Monday, November 23, 2015


This is a picture I took last weekend of a fast-flowing stream while out walking near Avoca in the glens of Wicklow. Nearby streams were once panned for the famous Wicklow gold.

It was only on later perusing the picture that I noticed the quite distinct shape of a red flower submerged below the flowing waters. Immediately I thought of Ophelia and her death, and the depiction of that death by John Edward Millais (1829-1896) in what I consider to be one of the most evocative paintings of all time.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet Queen Gertrude dismissively announces the drowning of Ophelia, the troubled girl blighted by grief induced by the death of her father and the cruel rejection by Hamlet, as occurring while gathering flowers. In an earlier scene Ophelia hands out to members of the Royal Court, along with other herbs and flowers, rosemary as a flower of remembrance of love. In Millais’ painting he choses to represent this notion of remembrance by depicting a brilliant red poppy close to her hand, a flower also associated with hallucination and sleep.

The scene and the notion of gold in Wicklow’s streams also reminded me of the lines from George Mac Donald’s 1865 novel Alec Forbes of Howglen, which I’ve always felt to be as good a description of Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia’s love as any:

“It is one thing to have a mine of gold in one’s ground, know it, and work it; and another to have the mine still but regard the story as fable, throw the aureal hints that find their way to the surface as playthings to the woman who herself is but a plaything in the owner’s eyes, and mock her when she takes them as precious.”

MacDonald (1824-1905) was a great friend and mentor of Lewis Carroll, and as a pioneer in the genre of fantasy literature became an inspiration and friend to such diverse writers as Dickens, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien, a legacy that still influences the enormous amount of children’s and adult fantasy literature today.

I like to imagine that my picture is down stream of the site of Ophelia’s death, and that Millais’ poppy of remembrance (predating John McCrae’s World War I poem In Flanders Fields that gave birth to the military poppy of remembrance by 40 years) is caught in time and eternal, just below the surface of the flowing waters of life.


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