Source: A Book Of Myths
The sunbeams are basking on the high walls of the old garden—smiling on the fruit that grows red and golden in their warmth. The bees are humming round the bed of purple heliotrope, and drowsily murmuring in the shelter of the soft petals of the blush roses whose sweetness brings back the fragrance of days that are gone. On the old grey sundial the white-winged pigeons sleepily croon as they preen their snowy plumage, and the Madonna lilies hang their heads like a procession of white-robed nuns who dare not look up from telling their beads until the triumphal procession of an all-conquering warrior has gone by. What can they think of that long line of tall yellow flowers by the garden wall, who turn their faces sunwards with an arrogant assurance, and give stare for stare to golden-haired Apollo as he drives his blazing car triumphant through the high heavens?
“Sunflowers” is the name by which we know those flamboyant blossoms which somehow fail so wholly to suggest the story of Clytie, the nymph whose destruction came from a faithful, unrequited love. She was a water-nymph, a timid, gentle being who frequented lonely streams, and bathed where the blue dragon-flies dart across the white water-lilies in pellucid lakes. In the shade of the tall poplar trees and the silvery willows she took her midday rest, and feared the hours when the flowers drooped their heads and the rippling water lost its coolness before the fierce glare of the sun.
But there came a day when, into the dark pool by which she sat, Apollo the Conqueror looked down and mirrored his face. And nevermore did she hide from the golden-haired god who, from the moment when she had seen in the water the picture of his radiant beauty, became the lord and master of her heart and soul. All night she awaited his coming, and the Dawn saw her looking eastward for the first golden gleams from the wheels of his chariot. All day she followed him with her longing gaze, nor did she ever cease to feast her eyes upon his beauty until the last reflection of his radiance had faded from the western sky.
Such devotion might have touched the heart of the sun-god, but he had no wish to own a love for which he had not sought. The nymph’s adoration irked him, nor did pity come as Love’s pale substitute when he marked how, day by day, her face grew whiter and more white, and her lovely form wasted away. For nine days, without food or drink, she kept her shamed vigil. Only one word of love did she crave. Unexacting in the humility of her devotion, she would gratefully have nourished her hungry heart upon one kindly glance. But Apollo, full of scorn and anger, lashed up his fiery steeds as he each day drove past her, nor deigned for her a glance more gentle than that which he threw on the satyrs as they hid in the dense green foliage of the shadowy woods.
Half-mocking, Diana said, “In truth the fair nymph who throws her heart’s treasures at the feet of my golden-locked brother that he may trample on them, is coming to look like a faded flower!” And, as she spoke, the hearts of the other immortal dwellers in Olympus were stirred with pity.
“A flower she shall be!” they said, “and for all time shall she live, in life that is renewed each year when the earth stirs with the quickening of spring. The long summer days shall she spend forever in fearless worship of the god of her love!”
And, as they willed, the nymph passed out of her human form, and took the form of a flower, and evermore—the emblem of constancy—does she gaze with fearless ardour on the face of her love.
“The heart that has truly loved never forgets,
But as truly loves on to the close;
As the sunflower turns on her god when he sets
The same look that she turned when he rose.”
Some there are who say that not into the bold-faced sunflower did her metamorphosis take place, but into that purple heliotrope that gives an exquisite offering of fragrance to the sun-god when his warm rays touch it. And in the old walled garden, while the bees drowsily hum, and the white pigeons croon, and the dashing sunflower gives Apollo gaze for gaze, and the scent of the mignonette mingles with that of clove pinks and blush roses, the fragrance of the heliotrope is, above all, worthy incense to be offered upon his altar by the devout lover of a god.
Next: The Cranes Of Ibycus