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The Wild Wood Flower – A Great American Classic, But What Does it Mean?

I’ll wrap myself in the middle of the curls

Of my raven black hair,

The lilies so pale

And the roses so beautiful.

Without a doubt, one of the most charming, intriguing and captivating of all early American folk poems and songs is The Wildwood Flower. Her haunting story has arrested the fascination and loyalty of thousands. One of the main characteristics of its fascination and its holding power is that it is an enigma that has never been solved. Obviously, as the poem unfolds, the Wildwood Flower is an abandoned girl, but what is the significance of the other metaphors and symbols embedded in this classic?

As the heartbroken lover sits alone in the wooded valley that was once their hangout, she deliberately wraps the locks of her raven black hair around her fingers. This image is quite clear but then the lyrics become vague. Are the lilies flowers of the valley or are they a metaphor for something else? And what do the roses, myrtle and pale amanita with bright blue eyes mean? To the discerning reader or listener, it is obvious that something other than the literal is intended here. Amanita is a deadly poisonous mushroom known as Death Hood. He doesn’t have bright blue eyes. And what about the rest of the lyrics? Is it merely a lament and a fantasy to try to comfort himself in his grief and loneliness; or is it the revelation of a clever plot to get revenge on this opportunist who compromised her and then lost interest?

I’m going to offer some thoughts on what this fascinating story tells me, but before I do, I want to preface it with some facts about when it happened, and what kind of situations. In the lonely outback of early America, opportunities for romance and a future didn’t come so often. Besides that, at the time this poem was written, a girl who had lost her virtue had a very small chance of finding marriage and happiness with a respectable man. Lying to a young woman, telling her you loved her, seducing her, then walking away and leaving her was practically a death sentence. The hatred and revenge that eventually emerged from these numbing heartaches often resulted in the death of the abuser. There are many such stories that have become legends of rural settings in early America. There are Frankie and Johnny, the Banks of the Ohio, Barbara Allen and many others where abandoned love and betrayal resulted in the death of the abuser. That said, I want to give you my version of the meaning of this elusive tale.

It is obvious that I have no particular insight and what I am about to say is nothing more than my own opinion. It is not intended to contradict anyone else’s conclusions, to interfere with the sanctuary that may have been built in anyone’s mind about this haunting story, or to offend anyone. either in any way. That’s just my offer as to what happens here.

I’ll wrap myself in the middle of the curls

Of my raven black hair,

The lilies so pale

And the roses so beautiful,

The myrtle so bright

Of an emerald hue,

And the pale amanita

With bright blue eyes.

A young girl sits, probably altogether, in a wooded valley where she met her lover, where she succumbed to her lies of love and marriage, and where she lost her virtue. The last line of verse 3 reveals that she is a frail girl and not of great physical beauty, but she has charms. She has raven black hair that she twists absentmindedly but aggressively around her fingers. The Song of Songs and other historical works lay the groundwork for inferring that the lilies are her breasts. The roses are her shining red cheeks, not shining now with love and excitement as in verse 2, but in this case burning with anger and pain. The myrtle is the dark green eyelashes over her eyes and the pale amanita is the ghostly white face, colorless with rage and hatred (the cowl of death), whose bright blue eyes blaze as if to conjure before her now in the valley the scene she envisions in her head.

2.

I will sing and I will dance,

My laughter will be gay;

I will cease these wild cries –

Chase away the sorrow,

Although my heart is breaking now,

He will never know

That her name made me tremble

And my pale cheeks shine.

The girl struggled with grief and pain until her tears were dry. Now the desperate but futile hope that he will return to her has faded. In its place, a plan for revenge began to form. First, she needs to stop acting like she cares. She must come to the party, throw herself with abandon into the game, charm all the men she can, and make herself a talking point and an object of ambition. This will all be part of his plot to get revenge on him for what he did to her, but he must never find out. He has to be made to believe that she didn’t care about him any more than he cared about her and that he was just another one of her adventures.

3.

I will never think of him –

I’ll be wildly gay,

I will charm all hearts,

And I’ll rock the crowd,

I’ll still live to see it,

Regret the dark hour

When he won, then neglected,

The frail wild flower.

Until the trap is ready to burst, she must push it out of her mind and apply herself to her plan. She’ll let her hair down and be the life of the party. She will play the lover of all the men she can charm. Why not? What does she have to lose now? But it will be an act, not the true desires of his heart. The goal is to make him jealous. Young men like him are selfish and possessive. The time will come when he will start to wonder what he got away from and he will eventually take the bait and come back to her. When he does, their meeting place will not be the dance hall but once again the dell of wild wood where he broke her heart and ruined her life. His plan will succeed and he will return, but he will never leave her again. Once she has him under the power of her charms, the cowl of death will engulf her and take her life.

4.

He told me he loved me,

And promised to love,

Through evil and misfortune,

All others above,

Another won it;

Ah, the misery to tell;

He left me in silence –

no word of farewell.

As the girl sits in the wild wood and contemplates her drastic plan, she begins to rationalize. It’s his fault; not his. He told her she loved him and she believed him or she would never have given herself to him. He was about love and commitment to life and he was so compelling. He ruthlessly took his life and his future to satisfy his lust and greed. He shattered her dreams and high hopes for her husband, her home and her family, then left without even a “goodbye”.

5.

He taught me to love him,

He called me his flower

Who blossomed for him

All brighter every hour;

But I woke up from my dream,

My idol was clay;

my visions of love

Have all disappeared.

It is clear that an intimate marital relationship is indicated here. No girl needs to be “learned” to have feelings of love and affection. The sweet intimacy that should have belonged to his soul mate alone was given to this deceiver. He told her the things she wanted to hear. “She was what he had always wanted and lived for. She was his glorious wildflower that continued to bloom taller and brighter with every hour.”

But then the dream faded into the harsh light of reality. It was all a lie. His marvelous idol was nothing more than a pile of dirt. He was gone, and with him his hopes for a happy future. He had killed her, and now she had a plot for revenge. It was justified; what he had done to her, she would do to him.

Could this frail peasant really carry out her plan of revenge? Did his wild project have a chance of succeeding? Was it another Frankie with a gun in his back? Who knows? And for the story, it doesn’t matter. She is a crushed, abandoned and heartbroken maid who has been used and cast aside; and she desperately tries to survive. She seeks to find some satisfaction for the harm that has been done to her. She will make him pay; he must pay. If not otherwise, it all played out in front of her on the prairie that day as she sits as she was when she last saw him, twisting his raven black hair forcefully around his long white fingers and seeks consolation in feelings of revenge.

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