Original French: Narciſſe,
Modern French: Narcisse,
Among plants named by metamorphosis of men or women.
Narcissus, probably about 1500.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. It is unusual for him to be given modern dress and for the pool to be a raised basin. The painting may be a poetic portrait and the pool an afterthought. The type of effeminate male beauty, the loose curls and the distant lake are all derived from the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio was Leonardo’s main pupil in Milan.
He [Tiresias], famed far and near through all the Boeotian towns, gave answers that none could censure to those who sought his aid. The first to make trial of his truth and assured utterances was the nymph, Liriope, whom once the river-god, Cephisus, embraced in his winding stream and ravished, while imprisoned in his waters. When her time came the beauteous nymph brought forth a child, whom a nymph might love even as a child, and named him Narcissus. When asked whether this child would live to reach well-ripened age, the seer replied: “If he ne’er know himself.” Long did the saying of the prophet seem but empty words. But what befell proved its truth—the event, the manner of his death, the strangeness of his infatuation. For Narcissus had reached his sixteenth year and might seem either boy or man. Many youths and many maidens sought his love; but in that slender form was pride so cold that no youth, no maiden touched his heart. Once as he was driving the frightened deer into his nets, a certain nymph of strange speech beheld him, resounding Echo, who could neither hold her peace when others spoke, nor yet begin to speak till others had addressed her.
Up to this time Echo had form and was not a voice alone; and yet, though talkative, she had no other use of speech than now—only the power out of many words to repeat the last she heard. Juno had made her thus; for often when she might have surprised the nymphs in company with her lord upon the mountain-sides, Echo would cunningly hold the goddess in long talk until the nymphs were fled. When Saturnia realized this, she said to her: “That tongue of thine, by which I have been tricked, shall have its power curtailed and enjoy the briefest use of speech.” The event confirmed her threat. She merely repeats the concluding phrases of a speech and returns the words she hears. Now when she saw Narcissus wandering through the fields, she was inflamed with love and followed him by stealth; and the more she followed, the more she burned by a nearer flame; as when quick-burning sulphur, smeared round the tops of torches, catches fire from another fire brought near. Oh, how often does she long to approach him with alluring words and make soft prayers to him! But her nature forbids this, nor does it permit her to begin; but as it allows, she is ready to await the sounds to which she may give back her own words. By chance the boy, separated from his faithful companions, had cried: “Is anyone here?” and “Here!” cried Echo back. Amazed, he looks around in all directions and with loud voice cries “Come!”; and “Come!” she calls him calling. He looks behind him and, seeing no one coming, calls again: “Why do you run from me?” and hears in answer his own words again. He stands still, deceived by the answering voice, and “Here let us meet,” he cries. Echo, never to answer other sound more gladly, cries: “Let us meet”; and to help her own words she comes forth from the woods that she may throw her arms around the neck she longs to clasp. But he flees at her approach and, fleeing, says: “Hands off! embrace me not! May I die before I give you power o’er me!” “I give you power o’er me!” she says, and nothing more. Thus spurned, she lurks in the woods, hides her shamed face among the foliage, and lives from that time on in lonely caves. But still, though spurned, her love remains and grows on grief; her sleepless cares waste away her wretched form; she becomes gaunt and wrinkled and all moisture fades from her body into the air. Only her voice and her bones remain: then, only voice; for they say that her bones were turned to stone. She hides in woods and is seen no more upon the mountain-sides; but all may hear her, for voice, and voice alone, still lives in her.
Thus had Narcissus mocked her, thus had he mocked other nymphs of the waves or mountains; thus had he mocked the companies of men. At last one of these scorned youth, lifting up his hands to heaven, prayed: “So may he himself love, and not gain the thing he loves!” The goddess, Nemesis, heard his righteous prayer. There was a clear pool with silvery bright water, to which no shepherds ever came, or she-goats feeding on the mountainside, or any other cattle; whose smooth surface neither bird nor beast nor falling bough ever ruffled. Grass grew all around its edge, fed by the water near, and a coppice that would never suffer the sun to warm the spot. Here the youth, worn by the chase and the heat, lies down, attracted thither by the appearance of the place and by the spring. While he seeks to slake his thirst another thirst springs up, and while he drinks he is smitten by the sight of the beautiful form he sees. He loves an unsubstantial hope and thinks that substance which is only shadow. He looks in speechless wonder at himself and hangs there motionless in the same expression, like a statue carved from Parian marble. Prone on the ground, he gazes at his eyes, twin stars, and his locks, worthy of Bacchus, worthy of Apollo; on his smooth cheeks, his ivory neck, the glorious beauty of his face, the blush mingled with snowy white: all things, in short, he admires for which he is himself admired. Unwittingly he desires himself; he praises, and is himself what he praises; and while he seeks, is sought; equally he kindles love and burns with love. How often did he offer vain kisses on the elusive pool? How often did he plunge his arms into the water seeking to clasp the neck he sees there, but did not clasp himself in them! What he sees he knows not; but that which he sees he burns for, and the same delusion mocks and allures his eyes. O fondly foolish boy, why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image? What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own. With you it comes, with you it stays, and it will go with you—if you can go.
No thought of food or rest can draw him from the spot; but, stretched on the shaded grass, he gazes on that false image with eyes that cannot look their fill and through his own eyes perishes. Raising himself a little, and stretching his arms to the trees, he cries: “Did anyone, O ye woods, ever love more cruelly than I? You know, for you have been the convenient haunts of many lovers. Do you in the ages past, for your life is one of centuries, remember anyone who has pined away like this? I am charmed, and I see; but what I see and what charms me I cannot find”—so serious is the lover’s delusion—“and, to make me grieve the more, no mighty ocean separates us, no long road, no mountain ranges, no city walls with close-shut gates; by a thin barrier of water we are kept apart. He himself is eager to be embraced. For, often as I stretch my lips towards the lucent wave, so often with upturned face he strives to lift his lips to mine. You would think he could be touched—so small a thing it is that separates our loving hearts. Whoever you are, come forth hither! Why, O peerless youth, do you elude me? or whither do you go when I strive to reach you? Surely my form and age are not such that you should shun them, and me too the nymphs have loved. Some ground for hope you offer with your friendly looks, and when I have stretched out my arms to you, you stretch yours too. When I have smiled, you smile back; and I have often seen tears, when I weep, on your cheeks. My becks you answer with your nod; and, as I suspect from the movement of your sweet lips, you answer my words as well, but words which do not reach my ears.—Oh, I am he! I have felt it, I know now my own image. I burn with love of my own self; I both kindle the flames and suffer them. What shall I do? Shall I be wooed or woo? Why woo at all? What I desire, I have; the very abundance of my riches beggars me. Oh, that I might be parted from my own body! and, strange prayer for a lover, I would that what I love were absent from me! And now grief is sapping my strength; but a brief space of life remains to me and I am cut off in my life’s prime. Death is nothing to me, for in death I shall leave my troubles; I would he that is loved might live longer; but as it is, we two shall die together in one breath.”
He spoke and, half distraught, turned again to the same image. His tears ruffled the water, and dimly the image came back from the troubled pool. As he saw it thus depart, he cried: “Oh, whither do you flee? Stay here, and desert not him who loves thee, cruel one! Still may it be mine to gaze on what I may not touch, and by that gaze feed my unhappy passion.” While he thus grieves, he plucks away his tunic at its upper fold and beats his bare breast with pallid hands. His breast when it is struck takes on a delicate glow; just as apples sometimes, though white in part, flush red in other part, or as grapes hanging in clusters take on a purple hue when not yet ripe. As soon as he sees this, when the water has become clear again, he can bear no more; but, as the yellow wax melts before a gentle heat, as hoar frost melts before the warm morning sun, so does he, wasted with love, pine away, and is slowly consumed by its hidden fire. No longer has he that ruddy colour mingling with the white, no longer that strength and vigour, and all that lately was so pleasing to behold; scarce does his form remain which once Echo had loved so well. But when she saw it, though still angry and unforgetful, she felt pity; and as often as the poor boy says “Alas!” again with answering utterance she cries “Alas!” and as his hands beat his shoulders she gives back the same sounds of woe. His last words as he gazed into the familiar spring were these: “Alas, dear boy, vainly beloved!” and the place gave back his words. And when he said “Farewell!” “Farewell!” said Echo too. He drooped his weary head on the green grass and death sealed the eyes that marvelled at their master’s beauty. And even when he had been received into the infernal abodes, he kept on gazing on his image in the Stygian pool. His naiad-sisters beat their breasts and shore their locks in sign of grief for their dear brother; the dryads, too, lamented, and Echo gave back their sounds of woe. And now they were preparing the funeral pile, the brandished torches and the bier; but his body was nowhere to be found. In place of his body they find a flower, its yellow centre girt with white petals.
When this story was noised abroad it spread the well-deserved fame of the seer throughout the cities of Greece, and great was the name of Tiresias.
Sunt et purpurea lilia, aliquando gemino caule, carnosiore tantum radice maiorisque bulbi, sed unius, narcissum vocant. huius alterum genus flore candido, calice purpureo. differentia a liliis est et haec, quod narcissis in radice folia sunt, probatissimis in Lyciae montibus. tertio generi cetera eadem, calix herbaceus. omnes serotini, post arcturum enim florent ac per aequinoctium autumnum.
There is also a bright-red lily, having sometimes a double stem, and differing from other lilies only in having a fleshier root and a larger bulb, and that undivided. It is called the narcissus. Another variety of it has a white flower and a reddish bud. There is this further difference between the ordinary lily and the narcissus, that the leaves of the latter grow straight out of the root. The most popular sort is found on the mountains of Lycia. A third kind has all its characteristics the same as those of the other kinds, except that the cup is light green. All the narcissi blossom late, for the flower comes after the rising of Arcturusf and during the autumnal equinox.
Ovid Met. iii. 339-510
Narcisse, fils du fleuve Céphisae et de Liriope, fille de l’Océan, méprisa les nymphes séduites par sa beauté et laissa mourir la nymphe Écho sans daignes répondre à ses vœux. S’étant miré dans une source, il devint si épris de lui-même qu’il en sécha de langueur. Les dieux le changèrent en fleuve, et une fleur perpétua sa mémoire (Ovide, Mét., III, 341 et sqq.) Pline (XXI, 12) décrit, sous le nom de Iis purpurins, trois espèces de narcisse. Le narcisse des Anciens est probablement Narcissus poeticus, L., de l’Europe méridionale (Amaryllacée). (Paul Delaunay)
thus narcissus, after him who allowed the nymph Echo to die of unrequited love and, seeing his own reflection in a pool, pined away for love of self until the gods, pitying him, turned him into a river, and fashioned a flower to perpetuate his name.
Ovide, Métamorphoses, III, v. 341.
narcissus. [adopted from Latin narcissus (Virgil, etc.), adaptation of Greek narkissoj, according to Pliny and Plutarch formed on narkh numbness, in reference to the heavy or narcotic effects produced by it.]
A genus of the order Amaryllidaceæ, containing many species; a plant of this genus; now esp. Narcissus poeticus, a bulbous plant, flowering in spring and bearing a heavily scented single white flower with an undivided corona edged with crimson and yellow.
1548 William Turner The names of herbes in Greke, Latin, Englische, Duche, and Frenche (E.D.S.) 55 Narcissus is of diuerse sortes.
1562 William Turner A new herball, the seconde parte ii. 62 Narcissus hath a narrow lefe, many together and fat.
1578 Henry Lyte, translator Dodoens’ Niewe herball or historie of plantes 209 There are two very faire and beautifull kindes of Narcissus.
1596 Thomas Nashe Have with you to Saffron-walden 73 Like the doure Narcissus, hauing flowres onely at the roote.
1613 Davors Secrets of Angling i. xxxvii, Red Hyacinth, and yealow Daffadill, Purple Narcissus, like the morning rayes.
1638 John Milton Lycidas 148 Wks. (ed. Todd) V. 58 note, Next, adde Narcissus that still weeps in vaine.
1797 Encyclopædia Britannica (ed. 3) XII. 635/1 The… poetic daffodil, or common white narcissus, is well known.