You’re sitting at your window. Outside, snow is falling. On the table beside you, flower bulbs wade in a bowl of stones and water—Narcissus papyraceus, commonly known as paperwhites, or narcissus. Their fragrance dazzles you as you open a book . . . wait. Before reading, you put on a recording.
It’s “Narcissus,” an 1891 piano composition by Pittsburgh’s Ethelbert Nevin. You recognize the lilt from an old television cartoon. For twenty-five years after its publication, no piece of sheet music enjoyed greater popularity.
Flower and song were both named after the Greek myth. Narcissus, son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, fell in love with his own image reflected in water, could not leave, and the gods turned him into the Narcissus flower.
Soon after Ethelbert Nevin wrote “Narcissus,” P. C. Warren added words.
. . . A flood of fragrance rises around me,
And drowns my senses, lost in dream.
Breath of the rose, breath of the lilac
Mingle, and mount on the vibrant air;
Yet in the balmy current,
Born on the wings of Zephyr,
A scent, more witching than all the rest,
Wakes tender memories in my breast:
‘Tis Narcissus! . . .
Plant them now, and have flowers on New Year’s. All will be in their glory on the holy days, the favorite Paperwhites, ringing in New Year’s with their alabaster bells.
~Advertisement in The New York Times, November 5, 1916.
Narcissus. If you can’t play, sing, or whistle Ethelbert Nevin’s gem, find a recording, and let the music conjure dreams of spring. Smell the music. Listen to the flower.