Category Archives: Heade, Martin Johnson

I hide myself within my flower

Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds, 1871, Martin Johnson Heade
Background Image: Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds, 1871, Martin Johnson Heade

I imagine Emily having carefully picked a flower for a friend, a friend whose friendship is incredibly important to her but that she might not be able to express how much so in words and so she gives this flower – which is pregnant with significance – to her friend, but her friend is unaware just how important this gesture is to Emily. Only the “angels know” her secret.

Proust writes on multiple occasions in Swann’s Way how the narrator (Marcel) assumes there is significant meaning behind even the slightest gestures another character is making. Odette may look at Swann in a particular way that is interpreted to be a sign of her innermost thoughts and feelings, but in reality may have just been caused by the sun in her eyes. And for Odette there may have been nothing significant at all in any of her actions, but to an observer – and especially for Swann – everything she does is meaningful. In fact, the cattleya flower Odette wears becomes a symbol of sexuality for Swann to the point of total obsession. “To do a cattleya” becomes his way of making love to her and Odette may even be aware of this, but she never presses the issue and so the flower quietly stands in for their relationship.

Meaning is hidden in everything and for many of us it remains a secret. Swann’s passion for one phrase during the (fictional) Vinteuil Sonata is the catalyst for sparking involuntary memory. While the rest of the audience quietly enjoys the piece of music, Swann is thrown into an ecstasy and he recalls every moment with Odette, even the moments that might be wholly insignificant to any outside observer. As he sits among the audience as the music plays, he is mentally transported to another realm but nobody looking at him (other than the narrator of Swann’s Way, Marcel) would have any idea that he was experiencing anything unusual.

This poem seems to be operating in the same way. This flower – let’s call it a cattleya for fun; it will be our secret – is loaded with significance for Emily, yet what exactly that significance is her friend (and us) do not know – only the “angels” are not “unsuspecting” because they know the secret, they are like Proust’s narrator who knows everyone’s secrets.

Her friend wears the flower all day long and thus Emily too rides along with her friend, but she must do so through the flower; the flower is the avatar for a secret Emily is unable or unwilling to share. In fact, a good poem, like any good work of art (such as Vinteuil’s “little phrase”), does have meaning inside of it that can be uncovered if one chooses to look closer, yet Emily’s trick here is to not tell us what her secret is, she leaves it up to us to discover meaning because in doing so we not only grow closer to her, but become more aware of ourselves. Besides, the meaning we choose to see says more about us than it does about anyone else.

We don’t know everyone’s secrets and thus we should be more empathetic towards each other because what might not seem meaningful to us may be cosmically important to someone else. Even for someone like Emily who, as a poet, can express herself beautifully, even she is unable to express exactly what her secret is and she must remain hidden in her flower. Shusaku Endo writes in his novel “Silence” that “Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” Emily is expressing a similar sentiment in that her flower is delicate, but to her all of her feelings and emotion are wrapped up inside it and it is up to us to respect her secret and to take a moment to look a little deeper into each other in the hopes that we may see how important even the slightest gesture is to someone else.