem, encompassing the buds’ ‘snowy gleam’, the ‘fireside glow’, and the sun’s ‘pallid noon-day beam’. In the act of growth, the hyacinth flowers are likened to the sun as the cluster ‘dawns and brightens’, emerging from behind the leaves like the sun rising over the horizon; they are therefore symbolic of the promise of new life that accompanies the warmth and light of Spring. Despite this, there is an unnerving presence of death in this sonnet as Naden insists upon characterising the ‘New Year’s wind […] and rain and hail’ as having the power to destroy ‘tender life’.

Important here is the presence of nature as an external force which is pitted against the safety that humanity can offer. The domesticity of the fireside is linked to the ability to shelter the hyacinth ‘from the frosty air’, and yet such protection is only required because of the poet’s choice to cultivate the flower in winter and so subvert natural seasonal cycles. The dominance of humans over nature is also demonstrated by Naden’s inclusion of botanical terminology – ‘raceme’ is the technical word for the hyacinth’s distinctive flower cluster (the separate flowers attached by short equal stalks to a broader central stem). The botanist’s approach to obtaining knowledge is one in which of hierarchy and power is implicit, they (to use Wordsworth’s phrasing) ‘murder to dissect’ and group their objects of study into strict classifications, asserting order over the natural world.

Nature asserts itself in return, however, as the heady scent of the hyacinth has a strong presence that bookends the poem. The evocative description of the perfume stealing like ‘dainty breath’ in the first two lines captures the way in which the seemingly innocuous flower will immediately make its living presence known in a room. Smell is strongly linked with the recollection of vivid memories, and in the midst of winter it is this burst of fragrance that draws Naden back to previous Springs and allows her to look forward to the ‘promised joy’ to come. There is an interesting parallel with ‘January, 1879’ in these final lines, since perhaps the ideal of Spring (a ‘delicate hidden hope’ inherent in the hyacinth’s perfume) is being held up above the reality of the actual Spring yet to come.

Do you think the forces of nature or of humankind win out in this sonnet? Or does the cultivated hyacinth gesture towards some happy (or indeed strained) medium?

Hyacinths, from "Barr & Sugden's Spring Seed Catalogue and Guide to the Flower and Kitchen Garden" (1868) p.66  archive.org

Hyacinths, from “Barr & Sugden’s Spring Seed Catalogue and Guide to the Flower and Kitchen Garden” (1868) p.66. archive.org

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2 thoughts on “To a Hyacinth in January

  1. As an addendum, I have since discovered that in the Victorian language of flowers the hyacinth could stand for constancy. If Constance Naden knew this it would suggests a more personal reading of this poem is possible – what do you think?

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  2. Pingback: To the First Snowdrop | Changeful, yet changeless

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