Dear Readers, weeping willows seem to be so much part of our riverside habitats that it’s difficult to imagine them not being part of the landscape. However, this is not a native tree: weeping willows come originally from China, but have been traded along the Silk Route for millenia, and probably arrived in the UK as early as 1730. To add to the confusion, traditional weeping willow has then hybridised with the native white willow to give us the majority of the trees that we see today (Salix x sepulcharis). How elegant they are! I make no apology for posting last week’s short film of them blowing in the wind again…
One of the commonest cultural references to the weeping willow is from the King James Bible, Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
Aha! Said some arbiculturalist, the trees by the Euphrates river were not weeping willows, but were in fact Euphrates weeping poplar (Populus euphratica) because there’s always a smartass somewhere (and to be honest it’s usually me). And in the New International Bible, it’s corrected to:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion
There on the poplars we hung our harps.
So one-nil for poplars. On the other hand, we’ll always have Boney-M….
In a way, it’s a shame that such a beautiful tree has been associated with sadness: maybe it’s the way that the stems drift down in a melancholy fashion, falling like tears into the water. Shakespeare had a great fondness for the weeping willow: here is ‘The Willow Song’ from Othello, sung by Desdemona as she prepares for bed, afraid that she has been unjustly accused of being unfaithful, as indeed she has. Click on the link to hear the song.
“The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
(Sing all a green willow, willow willow willow,)
With his hand in his bosom and his head upon his knee.
(Oh willow, willow, willow
Shall be my garland.)
He sighed in his singing and made a great moan…
I am dead to all pleasure, my true love she is gone…
The mute bird sat by him was made tame by his moans…
The true tears fell from him, would have melted the stones…
Come all you forsaken and mourn you with me…
Who speaks of a false love, mine’s falser than she…
Let love no more boast her in palace nor bower…
It buds, but it blasteth ere it be a flower…
Though fair and more false, I die with thy wound…
Thou hast lost the truest lover that goes upon the ground, sing…
Let nobody chide her, her scorns I approve…
She was born to be false, and I to die for her love…
Take this for my farewell and latest adieu…
Write this on my tomb, that in love I was true…”
And then there’s poor old Ophelia of course….
‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream:
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.
Her clothes spread wide
And mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element.
But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
In China, the weeping willow is said to represent the tears of Kuan Yin who was the Bodhisattva and goddess of compassion, as she weeps for the suffering in the world. It also has an association with Alexander the Great – as he rode under some weeping willows (in Babylon, so probably poplars), the branches swept his crown from his head in a nice piece of foreshadowing.
On a more cheerful note, how about ‘The Wind in the Willows?’ What an interesting book this is, with its tales of Ratty and Mole and Mr Toad and then that single chapter about ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, who looks after the lost baby otter until Ratty and Mole find him. Ancient prog rock fans like me might remember that Pink Floyd’s first album was called ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. The name of the book, ‘Wind in the Willows’ is slightly mysterious, as willows are never mentioned in the text itself: apparently the book’s publisher, Sir Algernon Methuen, said that it had been chosen because of its ‘charming and wet sound’, a phrase that I’m not sure gets us any further forward. Apparently ‘the wind in the willows’ is also thought to be the sound of elves chattering in the branches, but that’s not very helpful either. Suffice it to say that this is a book with hidden depths, which has been seen at various times as a ‘gay manifesto’ (there is only one woman in it (a barge lady) and Ratty and Moley have a very ‘intense’ relationship), as a conservative and nostalgic look back to the ‘good old days’ of rural life, and as a story of addiction (Mr Toad and his obsession with his motor car) which is only ‘cured’ by an intervention by his friends. Like all great books, it can be read in many different ways, and is clearly not just a book for children. There’s a very interesting analysis by Kate Cantrell here.
And finally, who amongst us does not have a piece of willow pattern pottery stowed away somewhere or other? The blue and white pattern is so well known, so ubiquitous that I for one have almost stopped looking at it, so here it is. It became popular at the end of the 18th Century in the UK, and I think almost everybody’s grandmother had a willow pattern tea set lurking somewhere.
It’s actually quite an odd pattern when you look at it closely – I’m assuming that the ‘willow’ is the tree in the centre, which looks as if it has manicured nails and a couple of horse’s tails attached to the upper branches. Then there’s what appears to be an outhouse bursting into flames on the lower left, and two birds facing off in the centre. Plus there appears to be a steaming teapot on the roof of the temple to the centre right.
I’m sure this is all just down to my lack of understanding of what’s actually going on, but the design is actually English, and a ‘legend’ involving star-crossed lovers who were transformed into birds by the gods etc etc was invented to help with sales. Well it certainly worked, and various operas/plays/films use the design, including an episode of ‘Murder, She Wrote’, and you can’t get any more iconic than that!