Friday, October 16, 2020; Reading time 72 minutes.
I have a new hobby - or better yet I’ve had it for a while now but didn’t realise. I tend to focus on objects around me and then look up “lore” about it. I’ve never documented it so this is kind of an experiment on it. When watching a Netflix show The Haunting of Bly Manor1 (which I would skip if I were you, or you were me???) all actors sang this song about a Willow Wally. So it got me googling and finding different things in human culture. This is by no means a definitive Willow documentation - just the stuff that I found in a week. Enjoy!
The weeping willow symbolises sorrow and mourning and the sadness felt at the time of a loved one’s death.2
Instruments and music
The willow flute, also known as sallow flute (Norwegian: seljefløyte, Swedish: sälgflöjt or sälgpipa, Finnish: pitkähuilu or pajupilli, Latvian: kārkla stabule, Lithuanian: švilpynė), is a Nordic folk flute, or whistle, consisting of a simple tube with a transverse fipple mouthpiece and no finger holes. The mouthpiece is typically constructed by inserting a grooved plug into one end of the tube, and cutting an edged opening in the tube a short distance away from the plug.
A song that does not use the willow flute but has willow in it:
We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree
Singing “Oh willow waly” by the tree that weeps with me Singing “Oh willow waly” till my lover return to me
We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow A broken heart have I. Oh willow I die, oh willow I die
The willow tree has a long history of symbolism rooted in spirituality and numerous cultural traditions. One of the most valuable traits of the willow tree is its flexibility, being capable of bending into outrageous poses without breaking. The willow tells us to adjust alongside life rather than fight it. The willow reminds us to let go of the noise and chaos, surrender to the process, and gain a deeper understanding of our subconscious. Another powerful metaphor is the willow tree’s ability to not only survive but also thrive under some of the most challenging conditions.3
Under the Willow-Tree4
Hans Christian Andersen (1853)
The region round the little town of Kjøge is very bleak and cold. The town lies on the sea shore, which is always beautiful; but here it might be more beautiful than it is, for on every side the fields are flat, and it is a long way to the forest. But when persons reside in a place and get used to it, they can always find something beautiful in it,—something for which they long, even in the most charming spot in the world which is not home. It must be owned that there are in the outskirts of the town some humble gardens on the banks of a little stream that runs on towards the sea, and in summer these gardens look very pretty. Such indeed was the opinion of two little children, whose parents were neighbors, and who played in these gardens, and forced their way from one garden to the other through the gooseberry-bushes that divided them. In one of the gardens grew an elder-tree, and in the other an old willow, under which the children were very fond of playing. They had permission to do so, although the tree stood close by the stream, and they might easily have fallen into the water; but the eye of God watches over the little ones, otherwise they would never be safe. At the same time, these children were very careful not to go too near the water; indeed, the boy was so afraid of it, that in the summer, while the other children were splashing about in the sea, nothing could entice him to join them. They jeered and laughed at him, and he was obliged to bear it all as patiently as he could. Once the neighbor’s little girl, Joanna, dreamed that she was sailing in a boat, and the boy—Knud was his name—waded out in the water to join her, and the water came up to his neck, and at last closed over his head, and in a moment he had disappeared. When little Knud heard this dream, it seemed as if he could not bear the mocking and jeering again; how could he dare to go into the water now, after Joanna’s dream! He never would do it, for this dream always satisfied him. The parents of these children, who were poor, often sat together while Knud and Joanna played in the gardens or in the road. Along this road—a row of willow-trees had been planted to separate it from a ditch on one side of it. They were not very handsome trees, for the tops had been cut off; however, they were intended for use, and not for show. The old willow-tree in the garden was much handsomer, and therefore the children were very fond of sitting under it. The town had a large market-place; and at the fair-time there would be whole rows, like streets, of tents and booths containing silks and ribbons, and toys and cakes, and everything that could be wished for. There were crowds of people, and sometimes the weather would be rainy, and splash with moisture the woollen jackets of the peasants; but it did not destroy the beautiful fragrance of the honey-cakes and gingerbread with which one booth was filled; and the best of it was, that the man who sold these cakes always lodged during the fair-time with little Knud’s parents. So every now and then he had a present of gingerbread, and of course Joanna always had a share. And, more delightful still, the gingerbread seller knew all sorts of things to tell and could even relate stories about his own gingerbread. So one evening he told them a story that made such a deep impression on the children that they never forgot it; and therefore I think we may as well hear it too, for it is not very long.
“Once upon a time,” said he, “there lay on my counter two gingerbread cakes, one in the shape of a man wearing a hat, the other of a maiden without a bonnet. Their faces were on the side that was uppermost, for on the other side they looked very different. Most people have a best side to their characters, which they take care to show to the world. On the left, just where the heart is, the gingerbread man had an almond stuck in to represent it, but the maiden was honey cake all over. They were placed on the counter as samples, and after lying there a long time they at last fell in love with each other; but neither of them spoke of it to the other, as they should have done if they expected anything to follow. ‘He is a man, he ought to speak the first word,’ thought the gingerbread maiden; but she felt quite happy—she was sure that her love was returned. But his thoughts were far more ambitious, as the thoughts of a man often are. He dreamed that he was a real street boy, that he possessed four real pennies, and that he had bought the gingerbread lady, and ate her up. And so they lay on the counter for days and weeks, till they grew hard and dry; but the thoughts of the maiden became ever more tender and womanly. ‘Ah well, it is enough for me that I have been able to live on the same counter with him,’ said she one day; when suddenly, ‘crack,’ and she broke in two. ‘Ah,’ said the gingerbread man to himself, ‘if she had only known of my love, she would have kept together a little longer.’ And here they both are, and that is their history,” said the cake man. “You think the history of their lives and their silent love, which never came to anything, very remarkable; and there they are for you.” So saying, he gave Joanna the gingerbread man, who was still quite whole—and to Knud the broken maiden; but the children had been so much impressed by the story, that they had not the heart to eat the lovers up.
The next day they went into the churchyard, and took the two cake figures with them, and sat down under the church wall, which was covered with luxuriant ivy in summer and winter, and looked as if hung with rich tapestry. They stuck up the two gingerbread figures in the sunshine among the green leaves, and then told the story, and all about the silent love which came to nothing, to a group of children. They called it, “love,” because the story was so lovely, and the other children had the same opinion. But when they turned to look at the gingerbread pair, the broken maiden was gone! A great boy, out of wickedness, had eaten her up. At first the children cried about it; but afterwards, thinking very probably that the poor lover ought not to be left alone in the world, they ate him up too: but they never forgot the story.
The two children still continued to play together by the elder-tree, and under the willow; and the little maiden sang beautiful songs, with a voice that was as clear as a bell. Knud, on the contrary, had not a note of music in him, but knew the words of the songs, and that of course is something. The people of Kjøge, and even the rich wife of the man who kept the fancy shop, would stand and listen while Joanna was singing, and say, “She has really a very sweet voice.”
Those were happy days; but they could not last forever. The neighbors were separated, the mother of the little girl was dead, and her father had thoughts of marrying again and of residing in the capital, where he had been promised a very lucrative appointment as messenger. The neighbors parted with tears, the children wept sadly; but their parents promised that they should write to each other at least once a year.
After this, Knud was bound apprentice to a shoemaker; he was growing a great boy, and could not be allowed to run wild any longer. Besides, he was going to be confirmed. Ah, how happy he would have been on that festal day in Copenhagen with little Joanna; but he still remained at Kjøge, and had never seen the great city, though the town is not five miles from it. But far across the bay, when the sky was clear, the towers of Copenhagen could be seen; and on the day of his confirmation he saw distinctly the golden cross on the principal church glittering in the sun. How often his thoughts were with Joanna! but did she think of him? Yes. About Christmas came a letter from her father to Knud’s parents, which stated that they were going on very well in Copenhagen, and mentioning particularly that Joanna’s beautiful voice was likely to bring her a brilliant fortune in the future. She was engaged to sing at a concert, and she had already earned money by singing, out of which she sent her dear neighbors at Kjøge a whole dollar, for them to make merry on Christmas eve, and they were to drink her health. She had herself added this in a postscript, and in the same postscript she wrote, “Kind regards to Knud.”
The good neighbors wept, although the news was so pleasant; but they wept tears of joy. Knud’s thoughts had been daily with Joanna, and now he knew that she also had thought of him; and the nearer the time came for his apprenticeship to end, the clearer did it appear to him that he loved Joanna, and that she must be his wife; and a smile came on his lips at the thought, and at one time he drew the thread so fast as he worked, and pressed his foot so hard against the knee strap, that he ran the awl into his finger; but what did he care for that? He was determined not to play the dumb lover as both the gingerbread cakes had done; the story was a good lesson to him.
At length he become a journeyman; and then, for the first time, he prepared for a journey to Copenhagen, with his knapsack packed and ready. A master was expecting him there, and he thought of Joanna, and how glad she would be to see him. She was now seventeen, and he nineteen years old. He wanted to buy a gold ring for her in Kjøge, but then he recollected how far more beautiful such things would be in Copenhagen. So he took leave of his parents, and on a rainy day, late in the autumn, wandered forth on foot from the town of his birth. The leaves were falling from the trees; and, by the time he arrived at his new master’s in the great metropolis, he was wet through. On the following Sunday he intended to pay his first visit to Joanna’s father. When the day came, the new journeyman’s clothes were brought out, and a new hat, which he had brought in Kjøge. The hat became him very well, for hitherto he had only worn a cap. He found the house that he sought easily, but had to mount so many stairs that he became quite giddy; it surprised him to find how people lived over one another in this dreadful town.
On entering a room in which everything denoted prosperity, Joanna’s father received him very kindly. The new wife was a stranger to him, but she shook hands with him, and offered him coffee.
“Joanna will be very glad to see you,” said her father. “You have grown quite a nice young man, you shall see her presently; she is a good child, and is the joy of my heart, and, please God, she will continue to be so; she has her own room now, and pays us rent for it.” And the father knocked quite politely at a door, as if he were a stranger, and then they both went in. How pretty everything was in that room! a more beautiful apartment could not be found in the whole town of Kjøge; the queen herself could scarcely be better accommodated. There were carpets, and rugs, and window curtains hanging to the ground. Pictures and flowers were scattered about. There was a velvet chair, and a looking-glass against the wall, into which a person might be in danger of stepping, for it was as large as a door. All this Knud saw at a glance, and yet, in truth, he saw nothing but Joanna. She was quite grown up, and very different from what Knud had fancied her, and a great deal more beautiful. In all Kjøge there was not a girl like her; and how graceful she looked, although her glance at first was odd, and not familiar; but for a moment only, then she rushed towards him as if she would have kissed him; she did not, however, although she was very near it. Yes, she really was joyful at seeing the friend of her childhood once more, and the tears even stood in her eyes. Then she asked so many questions about Knud’s parents, and everything, even to the elder-tree and the willow, which she called “elder-mother and willow-father,” as if they had been human beings; and so, indeed, they might be, quite as much as the gingerbread cakes. Then she talked about them, and the story of their silent love, and how they lay on the counter together and split in two; and then she laughed heartily; but the blood rushed into Knud’s cheeks, and his heart beat quickly. Joanna was not proud at all; he noticed that through her he was invited by her parents to remain the whole evening with them, and she poured out the tea and gave him a cup herself; and afterwards she took a book and read aloud to them, and it seemed to Knud as if the story was all about himself and his love, for it agreed so well with his own thoughts. And then she sang a simple song, which, through her singing, became a true story, and as if she poured forth the feelings of her own heart.
“Oh,” he thought, “she knows I am fond of her.” The tears he could not restrain rolled down his cheeks, and he was unable to utter a single word; it seemed as if he had been struck dumb.
When he left, she pressed his hand, and said, “You have a kind heart, Knud: remain always as you are now.” What an evening of happiness this had been; to sleep after it was impossible, and Knud did not sleep.
At parting, Joanna’s father had said, “Now, you won’t quite forget us; you must not let the whole winter go by without paying us another visit;” so that Knud felt himself free to go again the following Sunday evening, and so he did. But every evening after working hours—and they worked by candle-light then—he walked out into the town, and through the street in which Joanna lived, to look up at her window. It was almost always lighted up; and one evening he saw the shadow of her face quite plainly on the window blind; that was a glorious evening for him. His master’s wife did not like his always going out in the evening, idling, wasting time, as she called it, and she shook her head.
But his master only smiled, and said, “He is a young man, my dear, you know.”
“On Sunday I shall see her,” said Knud to himself, “and I will tell her that I love her with my whole heart and soul, and that she must be my little wife. I know I am now only a poor journeyman shoemaker, but I will work and strive, and become a master in time. Yes, I will speak to her; nothing comes from silent love. I learnt that from the gingerbread-cake story.”
Sunday came, but when Knud arrived, they were all unfortunately invited out to spend the evening, and were obliged to tell him so.
Joanna pressed his hand, and said, “Have you ever been to the theatre? you must go once; I sing there on Wednesday, and if you have time on that day, I will send you a ticket; my father knows where your master lives.” How kind this was of her! And on Wednesday, about noon, Knud received a sealed packet with no address, but the ticket was inside; and in the evening Knud went, for the first time in his life, to a theatre. And what did he see? He saw Joanna, and how beautiful and charming she looked! He certainly saw her being married to a stranger, but that was all in the play, and only a pretence; Knud well knew that. She could never have the heart, he thought, to send him a ticket to go and see it, if it had been real. So he looked on, and when all the people applauded and clapped their hands, he shouted “hurrah.” He could see that even the king smiled at Joanna, and seemed delighted with her singing. How small Knud felt; but then he loved her so dearly, and thought she loved him, and the man must speak the first word, as the gingerbread maiden had thought. Ah, how much there was for him in that childish story. As soon as Sunday arrived, he went again, and felt as if he were about to enter on holy ground. Joanna was alone to welcome him, nothing could be more fortunate.
“I am so glad you are come,” she said. “I was thinking of sending my father for you, but I had a presentiment that you would be here this evening. The fact is, I wanted to tell you that I am going to France. I shall start on Friday. It is necessary for me to go there, if I wish to become a first-rate performer.”
Poor Knud! it seemed to him as if the whole room was whirling round with him. His courage failed, and he felt as if his heart would burst. He kept down the tears, but it was easy to see how sorrowful he was.
“You honest, faithful soul,” she exclaimed; and the words loosened Knud’s tongue, and he told her how truly he had loved her, and that she must be his wife; and as he said this, he saw Joanna change color, and turn pale. She let his hand fall, and said, earnestly and mournfully, “Knud, do not make yourself and me unhappy. I will always be a good sister to you, one in whom you can trust; but I can never be anything more.” And she drew her white hand over his burning forehead, and said, “God gives strength to bear a great deal, if we only strive ourselves to endure.”
At this moment her stepmother came into the room, and Joanna said quickly, “Knud is so unhappy, because I am going away;” and it appeared as if they had only been talking of her journey. “Come, be a man” she added, placing her hand on his shoulder; “you are still a child, and you must be good and reasonable, as you were when we were both children, and played together under the willow-tree.”
Knud listened, but he felt as if the world had slid out of its course. His thoughts were like a loose thread fluttering to and fro in the wind. He stayed, although he could not tell whether she had asked him to do so. But she was kind and gentle to him; she poured out his tea, and sang to him; but the song had not the old tone in it, although it was wonderfully beautiful, and made his heart feel ready to burst. And then he rose to go. He did not offer his hand, but she seized it, and said—
“Will you not shake hands with your sister at parting, my old playfellow?” and she smiled through the tears that were rolling down her cheeks. Again she repeated the word “brother,” which was a great consolation certainly; and thus they parted.
She sailed to France, and Knud wandered about the muddy streets of Copenhagen. The other journeymen in the shop asked him why he looked so gloomy, and wanted him to go and amuse himself with them, as he was still a young man. So he went with them to a dancing-room. He saw many handsome girls there, but none like Joanna; and here, where he thought to forget her, she was more life-like before his mind than ever. “God gives us strength to bear much, if we try to do our best,” she had said; and as he thought of this, a devout feeling came into his mind, and he folded his hands. Then, as the violins played and the girls danced round the room, he started; for it seemed to him as if he were in a place where he ought not to have brought Joanna, for she was here with him in his heart; and so he went out at once. As he went through the streets at a quick pace, he passed the house where she used to live; it was all dark, empty, and lonely. But the world went on its course, and Knud was obliged to go on too.
Winter came; the water was frozen, and everything seemed buried in a cold grave. But when spring returned, and the first steamer prepared to sail, Knud was seized with a longing to wander forth into the world, but not to France. So he packed his knapsack, and travelled through Germany, going from town to town, but finding neither rest or peace. It was not till he arrived at the glorious old town of Nuremberg that he gained the mastery over himself, and rested his weary feet; and here he remained.
Nuremberg is a wonderful old city, and looks as if it had been cut out of an old picture-book. The streets seem to have arranged themselves according to their own fancy, and as if the houses objected to stand in rows or rank and file. Gables, with little towers, ornamented columns, and statues, can be seen even to the city gate; and from the singular-shaped roofs, waterspouts, formed like dragons, or long lean dogs, extend far across to the middle of the street. Here, in the market-place, stood Knud, with his knapsack on his back, close to one of the old fountains which are so beautifully adorned with figures, scriptural and historical, and which spring up between the sparkling jets of water. A pretty servant-maid was just filling her pails, and she gave Knud a refreshing draught; she had a handful of roses, and she gave him one, which appeared to him like a good omen for the future. From a neighboring church came the sounds of music, and the familiar tones reminded him of the organ at home at Kjøge; so he passed into the great cathedral. The sunshine streamed through the painted glass windows, and between two lofty slender pillars. His thoughts became prayerful, and calm peace rested on his soul. He next sought and found a good master in Nuremberg, with whom he stayed and learnt the German language.
The old moat round the town had been converted into a number of little kitchen gardens; but the high walls, with their heavy-looking towers, are still standing. Inside these walls the ropemaker twisted his ropes along a walk built like a gallery, and in the cracks and crevices of the walls elderbushes grow and stretch their green boughs over the small houses which stand below. In one of these houses lived the master for whom Knud worked; and over the little garret window where he sat, the elder-tree waved its branches. Here he dwelt through one summer and winter, but when spring came again, he could endure it no longer. The elder was in blossom, and its fragrance was so homelike, that he fancied himself back again in the gardens of Kjøge. So Knud left his master, and went to work for another who lived farther in the town, where no elder grew. His workshop was quite close to one of the old stone bridges, near to a water-mill, round which the roaring stream rushed and foamed always, yet restrained by the neighboring houses, whose old, decayed balconies hung over, and seemed ready to fall into the water. Here grew no elder; here was not even a flower-pot, with its little green plant; but just opposite the workshop stood a great willow-tree, which seemed to hold fast to the house for fear of being carried away by the water. It stretched its branches over the stream just as those of the willow-tree in the garden at Kjøge had spread over the river. Yes, he had indeed gone from elder-mother to willow-father. There was a something about the tree here, especially in the moonlight nights, that went direct to his heart; yet it was not in reality the moonlight, but the old tree itself. However, he could not endure it: and why? Ask the willow, ask the blossoming elder! At all events, he bade farewell to Nuremberg and journeyed onwards. He never spoke of Joanna to any one; his sorrow was hidden in his heart. The old childish story of the two cakes had a deep meaning for him. He understood now why the gingerbread man had a bitter almond in his left side; his was the feeling of bitterness, and Joanna, so mild and friendly, was represented by the honeycake maiden. As he thought upon all this, the strap of his knapsack pressed across his chest so that he could hardly breathe; he loosened it, but gained no relief. He saw but half the world around him; the other half he carried with him in his inward thoughts; and this is the condition in which he left Nuremberg. Not till he caught sight of the lofty mountains did the world appear more free to him; his thoughts were attracted to outer objects, and tears came into his eyes. The Alps appeared to him like the wings of earth folded together; unfolded, they would display the variegated pictures of dark woods, foaming waters, spreading clouds, and masses of snow. “At the last day,” thought he, “the earth will unfold its great wings, and soar upwards to the skies, there to burst like a soap-bubble in the radiant glance of the Deity. Oh,” sighed he, “that the last day were come!”
Silently he wandered on through the country of the Alps, which seemed to him like a fruit garden, covered with soft turf. From the wooden balconies of the houses the young lacemakers nodded as he passed. The summits of the mountains glowed in the red evening sunset, and the green lakes beneath the dark trees reflected the glow. Then he thought of the sea coast by the bay Kjøge, with a longing in his heart that was, however, without pain. There, where the Rhine rolls onward like a great billow, and dissolves itself into snowflakes, where glistening clouds are ever changing as if here was the place of their creation, while the rainbow flutters about them like a many-colored ribbon, there did Knud think of the water-mill at Kjøge, with its rushing, foaming waters. Gladly would he have remained in the quiet Rhenish town, but there were too many elders and willow-trees.
So he travelled onwards, over a grand, lofty chain of mountains, over rugged,—rocky precipices, and along roads that hung on the mountain’s side like a swallow’s nest. The waters foamed in the depths below him. The clouds lay beneath him. He wandered on, treading upon Alpine roses, thistles, and snow, with the summer sun shining upon him, till at length he bid farewell to the lands of the north. Then he passed on under the shade of blooming chestnut-trees, through vineyards, and fields of Indian corn, till conscious that the mountains were as a wall between him and his early recollections; and he wished it to be so.
Before him lay a large and splendid city, called Milan, and here he found a German master who engaged him as a workman. The master and his wife, in whose workshop he was employed, were an old, pious couple; and the two old people became quite fond of the quiet journeyman, who spoke but little, but worked more, and led a pious, Christian life; and even to himself it seemed as if God had removed the heavy burden from his heart. His greatest pleasure was to climb, now and then, to the roof of the noble church, which was built of white marble. The pointed towers, the decorated and open cloisters, the stately columns, the white statues which smiled upon him from every corner and porch and arch,—all, even the church itself, seemed to him to have been formed from the snow of his native land. Above him was the blue sky; below him, the city and the wide-spreading plains of Lombardy; and towards the north, the lofty mountains, covered with perpetual snow. And then he thought of the church of Kjøge, with its red, ivy-clad walls, but he had no longing to go there; here, beyond the mountains, he would die and be buried.
Three years had passed away since he left his home; one year of that time he had dwelt at Milan.
One day his master took him into the town; not to the circus in which riders performed, but to the opera, a large building, itself a sight well worth seeing. The seven tiers of boxes, which reached from the ground to a dizzy height, near the ceiling, were hung with rich, silken curtains; and in them were seated elegantly-dressed ladies, with bouquets of flowers in their hands. The gentlemen were also in full dress, and many of them wore decorations of gold and silver. The place was so brilliantly lighted that it seemed like sunshine, and glorious music rolled through the building. Everything looked more beautiful than in the theatre at Copenhagen, but then Joanna had been there, and—could it be? Yes—it was like magic,—she was here also: for, when the curtain rose, there stood Joanna, dressed in silk and gold, and with a golden crown upon her head. She sang, he thought, as only an angel could sing; and then she stepped forward to the front and smiled, as only Joanna could smile, and looked directly at Knud. Poor Knud! he seized his master’s hand, and cried out loud, “Joanna,” but no one heard him, excepting his master, for the music sounded above everything.
“Yes, yes, it is Joanna,” said his master; and he drew forth a printed bill, and pointed to her name, which was there in full. Then it was not a dream. All the audience applauded her, and threw wreaths of flowers at her; and every time she went away they called for her again, so that she was always coming and going. In the street the people crowded round her carriage, and drew it away themselves without the horses. Knud was in the foremost row, and shouted as joyously as the rest; and when the carriage stopped before a brilliantly lighted house, Knud placed himself close to the door of her carriage. It flew open, and she stepped out; the light fell upon her dear face, and he could see that she smiled as she thanked them, and appeared quite overcome. Knud looked straight in her face, and she looked at him, but she did not recognize him. A man, with a glittering star on his breast, gave her his arm, and people said the two were engaged to be married. Then Knud went home and packed up his knapsack; he felt he must return to the home of his childhood, to the elder-tree and the willow. “Ah, under that willow-tree!” A man may live a whole life in one single hour.
The old couple begged him to remain, but words were useless. In vain they reminded him that winter was coming, and that the snow had already fallen on the mountains. He said he could easily follow the track of the closely-moving carriages, for which a path must be kept clear, and with nothing but his knapsack on his back, and leaning on his stick, he could step along briskly. So he turned his steps to the mountains, ascended one side and descended the other, still going northward till his strength began to fail, and not a house or village could be seen. The stars shone in the sky above him, and down in the valley lights glittered like stars, as if another sky were beneath him; but his head was dizzy and his feet stumbled, and he felt ill. The lights in the valley grew brighter and brighter, and more numerous, and he could see them moving to and fro, and then he understood that there must be a village in the distance; so he exerted his failing strength to reach it, and at length obtained shelter in a humble lodging. He remained there that night and the whole of the following day, for his body required rest and refreshment, and in the valley there was rain and a thaw. But early in the morning of the third day, a man came with an organ and played one of the melodies of home; and after that Knud could remain there no longer, so he started again on his journey toward the north. He travelled for many days with hasty steps, as if he were trying to reach home before all whom he remembered should die; but he spoke to no one of this longing. No one would have believed or understood this sorrow of his heart, the deepest that can be felt by human nature. Such grief is not for the world; it is not entertaining even to friends, and poor Knud had no friends; he was a stranger, wandering through strange lands to his home in the north.
He was walking one evening through the public roads, the country around him was flatter, with fields and meadows, the air had a frosty feeling. A willow-tree grew by the roadside, everything reminded him of home. He felt very tired; so he sat down under the tree, and very soon began to nod, then his eyes closed in sleep. Yet still he seemed conscious that the willow-tree was stretching its branches over him; in his dreaming state the tree appeared like a strong, old man—the “willow-father” himself, who had taken his tired son up in his arms to carry him back to the land of home, to the garden of his childhood, on the bleak open shores of Kjøge. And then he dreamed that it was really the willow-tree itself from Kjøge, which had travelled out in the world to seek him, and now had found him and carried him back into the little garden on the banks of the streamlet; and there stood Joanna, in all her splendor, with the golden crown on her head, as he had last seen her, to welcome him back. And then there appeared before him two remarkable shapes, which looked much more like human beings than when he had seen them in his childhood; they were changed, but he remembered that they were the two gingerbread cakes, the man and the woman, who had shown their best sides to the world and looked so good.
“We thank you,” they said to Knud, “for you have loosened our tongues; we have learnt from you that thoughts should be spoken freely, or nothing will come of them; and now something has come of our thoughts, for we are engaged to be married.” Then they walked away, hand-in-hand, through the streets of Kjøge, looking very respectable on the best side, which they were quite right to show. They turned their steps to the church, and Knud and Joanna followed them, also walking hand-in-hand; there stood the church, as of old, with its red walls, on which the green ivy grew.
The great church door flew open wide, and as they walked up the broad aisle, soft tones of music sounded from the organ. “Our master first,” said the gingerbread pair, making room for Knud and Joanna. As they knelt at the altar, Joanna bent her head over him, and cold, icy tears fell on his face from her eyes. They were indeed tears of ice, for her heart was melting towards him through his strong love, and as her tears fell on his burning cheeks he awoke. He was still sitting under the willow-tree in a strange land, on a cold winter evening, with snow and hail falling from the clouds, and beating upon his face.
“That was the most delightful hour of my life,” said he, “although it was only a dream. Oh, let me dream again.” Then he closed his eyes once more, and slept and dreamed.
Towards morning there was a great fall of snow; the wind drifted it over him, but he still slept on. The villagers came forth to go to church; by the roadside they found a workman seated, but he was dead! frozen to death under a willow-tree.
Everything in its proper place5
Hans Christian Andersen
It was over a hundred years ago.
By the great lake behind the wood there stood an old mansion. Round about it circled a deep ditch, with bulrushes, reeds, and grasses growing in it. Close by the bridge, near the entrance gate, an old willow tree bent over the reeds.
From the narrow lane came the sound of horns and the trampling of horses, and therefore the little girl who tended the geese hastened to drive her charges away from the bridge before the hunting party came galloping up. They approached with such speed that she was obliged to climb up onto one of the high cornerstones of the bridge, to avoid being run down. She was still little more than a child, pretty and slender, with a gentle expression in her face and lovely bright eyes. But the baron took no note of this; as he galloped past her, he reversed the whip in his hand, and in rough play gave her such a blow in the chest with the butt end that she fell backward into the ditch.
“Everything in its proper place!” he cried. “Into the mud with you!” And he laughed loudly, for this was intended to be funny, and the rest of the company joined in his mirth. They shouted and clamored, while the hunting dogs barked even more loudly than before. It was indeed: “Rich birds come rushing.”
But goodness knows how rich he was. The poor goose girl, in falling, managed to seize one of the drooping branches of the willow tree and hang from it over the muddy water. As soon as the company and the dogs had disappeared through the castle gate, she tried to climb up again, but the branch broke off at the top, and she would have fallen into the reeds if, at that moment, a strong hand had not caught her from above. It was a peddler who from a little distance away had seen what had happened and had hurried up to give aid.
“Everything in its proper place,” he said, mocking the baron, and pulled her up to the dry ground. He put the tree branch back to the place from which it had broken, but “everything in its place” cannot always be managed, and so he thrust it into the soft ground. “Grow if you can, until you can furnish a good flute for them up yonder,” he said. It would have given him great pleasure to see the baron and his companions well thrashed.
And then the peddler made his way to the mansion, but did not go into the main hall; he was much too humble for that! He went instead to the servants' quarters, and the men and maids looked over his stock of goods and bargained with him. From above, where the guests were at table, was heard a sound of roaring and screaming that was intended for song; that was the best they could do! There was loud laughter, mingled with the barking and yapping of dogs, for there was riotous feasting up there. Wine and strong old ale foamed in jugs and glasses, and the dogs ate with their masters, and some of them, after having their snouts wiped with their ears, were kissed by them.
The peddler was told to come upstairs with his wares, but it was only to make fun of him. The wine had mounted into their heads and the sense had flown out. They insisted that the peddler drink with them, but, so that he would have to drink quickly, they poured his beer into a stocking. This was considered a great joke and caused more gales of laughter. And then entire farms, complete with oxen and peasants, were staked on a single card, and lost and won.
“Everything in its proper place,” said the peddler thankfully when he had finally escaped from what he called “the Sodom and Gomorrah up there.” “The open road is my proper place,” he said. “I didn’t feel at all happy up there.”
And the little goose girl nodded kindly to him as he walked by the pasture gate.
Days passed and weeks passed; and the willow branch that the peddler had thrust into the ground beside the water ditch remained fresh and green and even put forth new shoots. The little goose girl saw that it must have taken root, and she was very happy about it; this was her tree, she thought.
Yes, the tree flourished, but everything else at the mansion went to seed, what with feasting and gambling. For these two are like wheels, upon which no man can stand securely.
Scarcely six years had passed before the baron left the mansion, a beggar, with bag and stick in hand; and the mansion itself was bought by a rich merchant. And the purchaser was the very peddler who had once been mocked at in the great hall and forced to drink beer from a stocking! Honesty and industry are good winds to speed a vessel, and now the peddler was the master of the mansion. But from that moment card-playing was not permitted there any more.
“That is bad reading,” he said. “When the Devil saw a Bible for the first time, he wanted something to counteract it, and so he invented card playing.”
The new owner took himself a wife, and who do you suppose she was but the pretty little goose girl, who had always been so faithful and good! In her new clothes she looked as beautiful and fine as if she had been of high birth. How did all this happen? Well, that is too long a story to tell you in these busy times, but it really did happen, and the most important part of the story is still to come.
It was pleasant and cheerful to live in the old mansion. The mother managed the household affairs, and the father superintended the estate, and blessings seemed to rain down on the home. For where there is rectitude prosperity is sure to follow. The old house was cleaned and repainted; ditches were cleared, and new fruit trees were planted. The floors were as polished as a draughtboard, and everything wore a bright cheerful look.
In the large hall the lady sat in the winter evenings, with all her maids spinning woolen and linen yarn, and every Sunday evening there was a reading from the Bible by the Councilor of Justice himself. In his old age the peddler had achieved this title. There were children, and as they grew up they received the best possible education, although all were not equally gifted - just as it is in all families.
But the willow branch outside had grown to be a big splendid tree, which stood free and undisturbed. “That is our family tree,” the old people said. And they explained to all the children, even those who were not very bright, that the tree was to be honored and respected.
So a hundred years rolled by.
Now it was our own time. The lake had grown into a marsh, and the old mansion had almost disappeared. A long narrow pool of water near the remains of a stone wall was all that was left of the deep ditch; yet here still stood a magnificent old willow tree with drooping branches. It was the family tree, and it showed how beautiful a tree may be if left to itself. To be sure, the main trunk was split from root to crown, and storms had given it a little twist, but it still stood firmly. From every cleft and crack into which the winds had carried soil, grasses and flowers had sprung forth, especially near the top, where the great branches separated. There a sort of a small hanging garden had been formed of wild raspberries and chickweed, and even a little serviceberry tree had taken root and stood slender and graceful in the midst of the old tree, which reflected itself in the dark water when the wind had driven all the duckweed into a corner of the pool. A narrow path, which led across the fields, passed close by the old tree.
High on the hill near the forest, with a splendid view in every direction, stood the new mansion, large and magnificent, the glass of its windows so clear and transparent that there seemed to be no panes there at all. The stately flight of steps that led up to the entrance looked like a bower covered with roses and broad-leaved plants. The lawn was as freshly and vividly green as if each separate blade of grass were washed mornings and evenings. In the great hall hung valuable pictures; there were silken chairs and sofas so airy and graceful that they seemed almost ready to walk on their own legs; there were tables with polished marble tops, and books bound in rich morocco and gold. Yes, they were really wealthy people who lived here; they were people of position; here lived the baron and his family.
Everything here fitted with everything else. The motto of the house was still “Everything in its proper place.” So all the pictures that at one time had hung with honor and glory in the former mansion were now relegated to the passage that led to the servants' hall, for they were considered nothing but old junk; especially two old portraits, one of a man in a pink coat and a wig, the other of a lady with powdered, high-dressed hair and a rose held in her hand, and each surrounded by a large wreath of willow branches. These two old pictures were marred by many holes, for the baron’s children were fond of using the two old people as targets for their cross bows. They were the portraits of the Councilor of Justice and his lady, from whom the whole family descended.
“But they didn’t really belong to our family,” said one of the young barons. “He was a peddler, and she was a goose girl! They weren’t like Papa and Mamma!”
The pictures were judged to be worthless junk, and as the motto was “Everything in its proper place,” Great-grandmother and Great-grandfather were hung in the passage that led to the servants' hall.
Now, the son of the village pastor was the tutor at the mansion. One day he was out walking with his pupils, the young barons and their older sister, who had just been confirmed. They followed the path toward the old willow, and as they strolled along, the young girl gathered some field flowers and bound them together - “Everything in its proper place” - and the flowers became a beautiful bouquet. At the same time she heard every word that was spoken, for she liked to listen to the clergyman’s son talk of the power of nature and the great men and women of history. She had a good, sweet temper, with true nobility of soul and mind, and a heart that appreciated all that God had created.
They stopped at the old willow tree, where the youngster boy insisted on having a flute made for him, as had been cut for him from other willow branches before; and the pastor’s son therefore broke off a branch.
“Oh, don’t,” cried the young baroness, but it was already too late. “That is our famous old tree,” she explained, “and I love it dearly. They laugh at me at home for it, but I don’t care. There’s an old tale attached to this tree.”
Then she told them all the story about the tree, about the old mansion, and the peddler and the goose girl who had met for the first time on this very spot and had afterward founded the noble family to which these young people belonged.
“They didn’t want to be knighted, the grand old people!” she said. “They kept their motto, ‘Everything in its proper place,’ and so they thought it would be out of place for them to buy a title. It was their son - my grandfather - who was made a baron. They say he was very learned, a great favorite with princes and princesses, and was present at all their festivals. The others at home love him the best, but I don’t know - there seems to be something about that first pair that draws my heart to them. How comfortable and patriarchal it must have been in the old mansion then, with the mistress sitting at her spinning wheel among all her maids, and the old master reading aloud from the Bible!”
“They must have been wonderful people, sensible people,” said the pastor’s son.
Then the conversation turned naturally toward noblemen and commoners. The young man hardly seemed to belong to the lower classes, so well did he understand and speak of the purpose and meaning of nobility.
“It is good fortune,” he said, “to belong to a family that has distinguished itself. In your own blood there is then, so to speak, a spur that urges you on to make progress in everything that is good. It’s gratifying to bear the name of a family that is a card of admission to the highest circles. Nobility means something great and noble; it is a gold coin that has been stamped to show its worth. It is a modern belief, and many poets, of course, agree with it, that all of nobility must be bad and stupid, and that the lower you go among poor people, the more wisdom and virtue do you find. But that isn’t my opinion, for I think it’s entirely foolish, entirely false. There are many beautiful and kindly traits found in the upper classes. I could give you many examples; here’s one my mother told me once.
“She was visiting a noble family in town, where I think my grandmother had nursed the lady of the house. The old nobleman and my mother were together in his apartments when he noticed an old woman come limping into the courtyard on crutches. She used to come there every Sunday, to receive a little gift.
" ‘Ah! There is the poor old lady!’ said the nobleman. ‘Walking is so hard for her!’ And before my mother understood what he meant, the seventy-year-old excellency was out of the room and down the stairs, carrying his gift to the old woman, to spare her the difficult walk.
“Now that was only a little thing, but like the widow’s mite it has a sound that echoes to the depths of the human heart. Those are the things that poets ought to sing about, especially in these times, for it does good; it soothes and reconciles mankind. But when a person, just because he is of noble birth and has a pedigree, stands on his hind legs and neighs in the street like an Arabian horse, and, when a commoner has been in the rooms, sneers, ‘Something out of the street has been in here!’ - that is nobility in decay and just a mask - a mask such as Thespis created. People are glad to see one like that satirized.”
That was the way the pastor’s son spoke. It was a rather long speech, but while talking he had finished carving the flute.
That night there was a great party at the mansion, with many guests from about the neighborhood and from the capital. The main hall was full of people; some of the ladies were dressed tastefully, while others showed no taste at all. The clergymen of the neighborhood remained gathered respectfully in a corner, looking as if they were conducting a burial service there. But it was a party of pleasure; only the pleasure hadn’t begun yet.
There was to be a great concert, so the little baron brought in his new willow flute. But neither he nor his father could get a note from it, so they decided it was worthless. There were chamber music and song, both of the sort that pleases the performers most - yet quite charming.
Suddenly a certain cavalier - his father’s son and nothing else - spoke to the tutor. “Are you a musician?” he demanded. “You play the flute and make it, too! That’s genius! That should command, and receive, the place of honor! Heaven knows, I try to follow the times. You have to do that, you know. Come, you will enchant us all with the little instrument, won’t you?”
Then he handed the tutor the flute made from the old willow down by the pool and announced loudly that the tutor was about to favor them with a solo on that instrument.
Now, it was easy to tell that they only wanted to make fun of him, so the tutor refused, though he could really play well. But they crowded around him and insisted so strongly that at last he put the flute to his lips.
That was a strange flute! A tone was heard, as sustained as the whistle of a steam engine, yes, and much stronger; it echoed over the courtyard, garden, and wood, and miles away into the country. And with that note there came a rushing wind that seemed to roar, “Everything in its proper place!”
And then Papa flew, as if carried by the wind, straight out of the great hall and into the shepherd’s cottage, while the shepherd was blown - not into the main hall, for there he could not come - no, up into the servants' room, among the haughty lackeys strutting in their silk stockings. The proud servants were almost paralyzed at the very thought that such a common person would dare to sit at table with them!
But in the great hall the young baroness flew to the upper end of the table, where she was worthy to sit; the pastor’s son found himself next to her, and there they both sat as if they were a newly married couple. A gentle old count of one of the most ancient families in the country remained unmoved in his honorable place, for the flute was just, as everyone ought to be. But the witty cavalier who was nothing more than the son of his father, and who had caused the flute playing, flew head over heels into the poultry house - and he was not alone.
For a whole mile around the countryside the sound of the flute could be heard, and remarkable things happened. The family of a rich merchant, driving along in their coach and four, was blown completely out of the carriage and could not even find a place on the back of it. Two wealthy peasants who in our times had grown too high for their own cornfields were tumbled back into the ditch.
Yes, that was indeed a dangerous flute. But luckily it burst after that first note, and that was a fortunate thing for everybody, for then it was put back into the owner’s pocket. “Everything in its proper place.”
The next day no one spoke of what had happened; and that is where we get the expression, “To pocket the flute.” Everything was back in its former state, except for the two old portraits of the merchant and the goose girl. They had been blown up onto the wall of the drawing room; and when one of the well-known experts said they had been painted by an old master, they were left there, and carefully restored. Nobody knew before that they were worth anything, and how could they have known? Now they hung in the place of honor. “Everything in its proper place.”
And it will come to that. Eternity is long - even longer than this story.
Todo on Willows:
- Algernon Blackwood: The Willows (recommended by Anze)