Thus far I have been speaking of the fourth and last kind of madness, which is imputed to him who, when he sees the beauty of earth, is transported with the recollection of the true beauty; he would like to fly away, but he cannot; he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below; and he is therefore thought to be mad. -- Socrates
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, but by the third day it had some plants, and flowers, and botanical things of that sort. It was on the sixth day that things started crawling, and that Adam and Eve dusted off their feet and stepped into being.
Alas, they were unable to clean their feet to everyone's satisfaction, and soon something in their step struck the serpent the wrong way, and thence ensued a fight which pretty much everybody lost: that crafty little crawler was able to prod our progenitors into agreeing that they were probably just as good without God. When it was all over, they were divorced from their creator, beyond any power of their own to return, cast into the crooked paths of the wilderness, destined to toil over an unwilling earth and at odds with all nature. Such were the birthing pains of mankind.
It wasn't long before man added to his first crime others to make a list as long as your arm. And then seven times as long as your arm. And then, truly, seventy-seven times as long as your arm. In short, men had become evil, and, being evil, they were doing evil things. This is the genesis of evil in man, and of evil men.
Evil flowers have no similar account. Darwin tells us that killer flowers just do it in self-defense, and who can blame a bud for protecting its own? No, flowers cannot be evil for what they do, but for what they are. Evil men kill and evil gods ruin; evil flowers only grow. If they are evil they are intrinsically evil; beautiful to behold, but rotten at the pith.
An evil flower is such an alien concept. This is surely not how the poets speak of flowers. Poets speak of beauty: daffodils, as wonderful and as numerous as the stars--the virginal lily, sans thorn or threat--the budding daisy--the peerless rose. These flowers cannot be evil because the poets, who are our authority, praise them for being good. How could a flower have any part of evil?
In May, the blooming month, as hollyhocks, lilies, tulips, and roses blossom around Lowood school, Jane Eyre enjoys the summer weather as her friends and fellow students die of typhus. The elegant spring gardens surrounding her belie the evil that lurks in the fog. But one student lives there who does not wither in the fever, but trembles with consumption.
Helen Burns is certainly not an evil flower, enchanting but rotten. Neither is she a pure flower, beautiful and pleasing. She is a torch, blazing away with goodness and grace, a shining spark of God, as fluid as the Eunoe and as pure as the fire of the sun.
Helen's character is one cut in a large jewel. The light from something enters this jewel from somewhere. It reflects, refracts, bounces tumbles twists turns speeds and shines out into space, to be seen by those who know where the jewel is, and who can catch glimpses of it without being blinded, as Moses saw the back of God. Then these journeymen return to us, to tell us, if we might believe them, what they saw. Their tales conflict, because the jewel never looks the same twice, and its character can never be caught directly; it is sometimes blue here, sometimes red there. And some forget about the light and tell simply of the jewel itself, without remembering that it was the light that they saw. But enough remember, and are eloquent enough to convince us. These adventurers are the poets.
Imagine it! The jewel flashes, and we see David, naked in the streets, dancing before the ark of the Lord with all his might. Flash, and we see David again, weeping, holding his dead son in his arms. Flash, as Dante and Virgil throw the girdle deep into the pit of Hell. Flash as we see Porphyro and Madeline disappear into the storm. Flash and Achilles' fury shakes even the roof of the world. Flash as Hector tosses his infant son into the air. Flash, and we have seen the Creator lay the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy. Flash, flash, flash. This is poetry.
The flowers, then, in the garden of Lowood, are they poetry? Perhaps; they may be images of something far more grand that can be seen in the jewel; they may have a kind of beauty which reminds the poet of something of which he has seen the barest glimpse.
What did the poet see that evil flowers have this character? The dusk, the evening, the musky gloom reminds the poet of burning Africa and languid Asia. The scent of a lover's hair, when one is too close too see or think, and there is only touch and the aroma. The world has the character of a rotting flower, because every flower will eventually wilt and die. The real character of the earth is transient. Everything is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Nothing new is gained under the sun.
But what is here, and now, is still real. The sensuous, immediate, physical reality has beauty, fleeting though it may be. This ebony hair, dark and musky; this evening, deep and purple. This same beauty can be found in the wondrous scent of a rose, that soon fades and wilts. The light of the jewel must sometimes flash darkly.
The light of the jewel is what moves the poets; even its absence is significant. Perhaps it is because they have seen it before, shining in harmony with the celestial forms, following the train of Zeus, and can recognize it again on earth. Or perhaps they recognize it because of everything around them they see only pieces of things, and in the light they catch a glimpse of what may make a whole.
The evil flowers that call the sensuous and the immediate to life are poetry; but also is the heath that summons the mad king Lear, or the bow which Odysseus bent. The things signified do not always have the same character; the greater passions inspired by lasting images may reflect a more real nature.
But even Helen faded, consumed by the disease that killed her. Adam and Eve, who began the story, cannot end it, if it even has an ending. They can simply do their part, and watch and make room for other people and other poetry, and go their way home, hand in hand, with wandering steps, and slow.