Sour Grapes (1921)
William Carlos Williams

Great Mullen

One leaves his leaves at home
being a mullen and sends up a lighthouse
to peer from: I will have my way,
yellow--A mast with a lantern, ten
fifty, a hundred, smaller and smaller
as they grow more--Liar, liar, liar!
You come from her! I can smell her-kiss
on your clothes. Ha! you come to me,
you, I am a point of dew on a grass-stem.
Why are you sending heat down on me
from your lantern?--You are cowdung, a
dead stick with the bark off. She is
squirting on us both. She has has her
hand on you!--well?--She has defiled
ME.--Your leaves are dull, thick
and hairy.--Every hair on my body will
hold you off from me. You are a
dungcake, birdlime on a fencerail.--
I love you, straight, yellow
finger of God pointing to--her!
Liar, broken weed, dungcake, you have--
I am a cricket waving his antenna
and you are high, grey and straight. Ha!

The original text first appeared in Sour Grapes: a Book of Poems by William Carlos Williams in 1921. One of four flower studies Daisy, Primrose, Queen Anne's Lace, and Great Mullen. Great Mullen is any one of a variety of herbs (genus Verbascum thaspeus) from Scrophulariaceae (the Snapdragon family) or figwort also called mullein. A widely distributed plant, being found all over Europe and in temperate Asia as far as the Himalayas, and in North America is exceedingly abundant as a naturalized weed in the eastern United States.

No doubt William Carlos Williams being from Patterson, NJ, recognized this plant with it's unusual leaf system. Whitish with a soft, dense mass of hairs on both sides, which make them feel very furry and thick, they are arranged so that the smaller leaves above drop the rain upon the larger ones below, which direct the water to the roots. The fine hairs on each leaf not only protect it from giving off too much moisture because the plant tends to grow best in dry soils, but serve as a defensive weapon of the plant, not only do they prevent the attacks of creeping insects, but are intensely irritating in the mucous membrane of any grazing animals that may try to browse them, so that the plants are usually left completely alone.

In gardens Mullen has been known to attain a height of 7 or 8 feet and the densely crowded flower-spikes, usually a foot long, are stalkless and the sulfur-yellow corolla is nearly an inch across. There are five stamens on the corolla and each one has a large number of tiny white hairs on their filaments. These hairs are full of sap, and it has been suggested that they form additional bait to the insect visitors.

Superstitions exist that witches used lamps and candles provided with wicks of Mullein in their incantations, so this may be what Williams is trying to connect with in metaphor A mast with a lantern, ten /fifty, a hundred, smaller and smaller/as they grow more--. From the ancient classics, it was this plant that Ulysses took to protect him against the wiles of Circe and this sounds to be a lover's quarrel of betrayal. The leaves contain rotenone, which is used as an insecticide. The dried leaves are highly flammable and can be used to ignite a fire quickly, or as wick for candles. The whole plant has slightly sedative and narcotic properties. I'll let you draw your own conclusions as to what he was on about here. He seems to be feeling small and confused.

All kinds of insects are attracted by this plant, the Honey Bee, Humble Bee, some of the smaller wild bees and different species of flies, and even a cricket as Mr. Williams would seem to indicate by using visual devices as he tries to command attention to his wild bloom. He introduces personification, dramatic debate, and apostrophe in a rather grotesque shouting match between the Great Mullen and a leaping insect best noted for the chirping sound produced by the male.


Mullein, Great:

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

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