Being forced to learn Wordsworth’s cloying little paean to that “jocund company” in grade school I should have reason enough to detest daffodils with a passion. But you had to give old William his due, he had it right – a bed of daffodils nodding and swaying in the breeze is a sight that does cause the heart to raise a few levels on the joyful scale.
What I hadn’t realize until I did a bit of Googling that the daffodil is the same as the narcissus is the same as the jonquil. Nor did I know that it is highly toxic and though the most oft told derivation of its name comes from the Greek legend of a very lovely and vain young man it may also come from the Greek word narkao or “I grow numb”, describing its narcotic properties.
The story that Delord tells and Grandville illustrates in Les fleurs animées recounts another tale of vanity but this time the vain one is a young Sicilian beauty spoken of as a warning to all young girls.
Sadly young Louis, a brave lad, a bold sailor and a kind comrade falls hopelessly in love with the vain beauty. She leads him on and he soon sells all that he has to buy her the fine silks and gems that she demands – thinking only of how they will enhance her beauty not of the sacrifices her smitten lover has made to obtain them for her. Eventually, having sold all he had, Louis becomes a brigand – robbing and “risking his soul’s welfare in order to gratify the vain wishes of her heart.”
The Governor sends a detachment of soldiers under the command of a handsome young corporal to deal with the robber and Louis is killed. When the soldiers return Narcissa attempts to ensnare the young officer the way she had once ensnared poor Louis. But the corporal is a man of the world and sees the emptiness beyond the beauty.
Rejected by her village Narcissa seeks refuge in a grotto by a holy stream high on the mountain of Monte-Negro. But rather than weeping for her errors and repenting of her vanity she spends the day admiring her beauty in the waters of the stream. One day a holy man climbed the mountain bent on exorcising the demons of vanity from the cold beauty.
A chilling warning – perhaps it is only in crowds that the lovely daffodil is “jocund company”.