Flowers of the Forest by Jean Elliot

a woodland scene with bluebells carpeting the forest floor

There’s always a time appropriate for these verses, given the events in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the unchanging human condition. It is safe to predict the forests of humanity will always produce such flowers.

The best introduction to these timeless “flowers” comes from about 1,000 years ago:

Oh, come with old Khayyám, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once blown for ever dies.

verse from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám
translated by Edward FitzGerald

An oil painting showing a tulip, a skull, and an hourglass. This still life painted in the early 1670s by Philippe de Champaigne illustrates existence with representations of life, death, and the passage of time.
This still life painted in the early 1670s by Philippe de Champaigne illustrates existence with representations of life, death, and the passage of time. It is somewhat ironic that life is portrayed here by a tulip that has a virus, creating its varied color.

There’s also this verse in another famous translation of the Rubaiyat done by David Smith:

A rose with unexpected bloom surprised the dawn,
Then to the zephyrs sang her simple song and died;
Thus Destiny doth show her carelessness of life –
A day of birth, of life, of death, – and all is done.

A beech wood in springtime filled with bluebells and white anemones blooming on the forest floor.The forest mentioned here is a specific place: Ettrick Forest in Selkirkshire (southeast Scotland).

I’ve heard them liltin’ at the ewe milking [singing at milking time]
Lassies are liltin’ before dawn o’ day
Now there’s a moanin’ on ilka green loanin’ [each green pasture]
The Flow’rs o’ the Forest are a’ wede awa’. [carried off by death]

At baughts in the morning, nae blythe lads are scornin’ [at the pens; no carefree youth are teasing]
Lassies are lanely and dowie and wae; [lonely and sad and mourning]
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighin’ and sabbin’ [no playfulness, no gossipping]
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her awa’. [each one lifts her milk pail and carries it away]

At e’en in the gloamin’, nae swankies are roamin’ [at evening in the twilight, no young men]
‘Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play; [playing hide-and-seek around the haystacks]
But ilk maid sits drearie, lamentin’ her dearie, [each girl sits dreary]
The Flow’rs o’ the Forest are a’ wede awa’. [cut down by death]

In har’st at the shearin’, nae youths now are jeerin’, [During reaping at harvest time, no]
Bandsters are runkled, an’ lyart, or grey;
[The farm workers are not young men, but wrinkled, with salt-and-pepper hair, or gray]
At fair or at preachin’, nae wooin’, nae fleechin’, [no flirtation or sweet talk]
The Flow’rs o’ the Forest are a’ wede awa’. [The young men are gone due to war.]

Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border, [Mourn for]
The English, for ance, by guile, won the day;
The Flow’rs o’ the Forest that fought aye the foremost, [the soldiers who fought were our best men]
The prime o’ our land lie cauld i’ the clay. [cauld=cold]

We’ll hae nae mair liltin’ at the ewe-milkin’, [have so more singing]
Women an’ bairns are heartless an’ wae; [and children are crushed by grief and mourning]
Sighin’ an’ moanin’ on ilka green loanin’, [each green pasture]
The Flow’rs o’ the Forest are a’ wede awa’. [not coming home]

a black-and-white image of war done by skulls and skeletons rather than men showing the Battle of Puebla in Mexico by José Posada (1852–1913)
Battle of Puebla (undated)
by José Posada (1852–1913)

In September 1513, the army of King James IV was defeated at the Battle of Flodden between the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. The battle took place about 3 miles from the border between England and Scotland in Northumberland, the northernmost county in England. It is believed that nearly every noble family in Scotland would have lost a member at Flodden.

About a century later, a folk tune called ‘Flowers of the Forest‘ was first recorded; this was around 1615 to 1625. It could have been around a while before it was written down and published. Another century later some poems were written and distributed.

The best-known version, given here, would be published anonymously around 1756 and later traced to Jean Elliot (1727-1805).

a path through a beech forest in springtime with bluebells blooming over the forest floor
It is quite safe to predict the forests of humanity will always produce such flowers.

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