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?

“Make me a willow cabin at your gate”, says Viola,
And call upon my soul within the house.
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night.
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” Oh, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.”
With one deft twist Viola changes the connotations of the willow, from a passive instrument of rejection to a stubborn gallant assertion. Viola is a fearless and eloquent warrior of a woman who uses the willow to bombard Olivia’s fossilised spirit and bring her back to the land of the living.
She might do much.

17 thoughts on “Willow

    1. My pleasure entirely, Chris. This post wrote itself. The willow is a fascinating focus. And of course I had forgotten that they whiten just outside the Lady of Shalott’s tower. Ho hum.

  1. A perfect post to read today when I have time to enjoy all the references. I can remember that my grandmother used to refer to women who ‘wore the willow’ having lost their fiances in the Great War.

    And you gave given me an inspiration….I’m planning a new garden and, given the way things grow here I can make an ornamental living alley in very few years – your willow cabin gave me the idea…many thanks.

      1. I don’t know if it specific to that war….but it seemed a variant on the lass abandoned by her lover theme…
        Have started to plan where – and what – to plant….bit close to the end of the rainy season, but as I want to lay out paths to make the new garden accessible I’ll get that done in the next six months by which time I hope I’ll have decided on which trees to use.Good excuse to visit the plant nurseries….

  2. Always, always interesting posts, Kate, and this one is an A+. I had forgotten about willow cages. Hereabouts, folks often use willow for outdoor furniture, but, methinks it might be good to keep the deer at bay. :I)

      1. Wow! That’s quite a fence.
        I am afraid they might, Kate, but, it would be fun to try. Lately, they have been munching on windfall apples on the tree, which is all but dead, that is mostly on our drive but belongs to the neighbors. Our neighbor got pretty close to a doe eating out of his had the other day. What a life! :I)

  3. Ah, the willow. The trees of my youth. We used to have a lovely willow chaise. In the SW, we have ocotillo which I hadn’t thought of as willow until now. Many make living fences with them and they blossom in the rain.

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