Just as children learn to read, by spelling our their words, Victor Hugo learns to read the book of nature.
I am spelling out words now, too; I am studying
The immense and joyous book before my eyes.
O fields, what a line of poetry is the periwinkle!
What a stanza the eagle, o skies!
Several varieties of Vinca have been used in the garden; the plants, though somewhat invasive, are invaluable for shady groundcover. They are: Vinca major; Vinca major variegata; Vinca minor alba; Vinca ‘Dartington Star’; and Vinca minor, ‘Bowles’ variety’.
The bright blue perwinkle is another of the plants that are very strongly associated by Hugo with his childhood. it features often in his poetry. However, the periwinkle has a literary pedigree that may have influenced his choice of flower: one of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote in his celebrated Confessions of an episode where he rediscovers with joy a periwinkle on a grassy bank; fond memories of his mother are suddenly triggered as he remembers her showing him this flower as a child, when they were living at a place called Les Charmettes. The sight of the periwinkle evokes the past in the person and the place.
‘Because April gives the oaksA charming sound …Because the air gives the branchesThe birds;Because dawn gives the periwinkleA little water;Because, when she puts in thereTo have a rest,The briny wave gives the shoreA kiss …’This poem is the first occurrence of the periwinkle in Hugo’s poetry. It appears in Les Voix intérieures of 1837; this is the collection in which he mourns the death of his brother, which occurred in that year. This loss seemed to unleash the memories of his youth spent with his brothers and mother in the garden of the ruined convent, Les Feuillantines. The periwinkle occurs next in Les Contemplations of 1856, where generally it has a happy connotation. Hugo describes the ‘golden bees’ rushing to ‘the periwinkle, the thyme, the bindweed’. He would be pleased to know that his observations have a scientific basis: the blue of the periwinkle has been shown to be the exact shade to be most easily seen by bees.
Periwinkles thrive in semi-shade; their flowers stand out in the twilight. Their petals collect dew and rainwater, which remain on the face of the flower for some time.
‘I lived in a shady park where the birds used to twitter,
Where tears smiled in the blue eyes of the periwinkles …’
(from ‘To André Chenier,’ ‘A André Chenier‘, Les Contemplations, 1856). André Chenier, who is remembered here, was a young poet of great promise who was guillotined quite pointlessly in 1794, only three days before the end of the Terror, and buried at the Picpus cemetery with other victims of the Revolution. The private cemetery, which today only the original victims’ families may use, was later consecrated as a chapel in 1841, built on the site of a former convent, and became home to a new congregation of the order of nuns of the Perpetual Adoration of the Sacred Sacrament. Jean Valjean and Cosette find sanctuary, and Cosette her education, at the fictional convent of ‘Little Picpus.’ Hugo was never to deny the ‘collateral damage’ of the Revolution, but was resigned to it for the sake of human progress.
From ‘A André Chenier’, Les Contemplations, 1856