Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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The Flower

There is a form of oppression that has not until now been confessed by those who suffer from it or who are participants, as mere witnesses, in its tyranny. It is the obsession of man by the flower. In the shape of the flower his own paltriness revisits him- -his triviality, his sloth, his cheapness, his wholesale habitualness, his slatternly ostentation. These return to him and wreak upon him their dull revenges. What the tyranny really had grown to can be gauged nowhere so well as in country lodgings, where the most ordinary things of design and decoration have sifted down and gathered together, so that foolish ornament gains a cumulative force and achieves a conspicuous commonness. Stem and petal and leaf–the fluent forms that a man has not by heart but certainly by rote–are woven, printed, cast, and stamped wherever restlessness and insimplicity have feared to leave plain spaces. The most ugly of all imaginable rooms, which is probably the parlour of a farm- house arrayed for those whom Americans call summer-boarders, is beset with flowers. It blooms, a dry, woollen, papery, cast-iron garden. The floor flourishes with blossoms adust, poorly conventionalized into a kind of order; the table-cover is ablaze with a more realistic florescence; the wall-paper is set with bunches; the rigid machine-lace curtain is all of roses and lilies in its very construction; over the muslin blinds an impotent sprig is scattered. In the worsted rosettes of the bell-ropes, in the plaster picture-frames, in the painted tea-tray and on the cups, in the pediment of the sideboard, in the ornament that crowns the barometer, in the finials of sofa and arm-chair, in the finger- plates of the “grained” door, is to be seen the ineffectual portrait or to be traced the stale inspiration of the flower. And what is this bossiness around the grate but some blunt, black-leaded garland? The recital is wearisome, but the retribution of the flower is precisely weariness. It is the persecution of man, the haunting of his trivial visions, and the oppression of his inconsiderable brain.

The man so possessed suffers the lot of the weakling–subjection to the smallest of the things he has abused. The designer of cheap patterns is no more inevitably ridden by the flower than is the vain and transitory author by the phrase. In literature as in all else man merits his subjection to trivialities by his economical greed. A condition for using justly and gaily any decoration would seem to be a measure of reluctance. Ornament–strange as the doctrine sounds in a world decivilized–was in the beginning intended to be something jocund; and jocundity was never to be achieved but by postponement, deference, and modesty. Nor can the prodigality of the meadows in May be quoted in dispute. For Nature has something even more severe than modertion: she has an innumerable singleness. Her buttercup meadows are not prodigal; they show multitude, but not multiplicity, and multiplicity is exactly the disgrace of decoration. Who has ever multiplied or repeated his delights? or who has ever gained the granting of the most foolish of his wishes– the prayer for reiteration? It is a curious slight to generous Fate that man should, like a child, ask for one thing many times. Her answer every time is a resembling but new and single gift; until the day when she shall make the one tremendous difference among her gifts–and make it perhaps in secret–by naming one of them the ultimate. What, for novelty, what, for singleness, what, for separateness, can equal the last? Of many thousand kisses the poor last–but even the kisses of your mouth are all numbered.


Ceres’ Runaway  •  Wells  •  Rain  •  The Tow Path  •  The Tethered Constellations  •  Rushes and Reeds  •  A Northern Fancy  •  Pathos  •  Anima Pellegrina!  •  A Point of Biography  •  The Honours of Mortality  •  Composure  •  The Little Language  •  A Counterchange  •  Harlequin Mercutio  •  Laughter  •  The Rhythm of Life  •  Domus Angusta  •  Innocence and Experience  •  The Hours of Sleep  •  Solitude  •  Decivilized  •  The Spirit of Place  •  Popular Burlesque  •  Have Patience, Little Saint  •  At Monastery Gates  •  The Sea Wall  •  Tithonus  •  Symmetry and Incident  •  The Plaid  •  The Flower  •  Unstable Equilibrium  •  Victorian Caricature  •  The Point of Honour  •  The Colour of Life  •  The Horizon  •  In July  •  Cloud  •  Shadows  •  The Seventeenth Century  •  Mrs. Dingley  •  Prue  •  Mrs. Johnson  •  Madame Roland  •  Fellow Travellers With a Bird  •  The Child of Tumult  •  The Child of Subsiding Tumult  •  The Unready  •  That Pretty Person  •  Under the Early Stars  •  The Illusion of Historic Time  •  Footnotes

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The Essays of Alice Meynell (Centenary Edition)
By Sir Francis Meynell
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