A Bucket of Hyacinths | Newberry

A Bucket of Hyacinths

There are a lot of literary mysteries which are more misunderstandings than they are mysteries. Having grown up in Iowa, I have read often of the elusive poet E. Bulmer, whose name is attached to a number of poems, none of which he, she, or they actually wrote. It all dates back to an article written by E. Bulmer in which a poem was quoted without credit to the poet, and so Bulmer’s name was attached to the poem but THEN some busybody decided E. Bulmer was a typo for Edward Bulwer-Lytton (not Edward the novelist who started a novel “It was dark and stormy night”, but his son Edward Robert, poet and politician.) So a poem written by John Lucky McCreery of Iowa was credited to the Viceroy of India and then some other poems got credited to Bulmer, and…it goes on for longer than necessary, and all for want of a footnote.

A similar story which will never be solved until such time as every word ever spoken or written by Ralph Waldo Emerson is indexed is the puzzle of where he wrote “Let a man build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to his door.” Everybody KNOWS he said it, but it appears nowhere in his published works. Still, to some people, if Emerson did NOT write that thing about the mousetrap, American civilization falls into a tangle of Pick-Up Sticks, so people are still sure that somewhere, in some library, they will find a letter that says, “By the way, Emerson said something amusing over the apple pie at dinner last night….”

I did not realize I was walking into a similar trap. I have swapped emails with a few people who are worried that this quarantine is leading them to do unwise things with their money. Not buying an island in the South Seas and building a castle unwise, just stopping at the drive-through and ordering fries AND onion rings, or buying books online from yours truly. One of them mentioned spending what should have been grocery money on flowers, just to cheer things up around the house.

And to that person especially, but to all the others, I said something about buying hyacinths to feed your soul. The buyer of the flowers said she had been thinking the same thing when she did it, as her mother had always used the line. I was going to reply that it was, of course, from that famous poem by…. And I had no idea who wrote the poem. So I looked it up.

It is actually a classic line from John Greenleaf Whittier, only it isn’t, because it’s actually from the works of Persia’s greatest poet, and dates to the thirteenth century. Only it doesn’t.

John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a number of bestselling poems in his day: Snow-Bound, The Barefoot Boy and, of course, Barbara Frietchie (“Shoot if you must this old grey head but spare your country’s flag,” she said.) Gulistan (or The Golestan) by Sa’di is a work formed of stories and poems and maxims which is considered one of the greatest founts of wisdom ever put together. A quatrain from it appears in the United Nations building, and Barack Obama quoted this in a speech.

But you will look in vain to either for “”If thou of fortune be bereft and in thy store there be but left two loaves, sell one, and with the dole buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.” This was a verse found in the papers of Ezra Pound, who, by the way, didn’t write it either.

But when The Paris Review touted the discovery in Pound’s papers, people complained that they’d heard that poem somewhere else, and the bloodhounds were set on the trail. It turns up in a book of poetry called In Saadi’s Rose Garden by James Terry White. (Gulistan, or Golestan, is from the Persian for rose garden.) He had rewritten the poem a little since its appearance in a magazine, and he continued to fool with it throughout his poetic career. He was a busy man, being CEO of a typewriter company, and part owner of a pharmaceutical company, and a publisher (he and his son are credited with the first thirty-one volumes of the National Cylopaedia of Biography AND a life-size anatomical model on paper for medical students). He was the namesake of a literary award which seems to have been awarded only once. Whether he cared that Whittier and Sa’di were getting credit for his line, I couldn’t say.

But anyway, now you know who is responsible for the saying and if this is of no practical use to you in today’s work, well, it was cheaper than hyacinths are running at the moment.


There are some grape hyacinths in the front of our house, blooming nicely as the daffodils fade. I hadn't paid much attention to them, so now I will. Thanks to all who brought up the subject.

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