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Literary Calligraphy by Susan Loy
Chapter Excerpts: History

Flowers, the Angels' Alphabet by Susan Loy

The following excerpts from "Flowers, the Angels' Alphabet" by Susan Loy are © 2001 by CSL Press and Susan Loy. All rights reserved.


The language of flowers is primarily a literary tradition, based on the language of flowers book in Victorian England, France, and America. Such books are part of the genre of sentimental or gift flower books, which had its roots in the literary almanac, an annual publication that included a calendar. The language of flowers is based on a combination of folklore, literature, mythology, religion, and the physical characteristics of the plant.

Sources of flower associations that have made their way into Victorian language of flowers books include: ancient symbolic associations from Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Greek, and Roman cultures, mythologies, and religions; books such as herbals that recorded the virtues of plants as well as their myth and lore; literature, most notably Shakespeare; the Turkish language of flowers and objects, known as selam; and the plants themselves, often some distinguishing characteristic of the root, stem, leaf, bloom, or seed of the plant. Another source is the whim or fancy of the writer or editor.

One common misunderstanding about the language of flowers is that in the past there was one set of meanings which everyone knew. Although the inclination to associate flowers with sentiments or virtues is universal, there were many sets of meanings and significant cultural differences concerning the types of sentiments and flowers in the vocabulary. Nor was the language of flowers commonly practiced as a means of communication. There is little evidence that Victorian lovers used the language of flowers for secret communications. It has, however, been used by poets, writers, artists, and designers.

One of the most frequently mentioned sources of the language of flowers is the Turkish, Oriental, or Persian language of flowers or objects, referred to as the selam, which was a system of memorization. Brent Elliott, Librarian to the Royal Horticultural Society, writes that the Turkish system was "not a language of meanings, but a mnemonic system - the names of the objects rhyme with standard lines of poetry, and are an aid by which the lines can be recalled." Indeed, Frederick Shoberl, the editor of The Language of Flowers, made the same claim in 1839:

"Its spirit consists not, as might naturally be supposed, in the connection which fancy may trace between particular flowers and certain thoughts and feelings. Such an idea never entered the heads of the fair inventresses of the oriental language of flowers. They have contented themselves with merely taking a word which may happen to rhyme with the name of any particular flower or fruit, and then filling up the given rhyme with some fanciful phrase corresponding with its signification... Thus, for instance, the word Armonde (Pear) rhymes among other words with omonde (hope); and this rhyme is filled up as follows:  Armonde - Wer banna bir omonde;" (Pear - Let me not despair.)."

Thus it seems that the selam was the source of a few flower associations, but not in the way originally intended. Modern writers cite selam as a source of flower sentiments and symbols, many of which correspond with the Victorian language of flowers.

Two individuals are credited with introducing the language of flowers to Europe - Seigneur Aubry de la Mottraye and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Mottraye's account of his visit to the court of Charles XII of Sweden, in exile in Turkey, was published in 1727, and immediately translated into English. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu accompanied her husband, the ambassador to Turkey, to his post in 1717. Her Turkish Embassy Letters were published in 1763, shortly after her death, and made her famous. The letters described Turkish life, including the language of objects.

The earliest literary record of the phrase "the language of flowers" may be Christopher Smart's line in Jubilate Agno, written during the period 1759 to 1763:

"For the flowers have their angels... For there is a language of flowers. For there is a sound reasoning upon all flowers. For elegant phrases are nothing but flowers."

By the early 1800's, "the language of flowers" was a commonly understood phrase in Europe. Hand-written lists were circulated in France. Beverly Seaton's The Language of Flowers: A History  provides a useful history of the language of flowers book in England, France, and America. She indicates that the first language of flowers book was probably B. Delachenaye's Abecedaire de Flore ou langage des fleurs, published in 1810. The roots of the language of flowers book are in an old genre of books called almanacs. The literary almanac first included a calendar and was published as a New Year's gift book. Soon the calendar was dropped, making the book suitable for other occasions, and it evolved into the gift flower book. Literary annuals were published as early as 1765, in France, and 1770, in Germany, and reached their peak of popularity in Europe and America from about 1820 through mid-century.

The publication of Charlotte de Latour's Le Langage des Fleurs in December 1819, was the beginning of the great proliferation of language of flowers books. According to Seaton, Latour borrowed heavily from Alexis Lucot's Emblemes de Flore, published in January 1819. While Lacott's book was virtually unknown, Latour's was widely popular. Scholars agree that Charlotte de Latour was a pseudonym, but they are not sure of whom. The most frequently mentioned name is Louise Cortambert, wife of a well-known geographer, Eugene Cortambert.

Le Langage des Fleurs was published in several formats. According to Seaton,

"...the smaller volume with fourteen plates and an engraved frontispiece sold for six francs, while the same volume with colored plates cost twelve francs. In larger format with colored plates the book cost twenty francs. The illustrations were by the famous miniaturist Pancrace Bessa. The publisher also produced... two special volumes: a small one printed on rose paper with the pictures on satin and a large one printed on vellum."

Latour's book stimulated the publishing industry especially in France, England, and America, and also in Belgium, Germany and other European countries as well as in South America. Publishers from these countries produced hundreds of editions of language of flowers books during the nineteenth century.

The language of flowers reached England in the 1820's. Saunders and Otley published Henry Phillips' Floral Emblems in 1825, and Frederic Shoberl's The Language of Flowers; With Illustrative Poetry, in 1834. A fifth American edition of Shoberl's book was published by Lea & Blanchard in 1839; its dictionary listings are included in the appendix. Shoberl was the editor of the popular annual "Forget Me Not" from 1822 to 1834.

Robert Tyas was another popular British flower writer, publisher, and clergyman, who lived from 1811 to 1879. His book, The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora, first published in 1836 and printed through the 1840's, was billed as an English version of Latour. The dictionary listings from the 1869 edition are included in the appendix.

One of the most familiar of language of flower books is Routledge's edition illustrated by Kate Greenaway, The Language of Flowers. First published in 1884, it continues to be reprinted to this day. The dictionary listings are included in the appendix. Greenaway, a respected and well-known writer and illustrator of children's books, lived in England from 1846 to 1901.

In the United States the first appearance of the language of flowers in print, according to Seaton, was in the writings of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a French-American naturalist, who wrote on-going features under the title "The School of Flora," from 1827 through 1828, in the weekly Saturday Evening Post and the monthly Casket; or Flowers of Literature, Wit, and Sentiment. These pieces contained the botanic, English, and French name of the plant, a description of the plant, an explanation of its Latin names, and the flower's emblematic meaning.

During its peak in America, the language of flowers attracted the attention of the most popular women writers and editors of the day. A number of these American women who edited language of flowers books in the nineteenth century are represented in the American floral dictionary.

Sarah Josepha Hale edited Flora's Interpreter in 1832; it continued in print through the 1860's. Hale was editor of the Ladies' Magazine in Boston from 1828 to 1836 and co-editor of Godey's Lady's Book, from 1837 to 1877. Godey's Lady's Book was the most widely read periodical in the United States at the time. Hale is best known for her poem, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," published in 1830 in her book Poems for Our Children.

Catharine H. Waterman Esling wrote a long poem titled, "The Language of Flowers" which first appeared in 1839 in her own language of flowers book, Flora's Lexicon. It continued in print through the 1860's.

Lucy Hooper, an editor, novelist, poet, and playwright, included several of her flower poems in The Lady's Book of Flowers and Poetry, first published in 1841. She was associate editor at Lippincott's Magazine, a literary monthly and a correspondent for the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph.

Frances Sargent Osgood, a poet and friend of Edgar Allen Poe, first published The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry in 1841, and it continued in print through the 1860's. Osgood also edited a special gift book, The Floral Offering, in 1847. She was an editor of Snowden's Ladies' Companion, from 1833 to 1844. Poe included her in his work of 1850, The Literati.

Sarah Carter Edgarton Mayo, author of several flower books, was associate editor of the Universalist monthly, The Ladies' Repository in Boston from 1839 to 1842. Her language of flowers book, The Flower Vase, was first published in 1844. She also edited the books Fables of Flora in 1844 and The Floral Fortune Teller in 1846.

C. M. Kirtland is probably Caroline Matilda Kirkland, editor of the Union Magazine of Literature and Art from 1847 to 1851 and the Unitarian weekly, Christian Inquirer, from 1847 to 1852. First published in 1848, her Poetry of Flowers continued to be in print at least until 1886. One of the more comprehensive books, its 522 pages contain an extensive dictionary and numerous flower poems.

Primarily because writers and editors copied each other's lists, there is a certain amount of agreement between French, English, and American vocabularies. Many of the language of flower dictionaries were, therefore, direct or indirect descendants of Latour's Le Langage des Fleurs.

© 2001 by CSL Press and Susan Loy. All rights reserved.


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