Monday, March 03, 2008



David Norton writes in an email:
Have you seen Dancing at Lughnasa? If not, I recommend it strongly. But I mention it now because of the appearance in it of the song "Down by the Salley Gardens", using the words of the Yeats poem but with a melody that I hadn’t heard before but liked. The melody is available at this URL:
I haven't seen the movie, and Yeats' poem was also unfamiliar to me:

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

Salley is a variant of sallow, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "A plant of the genus Salix, a willow; chiefly, in narrower sense, as distinguished from 'osier' and 'willow', applied to several species of Salix of a low-growing or shrubby habit." Sallow is etymologically related to Latin salix and French saule, both of which mean "willow," and some detect the same root in the English place names Selborne, Selwood, and Silchester. For a foolish moment I thought that perhaps the adjective sallow might be connected with the noun, from the color of the leaves, but a look at the dictionary set me straight. The two words have different origins.

Other English poets have mentioned sallow in passing (e.g. Keats in his Ode to Autumn), but John Clare devoted an entire poem, entitled The Sallow, to the tree:

Pendant o'er rude old ponds, or leaning o'er
The woodland's mossy rails, the sallows now
Put on their golden liveries, and restore
The Spring to splendid memories, ere a bough
Of whitethorn shows a leaf to say 'tis come;
And through the leafless underwood rich stains
Of sunny gold show where the sallows bloom,
Like sunshine in dark places, and gold veins
Mapping the russet landscape into smiles
At Spring's approach; nor hath the sallow palms
A peer for richness: ploughmen in their toils
Will crop a branch, smit with its golden charms,
While at its root the primrose' brimming eye
Smiles in his face and blooms delicious by.

Alfred Sisley, Saules au bord de l'Orvanne

In Sisley's painting, it looks like the man in the white shirt is doing more than just cropping a branch; he seems to be pollarding the tree.

Update: Chris Dodge draws my attention to Thoreau, Journal (May 14, 1852), on the yellowish hue of the willow:
Ah! willow, willow! These willows have yellow bark, bear yellow flowers and yellowish-green leaves, and are now haunted by the summer yellowbird [goldfinch] and Maryland yellow-throat. . . . Single large willows at distance are great nosegays of yellow.
Related post: Willows.

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