2 Mar

The Sensitive Plant

categories: art

A Sensitive Plant in a garden grew,
And the young winds fed it with silver dew,
And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light.
And closed them beneath the kisses of Night.

And the Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth’s dark breast
Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

But none ever trembled and panted with bliss
In the garden, the field, or the wilderness,
Like a doe in the noontide with love’s sweet want,
As the companionless Sensitive Plant.

I first stumbled upon Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant,” a lilting fairytale-poem with gorgeous, distinctive artwork by Golden Age illustrator Charles Robinson, when I was randomly searching for imagery from Robinson that I hadn’t seen before. I had just submitted my final edits to The Art of Fantasy (pub date September 7, 2023!) and I was feeling a bit bereft, the way you feel after a major project that has until that point, possessed all of your time and energy. A sort of “what now?” malaise.

Entranced by the lush, blooming, melancholic loveliness of the full-color plates, I lost a whole evening learning about this little book of “ephemeral beauty and the aspiration to follow dreams when the reality of the senses fails.”  (Peppin, Brigid & Micklethwait, Lucy, “Book Illustrators of the Twentieth Century,” p. 265).

It follows the observance of a beautiful, boundless garden full of aromatic roses and narcissus, snowdrops and violet, jasmine and hyacinth–and, of course, the titular Sensitive Plant– all flowering joyously in concert under the airy, exquisite hand of a nameless caregiver. Alas, the gentle gardener dies, and winter descends upon the fair Eden; the poem then becomes an ode to death and decay, and it’s a bit of a bummer from that point on.

On the subject of that anonymous Sensitive Plant: a spell cast upon me by the idea of this book, I found an inexpensive copy (sadly, it’s missing three plates), and I descended upon it as soon as it arrived. In the preface, the literary critic Edmund Gosse speculates as to what sort of specimen it might be, having all manner of contradictory qualities. Apparently, he reached out to an old friend and Oxford professor to shed some light on the subject. The gentleman hilariously noted, “… the botany of poets is a source of deep anxiety to botanists,” and Gosse goes on to say, “Shelley’s flower-lore is no exception.” For what it’s worth, scholars and readers conjecture that this psychic little plant may be mimosa pudica.

I only paid $50 for my copy, which seems like a steal given its fabulous condition and despite the fact that it’s missing some imagery. I’ve seen it being sold for upwards of $900, though!

The Sensitive Plant has also been illustrated by playwright and illustrator Laurence Houseman in an eerie, intricate Art Nouveau style, which can be seen in this blog post. Below, however, you will find more of Charles Robinson’s accompanying imagery to The Sensitive Plant.



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