The willow tree, beguiling and forlorn, has long been seen as a symbol of woe. The poet Christina Rossetti perfectly captures the heaving melancholy the willow can evoke in her poem 'In the Willow Shade'.
Crossing time and culture, we see willow trees again and again celebrated as central figures in mythology, art, and culture. But what is it about this susurrating salix that inspires people so much, and what can we learn from it?
To many, the willow is always weeping and all willows weep. It is the tree of sadness, loss, and death. Indeed, the willow's power to evoke loss and lamentation has been etched on to gravestones for centuries. The soft, lachrymose curves of the willow being carved into hard permanence by many a bereft loved one. A death come too soon, a life unfulfilled, a love unrequited. What better cause for woe? What better standard-bearer for grief?
A Victorian Mourning Card - 1877
Forlorn willow, shoulders sunk, eyes downcast, forever weeping. Arboreal avatar of loss whose tears wash across the ages. Are we to believe that this simple tree carries such a metaphysical burden?
Many a willow tree can be found bordering water, with the famous weeping willow tending to grow right on the bank of a river or stream. A perfect spot to repose and let the mind wander, much like in Rosetti's poem. The harsh light of the sun is filtered into soft shade. This juxtaposition of earth and water, permanence and transience, as well as light and shadow, lends itself well to philosophising. Perhaps it's physical position as a gatekeeper between domains is also part of why the willow is often associated with death or grieving.
We can look to the ancient Greek story of Phaeton to help cast some light on this tree of shadows. Phaeton, son of the water nymph Clymene and the sun god Helios, in his youthful arrogance was struck down by Zeus for a reckless solar joyride. His spectacular death brought his sisters low, and they wept by the river. Their bitter tears turned into amber, which took root and grew into trees along the river's banks, sprouting what we now know as weeping willows.
Phaeton's death, bright youth cut short, brought with it terrible grief, but also something more. His tragedy begot beauty. The sublime given urgency by the inescapable grasp of death.
Claude Monet's 'Weeping Willow' series reminds us again of this duality. Soft, wavering lines and dark, muted colours, anguish given form. Monet painted the series of ten towards the end of World War One, in mournful response to the horrors and futility of war. His creative fervour heightened by the conscription of his two sons to the front line.
Weeping Willow, 1921-22 - Claude Monet
Weeping Willow, 1919 - Claude Monet
The willow tree that stood in his water garden in his home in Giverny not only reminded him of his pain but also brought him some solace.
Monet summed this up in a letter to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in June 1918: “What an agonising life we all are living, I continue... to work, although at times, I long to give it all up”.
Did Monet's willow serve only to draw his heart further into despair, or did it lend him the strength to carry on? Did the tree symbolise death or beauty, loss or art?
What then of the willow's 'purpose'? From willow comes wicker, a font of creative expression from our earliest years. Pliable, flexible, adaptable. What better medium for art, what better reminder of our strengths? The willow suffers and recovers. The willow regrows.
Often called 'natures aspirin' willow bark has long been used as a pain killer, helping to ease our suffering when all else fails. From grief comes shock. The sudden impact upon the bell of our hearts can reverberate for a long, long time. But again, what better avatar for grief than the willow? A wood so resilient that we even use it for cricket bats. A tool built to weather blow after blow. A wood that endures.
The parable of the oak and the reed presents us with a choice, strength or flexibility, but in the willow we have both. If grief and pain are inevitable, then to weep is not a sign of weakness. Rather it is a vital part of the process by which we wash our pain away and regain our strength.
Like the willow, we may be uprooted by the flood or shocked by painful impacts, but our roots will take hold once more, further down the stream. Those shock waves can be absorbed. We flex, we bend, we may even break. But we also endure.