ASPHODEL, THAT GREENY FLOWER

As an extended reflection on the artist’s life and family history, his marriage, and with several references to other artists, William Carlos Williams chose to include this great poem at the very end of his last collection, Pictures from Brueghel and other poems, published in 1962.  It is sometimes referred to as the world’s darkest love poem. 

In the past, whenever I read “Asphodel” I had always thought of it as a written piece of surrealism:  an author speaking to his contemporaries while walking through a strange landscape.  He often mentions his wife Flossie and their friend Charlie Demuth, as well as other artists such as Goya and Cezanne.  Today, when I re-read these lines, I associate them with more contemporary artists, especially Alfred Leslie and Laurie Gatlin. 

I used to see certain paintings by Leslie at Allen Frumkin’s galleries in both Chicago and New York.  I would often make a connection to certain other events or stories.  With this one in particular, “7:00 AM News” I would always go right back to Williams and his observations regarding dreaded poetry and the news.  

“It is difficult to get the news from poems….”[i]

Alfred Leslie
“7:00 AM News”
1976
Oil on canvas
84” x 60”
Allan Frumkin Gallery, New York

Then there is that strange visual juxtaposition of flowers actually blooming in hell.  Totally surreal and I cannot help but think of the artist’s post card series created by Laurie Gatlin during the mid 1990’s.

I have recently re-discovered several of Dr. Gatlin’s post cards from this series, especially the ones quoting Dr. Williams and the Asphodel.  When I asked her about them, this is what she had to say: 

“I love that poem. I like the way it meanders through memory, and balances both loss and sorrow and love.  I started that postcard project when I was living alone for the first time – I got married young and never lived on my own – I went from my parents house to my husband’s house, and then we had a house with children, a noisy house, and when I separated from him and moved into my own apartment, I was both happy with the ability to be alone and also terribly lonely.  It’s hard to make that adjustment, and the way I coped was to reach out with my postcards. . . . So there were a lot of things in that poem that resonated with me, and re-reading it again today, I am more struck by the sense of looking back over a life lived. . . .” 

Laurie Gatlin
“Flowers in Hell”
1995
5 1/2” x 3 1/2”
Collage and acrylic medium on post card
Private collection, Indianapolis

“One of the things that strikes me about William Carlos Williams is the sense of rhythm in his works – not structured with regular meter, but it reads to me very much like a metered poem.  There’s also the sense of distance in most of his poems – a sense of standing apart, and I think that appeals to me. Of Asphodel is actually pretty personal as it speaks about his relationship with his wife, but so much of it is also observational and distant.  I think I appreciated both of those aspects at the time as well – the meter and the sense of distance/personal relationship.”[ii]

I have always agreed with these observations from Laurie Gatlin and I share her understanding of Williams’ poem and its meanings.  However, during all of this time I missed a crucial detail of what Williams was trying to say.  Only recently have I discovered classical references to this greeny flower.  In fact, Homer mentions this in several passages of The Odyssey.  While exploring Hades at the direction of Circe in order to consult the prophet Tiresias, Odysseus had met and talked with Achilles’ ghost and Minos, as well as Agamemnon, his own dead mother Autolycus, and of course Tiresias hinself.  He had been sent by Circe in order to question his former crew regarding the events wherein he was lost at sea and these mates had been killed.  All the while, during this visit, he noticed that there were fields and meadows of asphodels growing there.   

“Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                  like a buttercup
                                    upon its branching stem—
save that it’s green and wooden—
                  I come, my sweet,
                                    to sing to you. 
We lived long together
                  a life filled,
                                    if you will,
with flowers.  So that
                  I was cheered
                                    when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
                  in hell.”[iii]

It turned out that Circe had instructed Odysseus two different times to travel to Hades for advice and guidance from his brothers in arms and from Tiresias. When he told Achilles that his son was actually still alive and had brought honor to his family, the ghost was overjoyed:    

“…after I told him this, Achilles’ ghost
took great swift-footed strides across the fields
of asphodel, delighted to have heard
about the glorious prowess of his son.”[iv]      

During these explorations Odysseus met and talked with many of the inhabitants of the underworld.  Whilst he was seeking to learn the routes out in order to return to Ithaca, his comrades in the underworld were seeking news of the outside world and they rushed to find any news that they could. 

“On open roads they crossed the Ocean stream,
went past the rock of Leucas and the gates
of Helius the Sun, and skittered through
the provinces of dreams, and soon arrived
in fields of asphodel, the home of shadows
who have been worn to weariness by life.”[v] 

Asphodel, That Greeny Flower
“Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                  I come, my sweet,
                                    to sing to you!
My heart rouses
                  thinking to bring you news
                                    of something
that concerns you
                  and concerns many men.  Look at
                                    what passes for the new. 
You will not find it there but in
                  despised poems. 
                                    It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                  yet men die miserably every day
                                    for lack
of what is found there.”[vi]

Laurie Gatlin
“It is difficult to get the news”
1995
5 1/2” x 3 1/2”
Collage and acrylic medium on post card
Private collection, Indianapolis

“What power has love but forgiveness? 
                  In other words
                                    by its intervention
what has been done
                  can be undone. 
                                    What good is it otherwise? 
Because of this
                  I have invoked the flower
                                    in that
frail as it is
                  after winter’s harshness
                                    it comes again
to delect us. 
                  Asphodel, the ancients believed,
                                    in hell’s despite
was such a flower.”[vii]


[i] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 161.

[ii] Gatlin, Laurie; in an artist’s statement and e-mail communication with this writer; 29 June 2020, 6:58 AM.

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 153.

[iv] Homer; The Odyssey; (translated by Robert Fitzgerald and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney); Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1910 & 1992; pp. 296-197, lines 538-541.

[v] Homer; The Odyssey; (translated by Robert Fitzgerald and with an introduction by Seamus Heaney); Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1910 & 1992; p. 507, lines 11-16.

[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; pp. 161-162.

[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; pp. 169-170.