Marianne Moore: Poetry

July 14, 2011

“Camellia Sabina” and the Abbé Lorenzo Berlѐse

And they keep under

Glass also, camellias catalogued by

Lines across the leaf. . . .

. . . . .

. . . Gloria mundi

With a leaf two lines, nine lines broad, they have; and

The smaller, Camellia Sabina

With amanita-white petals; there are several of her

Pale pinwheels, and pale

Stripe that looks as if on a mushroom the

Sliver from a beet-root carved into a rose were laid.  ‘Dry

The windows with a cloth fastened to a staff.

Inside the camellia-house there must be

No smoke from the stove, nor dew on the windows, lest

The plants ail,’ the amateur is told;

‘mistakes are irreparable and nothing will avail.’

Selected Poems, p. 12

Moore sent “Camellia Sabina” to Ezra Pound on April 7, 1933, for his Active Anthology where it appeared later that year.  The previous August, as she noted in a letter to her brother on the 21st (RML, not in SL), she had been to Macy’s Department Store where she noticed a French book about camellias. She singled out the Camellia Sabina, a white one with a “sliver of pink.”

It would appear that the book Moore saw was the Iconographie du genre camellia by the Abbé Lorenzo Berlѐse (Paris:  1841-43) in three volumes. The Camellia

Camellia Sabina, Abbé Lorenzo Berlѐse

Sabina appears in Volume 2 (unpaged), its sliver of pink evident in the hand-colored copper plate.

In 1837 the Abbé Berlѐse published his foundational tome,  Monographie du Genre Camellia (Paris, 1837), and this popular work prompted an English, edition the next year.  Moore must have seen this version because she quotes directly from it. Translated by Henry A. S. Dearborn and printed by Breck in New York in 1838, it contains the matter of the French edition with no illustrations. Here Moore found the description of the Camellia Gloria Mundi at page 86:

234. C. Gloria Mundi.—There are, under this name, two different Camellias; the first has leaves 2 inches 9 lines broad, and 4 inches long ; form, color, and dimensions of C. Imperialis, when this is very vigorous; bud large, obtuse, with greenish scales ; flower of a white ground, striped with rose, as in the Camellia above named, from which it differs but very little ; only the heart is slightly yellowish. The second has leaves very nearly like those of C. Grandiflora simplex; its flower is double, cherry-red, No. 2, and very regular.

And of Camellia Sabina at page 87:

242. C. Sabina.—Leaves of a medium size, roundish-oval, slightly acuminated, bud pyramidal, with green scales;  flower large, full, and of a very pale or whitish carnation color.—Superb.

In Berlѐse’s description, “carnation” as a color means slightly pinkish.  When Moore assigns the Camellia Sabina

Aminata aprica

“amanita-white petals” and a “mushroom” color, she may refer to one of the 600-plus varieties of the genus aminata mushroom. This highly poisonous fungus grows widely in the United States; the tops of many of the varieties have a slightly pinkish cast.

Moore took an interest in the author’s instructions for growing camellias in a greenhouse, quoting from (with some massaging) a passage on the “proper kind of greenhouse:”

“The confined heat of the green-house produces a vapor, which attaches itself to the ceiling, glass and walls, where it is condensed and falls in drops upon the plants. This concentrated vapor, is injurious to the Camellias which receive it, if they are suffered thus to remain, for any considerable time. In order to promptly remove it, it is useful, when the exterior atmosphere will permit, to open some of the sashes, and kindle, at the same time, a fire in the furnace, to temper the fresh admitted air. If this mode is impracticable, in consequence of the intensity of the cold, it must be attempted to remove the moisture, where it is collected on the glass, by the use of cloths, fastened to a staff. When it is necessary to keep up the fire for a long time, on account of the cold, it must not be forgotten to water the Camellias, which are near the furnace and funnel, and even all the others, if it is requisite; for if the earth becomes too dry, it causes, as we have experienced, irreparable disasters.”(p. 27)

Monographie du genre camellia, 1843

Moore provides  an endnote:  “Monographie du Genre Camellia (H. Cousin).” That 1845 edition may have been on her agenda during a trip to the New York Public Library at 42nd Street; a copy of it was housed there at the time she composed the poem, having been part of the Astor Library from its accession in the Nineteenth Century.  But the French text of that edition does not specify the size of the Camellia Gloria Mundi in lines and inches, as does Moore’s direct quotation from the American edition of 1838. Further, the three-volume 1843 French edition appears to be the only one bearing an illustration of Camellia Sabina. Is it possible that Moore saw the 1843 at Macy’s, consulted the 1838 American edition at the New York Public Library, but offered the more available 1845 French edition in her note as the most “helpful” to her readers?

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