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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Lilies of the Field

This is the story of three remarkable flowers: one of these flowers is from the past, one is from the future, and one, perhaps even more remarkably, is from a dream. These blooms are made remarkable because through the powers of the human imagination they have invaded our reality, and in that sense they have been made real.

Flowers briefly bloom and fade, reminding us that beauty is a transient thing. This flower from a far future described by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine survives for millennia through Wells’ powers of description: art can outwit time, even if only in the human imagination.
First published in 1895, H.G. Wells’ classic fantasy novel The Time Machine tells of an unnamed inventor who builds a machine which can travel through time. Wells’ protagonist journeys to a far future in which humanity has evolved into two separate species. The working classes of Wells’ own time have become sinister creatures known as the Morlocks who live in underground darkness. The upper classes have evolved into effete and idle beings called the Eloi. The Eloi spend their time picking flowers, eating fruit, and living in what the Time Traveller at first presumes to be an indolent paradise. But he later discovers to his horror that any Eloi who have not taken shelter by nightfall become the prey of the predatory Morlocks.

The Time Traveller who is the protagonist of Wells’ story must battle the predatory Morlocks if he is to make it safely back to his own time. The ability to travel through time has long fascinated the human imagination. Astrophysics suggests possibilities, while many writers of  imaginative fiction have enabled us to make such journeys already.
Although this background gives the story an undercurrent of social satire, with Wells' narrative making a dry observation about the English class system, what truly drives the narrative forward are Wells’ astonishing powers of description. We see in our own imagination what the Time traveller experiences, and with him we endure the horror of the possibility of being stranded in this unknown and dangerous future when his machine is stolen by the Morlocks, and he is forced to make a hazardous journey to the subterranean world in his attempt to recover it.

During his sojourn with the Eloi the Time Traveller is befriended by a young woman whom he has rescued from drowning. The little Eloi presents him with some white flowers as a gift, and it is two of these blooms from the future which the Time Traveller discovers in his coat pocket upon his eventual return to his own time: the only tangible evidence of his fantastic adventures in the world of the far future.

Surrounded by the palace of the Khan the moonlit pleasure dome is reflected in the waters of a surrounding lake. Coleridge’s dream poem Kubla Khan is alive with such vivid imagery: Kubla existed in history, but the Khan of Coleridge’s poem is the poet’s own invention. In poetry experiences become heightened and intensified, and mere reality is left behind so that we might view that reality with fresh eyes on our return.
Wells’ precious flowers from the future find an echo in words written by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge almost exactly a century in time before Wells wrote his own story. The poet relates how he lapsed into sleep, during which he dreamed a glorious visionary poem of several hundred lines. Upon awakening he immediately began to write down the poem of his dream – only to be interrupted by an unexpected visitor. Once his visitor had departed he again set to work, but to his dismay discovered that he had by then forgotten most of what he had dreamed. The surviving fifty-two lines we know as the masterful poem Kubla Khan, with its stately pleasure dome, its gardens redolent with incense, and its Abyssinian ‘damsel with a dulcimer’: the remaining snatches which Coleridge managed to rescue of a far grander design.

Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid seated before her dulcimer. The flower on her shoulder echoes the bloom which the poet wished to possess as proof that his dream experience had indeed been real. But were this mysterious bloom actually to appear in our reality, then all of our preconceptions about what reality is would have to be revised.
In attempting to come to terms with his bitter-sweet experience, Coleridge wrote a brief sentence which to me is one of the most reality-challenging phrases in all of literature: “If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke – Aye! and what then?” What then, indeed. Were this dream flower truly to materialize in our world then the fabric of our own reality would collapse. So we now have a flower from the future and a flower from a dream. But what of the flower from the past?

Jesus asks his followers to ‘consider the lilies of the field’. This instructional lesson from Matthew’s gospel remains valid, even though these particular ‘lilies’ turn out to be as elusive as Wells’ flower from the distant future and Coleridge’s flower from his dreamed-of paradise.
It is one of the most quoted passages in scripture, and its message is so immediate that, two millennia later, we still can readily relate to it: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” These words attributed to Jesus come from Matthew 6:28-29. This short passage assures us that we will be provided for, but it also underscores the vainglory of worldly wealth when compared to the unsurpassable creations of the natural world. We do not even need to be particularly religious to feel the truth which is uttered here. But why should these flowers from the past be grouped together with the fantastic flowers from the future and from a dream? Are not lilies real enough?

Sternbergia growing in the wild. Known as Autumn crocuses, these flowers are thought to be the most likely candidates for what in Matthew’s gospel were described as ‘lilies’. But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and whether the blooms were poetic lilies or prosaic crocuses the lesson of the story remains the same. 
Well, not these lilies, no – because they could not have been lilies. Lilies are not native to the Holy Land, so whatever flowers were being used for this lesson in trust and earthly humility, they must have been some other bloom. Scholarship suggests that the most likely candidate would have been Sternbergia, known as the Autumn crocus, which grows in profusion in such areas around Galilee. It seems that, once again, the magnificent prose of the King James Version opted for a [1]telling turn of phrase over accuracy.

But let’s face it: ‘Consider the Autumn crocuses of the field’ just does not have the resounding ring of the more familiar phrase which has come down to us. Poetry can reveal the greater truth, and with a greater power, than a more prosaic reality. And so we comfortably can place the lilies in Matthew alongside the fantastic botany of Wells and Coleridge without doing a disservice to any of them. The lessons – and the sense of wonder – remain the same. The essayist Jorge Luis Borges remarked that [2]“a false fact may be essentially true.” These mysterious flowers from time and from dreams bloom in spite of their unreality, and we are left to wonder at their strange and fragile beauty.

[1] Ultra-violet tests on the original Greek manuscript of this gospel held by the British Museum have revealed that the original text reads, not ‘they neither toil nor spin’, but: ‘they neither card nor spin’. Since carding is a process of combing yarn, this makes more sense within the context of the phrase.

[2] This comment appears in Borges’ essay Note on Walt Whitman.

H.G. Wells: The Time Machine. Pan books Ltd. 12th printing, 1975. The watercolour illustration of the Time Traveller being attacked by Morlocks is by Alan Lee, scanned from the cover of my own edition of this title.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poems, selected and with an introduction by John Beer. J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd. 1974 edition.

John Livingstone Lowes: The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. Pan Books Ltd. Picador imprint, 1978.

Jorge Luis Borges: Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L.C. Simms. University of Texas Press, 1964. My post is in part inspired by the essay in this title The Flower of Coleridge, which draws the comparison between Coleridge’s statement and the flower of Wells’ story.

Robin Lane Fox: The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. Penguin Books, 2006. Chapter 8 of this title examines the errors of translation mentioned in my text.

My pencil and wash paintings of the ‘stately pleasure dome’ and the ‘Abyssinian maid’ are from an unpublished study of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. © David Bergen Studio. To see my other paintings of the 'maid' please visit here. To see my painting of Kubla Khan please visit here


  1. David, I am so intrigued by the way in which you have connected these three 'flowers'! Even though none of them turns out to be real, they still exist, as you say, in our imagination. That is their power - and the power of poetry. Your post makes me wonder how we might react if these flowers were indeed to appear in our own world. Would it be wonderful, or perhaps more a challenge to how we see things?

    1. Thank you, Emma. Yes, supposing these imagined things really did appear in our reality? I certainly think that it would be a challenge which would confront us with what we presume to be 'real' - but that in itself could be exciting as well!

  2. Wonderful concept and beautiful images, DB. The moonlit pleasure dome might be similar to some place I visited once in my imagination. The flower as a transdimensional object reminds me of the sort of objects one creates in dreams. Are the objects real? Certainly in a sense they are.

    Lovely post.

    1. Thank you, Dia - I thought that the transdimensional aspects of this topic would appeal to you! Maybe it is so that some of the things which we dream are 'there' in another dimension, and that the altered dream state enables us to see these objects. But there is truth as well in the idea that all thoughts are a form of energy, so such objects must also exist in some sense. I like to think so, anyway!


You are welcome to share your thoughts.