Long, long ago, in a faraway land, a geisha wrote a poem.
“I send you this willow branch, picked from the hills
Plant it outside your bedroom window to view
When night rain brings out new leaves, greet them as you would greet me.”
Hong Rang, a geisha from the 16th century, wrote this as a woman in Korea. In the Korean language, says Yŏl-gyu Kim, an academic who specialises in Korean folklore and literature, women are ‘picked’ by men as one might a flower. This is a love poem from within a willow cage.
Willow: a weeping tree. It stalks the Northern Hemisphere and haunts rivers, the subject of folk tales which tell of its uprooting itself to walk the paths of its neighbourhood.
In China willow is used to ward off evil spirits, and the Japanese have tales of willow spirits leaving their trees and walking abroad. Tolkein’s Old Man Willow is a hypnotist, which drugs those who sleep underneath and traps them in its roots.
And in England, the willow was for so long the sign of those who are rejected by their lovers.
It is possible to use living strands of willow to make a shelter; the branches are malleable and giving, and will bend to the will of the little cabin’s creator. When they are made, they are a thing of beauty, though keeping out the English rain could be a challenge.
Did this last flaw signify to Viola? A perfect cross-dressing Shakespearean heroine, the young woman in Twelfth Night was in Illyria, shipwrecked in a hostile land and travelling incognito as a young man to ensure her safety. I suspect that if, as the jester of the Countess’s court alleged, that the rain it raineth every day, it could have been a damp and draughty option.
Nevertheless, she uses it to charm the countess: posing as a man, she sweeps Olivia, a noblewoman who stolidly refuses to come out of mourning and accept a neighbouring count’s advances, off her feet with willow.
What would you do to woo me, asks Olivia?