I sometimes walk in a large garden where the evening primrose is permitted to grow, but only at the extreme end of the ground, thrust away, as it were, back against the unkept edge with its pretty tangle of thorn, briar, and woodbine, to keep company there with a few straggling poppies, with hollyhock, red and white foxglove, and other coarse and weed-like plants, all together forming a kind of horizon, dappled with colour, to the garden on that side, a suitable background to the delicate, more valued blooms. It has a neglected appearance, its tall straggling stems insufficiently clothed with leaves, leaning away from contact with the hedge; a plant of somewhat melancholy aspect, suggesting to a fanciful mind the image of a maiden originally intended by Nature to be her most perfect type of grace and ethereal loveliness, but who soon outgrew her strength with all beauty of form, and who now wanders abroad, careless of appearances, in a faded flimsy garment, her fair yellow hair dishevelled, her mournful eyes fixed ever on the earth where she will shortly be.
I never pass this weedy, pale-flowered alien without stooping to thrust my nose into first one blossom, then another, and still another, until that organ, like some industrious bee, is thickly powdered with the golden dust. If, after an interval, I find myself once more at the same spot, I repeat this performance with as much care as if it was a kind of religious ceremony it would not be safe to omit; and at all times I am as reluctant to pass without approaching my nose to it, as the great Dr. Johnson was to pass a street-post without touching it with his hand. My motive, however, is not a superstitious one, nor is it merely one of those meaningless habits which men sometimes contract, and of which they are scarcely conscious. When I first knew the evening primrose, where it is both a wild and a garden flower and very common, I did not often smell at it, but was satisfied to inhale its subtle fragrance from the air. And this reminds me that in England it does not perfume the air as it certainly does on the pampas of La Plata, in the early morning in places where it is abundant; here its fragrance, while unchanged in character, has either become less volatile or so diminished in quantity that one is not sensible that the flower possesses a perfume until he approaches his nose to it.
My sole motive in smelling the evening primrose is the pleasure it gives me. This pleasure greatly surpasses that which I receive from other flowers far more famous for their fragrance, for it is in a great degree mental, and is due to association. Why is this pleasure so vivid, so immeasurably greater than the mental pleasure afforded by the sight of the flower? The books tell us that sight, the most important of our senses, is the most intellectual; while smell, the least important, is in man the most emotional sense. This is a very brief statement of the fact; I will now restate it another way and more fully.
I am now holding an evening primrose in my hand. As a fact at this moment I am holding nothing but the pen with which I am writing this chapter; but I am supposing myself back in the garden, and holding the flower that first suggested this train of thought. I turn it about this way and that, and although it pleases it does not delight, does not move me: certainly I do not think very highly of its beauty, although it is beautiful; placed beside the rose, the fuchsia, the azalea, or the lily, it would not attract the eye. But it is a link with the past, it summons vanished scenes to my mind. I recognise that the plant I plucked it from possesses a good deal of adaptiveness, a quality one would scarcely suspect from seeing it only in an English garden. Thus I remember that I first knew it as a garden flower, that it grew large, on a large plant, as here; that on summer evenings I was accustomed to watch its slim, pale, yellow buds unfold, and called it, when speaking in Spanish, by its quaint native name of James of the night, and, in English, primrose simply. I recall with a smile that it was a shock to my childish mind to learn that our primrose was not THE primrose. Then, I remember, came the time when I could ride out over the plain; and it surprised me to discover that this primrose, unlike the four-o’clock and morning-glory, and other evening flowers in our garden, was also a wild flower. I knew it by its unmistakable perfume, but on those plains, where the grass was cropped close, the plant was small, only a few inches high, and the flowers no bigger than buttercups. Afterwards I met with it again in the swampy woods and everglades along the Plata River; and there it grew tall and rank, five or six feet high in some cases, with large flowers that had only a faint perfume. Still later, going on longer expeditions, sometimes with cattle, I found it in extraordinary abundance on the level pampas south of the Salado River; there it was a tall slender plant, grass-like among the tall grasses, with wide open flowers about an inch in diameter, and not more than two or three on each plant. Finally, I remember that on first landing in Patagonia, on a desert part of the coast, the time being a little after day-break, I became conscious of the familiar perfume in the air, and, looking about me, discovered a plant growing on the barren sand not many yards from the sea; there it grew, low and bush-like in form, with stiff horizontal stems and a profusion of small symmetrical flowers.
All this about the plant, and much more, with many scenes and events of the past, are suggested to my mind by the flower in my hand; but while these scenes and events are recalled with pleasure, it is a kind of mental pleasure that we frequently experience, and very slight in degree. But when I approach the flower to my face and inhale its perfume, than a shock of keen pleasure is experienced, and a mental change so great that it is like a miracle. For a space of time so short that if it could be measured it would probably be found to occupy no more than a fraction of a second, I am no longer in an English garden recalling and consciously thinking about that vanished past, but during that brief moment time and space seem annihilated and the past is now. I am again on the grassy pampas, where I have been sleeping very soundly under the stars — would that I could now sleep as soundly under a roof! It is the moment of wakening, when my eyes are just opening to the pure over-arching sky, flushed in its eastern half with tender colour; and at the moment that nature thus reveals itself to my vision in its exquisite morning beauty and freshness, I am sensible of the subtle primrose perfume in the air. The blossoms are all about me, for miles and for leagues on that great level expanse, as if the morning wind had blown them out of that eastern sky and scattered their pale yellow stars in millions over the surface of the tall sere grass.
I do not say that this shock of pleasure I have described, this vivid reproduction of a long-past scene, is experienced each time I smell the flower; it is experienced fully only at long intervals, after weeks and months, when the fragrance is, so to speak, new to me, and afterwards in a lesser degree on each repetition, until the feeling is exhausted. If I continue to smell again and again at the flower, I do it only as a spur to memory; or in a mechanical way, just as a person might always walk along a certain path with his eyes fixed on the ground, remembering that he once on a time dropped some valuable article there, and although he knows that it was lost irrecoverably, he still searches the ground for it.
Other vegetable odours affect me in a similar way, but in a very much fainter degree, except in one or two cases. Thus, the Lombardy poplar was one of the trees I first became acquainted with in childhood, and it has ever since been a pleasure to me to see it; but in spring, when its newly opened leaves give out their peculiar aroma, for a moment, when I first smell it, I am actually a boy again, among the tall poplar trees, their myriads of heart-shaped leaves rustling to the hot November wind, and sparkling like silver in the brilliant sunshine. More than that, I am, in that visionary moment, clinging fast to the slim vertical branches, high above the earth, forty or fifty feet perhaps; and just where I have ceased from climbing, in the cleft of a branch and against the white bark, I see the dainty little cup-shaped nest I have been seeking; and round my head, as I gaze down in it, delighted at the sight of the small pearly eggs it contains, flutter the black-headed, golden-winged siskins, uttering their long canary-like notes of solicitude. It all comes and goes like a flash of lightning, but the scene revealed, and the accompanying feeling, the complete recovery of a lost sensation, are wonderfully real. Nothing that we see or hear can thus restore the past. The sight of the poplar tree, the sound made by the wind in its summer foliage, the song of the golden-winged siskins when I meet with them in captivity, bring up many past scenes to my mind, and among others the picture I have described; but it is a picture only, until the fragrance of the poplar touches the nerve of smell, and then it is something more.
I have no doubt that my experience is similar to that of others, especially of those who have lived a rural life, and whose senses have been trained by an early-acquired habit of attention. When we read of Cuvier (and the same thing has been recorded of others), that the scent of some humble flower or weed, familiar to him in boyhood, would always affect him to tears, I presume that the poignant feeling of grief — grief, that is, for the loss of a vanished happiness — which ended in tears, succeeded to some such vivid representation of the past as I have described, and to the purely delightful recovery of a vanished sensation. Not only flowery and aromatic odours can produce this powerful effect; it is caused by any smell, not positively disagreeable, which may be in any way associated with a happy period in early or past life: the smell, for instance, of peat smoke, of a brewery, a tan yard, of cattle and sheep, and sheep-folds, of burning weeds, brush-wood, and charcoal; the dank smell of marshes, and the smell, “ancient and fish-like,” that clings about many seaside towns and villages; also the smell of the sea itself, and of decaying seaweed, and the dusty smell of rain in summer, and the smell of new-mown hay, and of stables and of freshly-ploughed ground, with so many others that every reader can add to the list from his own experience. Being so common a thing, it may be thought that I have dwelt too long on it. My excuse must be that some things are common without being familiar; also that some common things have not yet been explained.
Locke somewhere says that unless we refresh our mental pictures of what we have seen by looking again at their originals, they fade, and in the end are lost. Bain appears to have the same opinion, at all events he says: “The simplest impression that can be made, of taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight, needs repetition in order to endure of its own accord.” Probably it is a fact that when any scene, not yet lost by the memory, a house, let us say, is looked at again after a long interval, it does not, unless seen in a new setting, create a new image distinct from the old and faded one, but covers the former image, so to speak, the preexistent picture, and may therefore be said to freshen it. Most of the impressions we receive are no doubt very transitory, but it is certainly an error that all our mental pictures, not freshened in the way described, fade and disappear, since it is in the experience of every one of us that many mental pictures of scenes looked at once only, and in some cases only for a few moments, remain persistently in the mind. But the remembered scenes or objects do not present themselves to the mental eye perfect and in their first vivid colours, except on very rare occasions; they are like certain old paintings that always look dark and obscured until a wet sponge is passed over them, whereupon for a short time they recover their clearness of outline and brilliancy of colour. In recalling the past, emotion plays the part of the wet sponge, and it is excited most powerfully in us when we encounter, after a long interval, some once familiar odour associated in some way with the picture recalled. But why? Not finding an answer in the books, I am compelled to seek for one, true or false, in the wilderness of my own mind.
The reason, I imagine, is that while smells are so much to us they cannot, like things seen and things heard, be reproduced in the mind, but are at once forgotten. It is true that in the books smell is classified along with taste, as being much lower or less intellectual than sight and hearing, for the reason (scarcely a valid one) that there must be actual contact of the organ of smell with the object smelt, or a material emanation from, and portion of, such object, although the object itself might be miles away beyond the sight or even beyond the horizon. the light of nature is enough to show how false the arrangement is that places smell and taste together, as much lower and widely apart from sight and hearing. Rather the extreme delicacy of the olfactory nerve raises smell to the rank of an intellectual sense, but very little below the two first and higher senses. And yet, while sights and sounds are retained and can be reproduced at will, and their phantasms are like the reality, an odour has no phantasm in the brain; or, to be very exact, the phantasm of an odour, or its presentment or representation, is so faint and quickly gone when any effort is made to recover it, that, compared with the distinct and abiding presentments of sights and sounds, it is as nothing. Imagine, for example, that you had often seen Windsor Castle, and knew a great deal about it, its history, its noble appearance, which will look familiar to you when you see it again and affect you pleasantly as in the past; and that yet you could not see it with the mind’s eye, but that when, after a recent visit, you tried to see it mentally, nothing but a formless, dim, whitish patch appeared, only to disappear in an instant and come no more. Such a case would represent our condition with regard to even the strongest and most familiar smells. Yet in spite of our inability to recall them, we do distinctly make the effort; and in the case of some strong odour which we have recently inhaled, the mind mocks us with this faint shadow of a phantasm; and this vain, or almost vain, effort of the mind seems to show that odours in some past period of our history were so much more to us than they are now that they could be vividly reproduced, and that this power has been lost, or, at all events, is so weakened as to be of no use.
I find that Bain, who makes different and contradictory statements on this subject in his work on The Senses and the Intellect, has the following sentence, with which I agree: “By a great effort of the mind, we may approach very near to the recovery of a smell that we have been extremely familiar with, as, for example, the odour of coffee, and if we were more dependent on ideas of smell, we might succeed much better.” A very big IF, by the way; but it is probable that some savages, and some individuals among us that have a very acute sense of smell, do succeed much better. This sense being so much more to dogs than to man, it is not strange that they remember smells rather than sights, and can reproduce the sensation of smells, as their twitching and sniffing noses when they dream seem to show.
This approach in ourselves to the recovery of a strong or familiar smell, this dim white patch, to speak in metaphor, the ghost of a phantasm of a smell, seems to have misled the philosophers into the idea that we can mentally reproduce odours. Bain, as I have said, contradicts himself, and therefore, excepting in the sentence I have quoted, must be put down among those who are against me; and with him are McCosh, Bastian, Luys, Ferrier, and others who write on the brain and the mind. Do they copy from each other? It is very odd that they all tell us that we know very little about the sense of smell, and prove it by affirming that we can recall the sensations produced by odours, in some cases quoting the poet:
Odours, when sweet violets sicken, Live within the sense they quicken.
I was seriously alarmed at the beginning of this inquiry by reading in McCosh: “When the organs of taste and smell, supposed by Ferrier to be at the back of the head, are diseased or out of order, the reproduction of the corresponding sensations may be indistinct.” So indistinct was the reproduction in my own case, even of the smell of coffee, that after reading this passage I began to fear that my own brain had misled me, and so, to satisfy myself on the point, I consulted others, friends and acquaintances, who all began trying to recall the sensations produced on them by the odours they were most familiar with. The result of their efforts has restored my peace of mind. With the exception of two or three ladies, who, having no male relations to make up their minds for them, profess to be still in doubt, all sadly acknowledged that they find themselves poorer by one faculty than they had supposed themselves to be; that they began trying to recall smells in the belief that they had the power; that they found that they could almost do it, then began to doubt, and finally with a feeling of impotence, of being baffled, gave it up.
A simple mental experiment may serve to convince any person who tries it that the sensations of smell do not reproduce themselves in the mind. We think of a rose, or a lily, or a violet, and a feeling of pleasure attends the thought; but that this feeling is caused solely by the image of something beautiful to the eye becomes evident when we proceed to think of some artificial perfume, or extract, or essence of a flower. The extract, we know, gave us far more pleasure than the slight perfume of the flower, but there is no feeling of pleasure in thinking of it: it is nothing more than an idea in the mind. On the other hand, when we remember some extremely painful scene that we have witnessed, or some sound, expressing distress or anguish, that we have heard, something of the distressed feeling experienced at the time is reproduced in us; and it is common to hear people say, It makes me sad, or makes me dizzy, or makes my blood run cold, when I think of it; which is literally true, because in thinking of it they again (in a sense) see and hear it. But to think of evil odours does not affect us at all: we can, in imagination, uncork and sniff at cans of petroleum and saturate our pocket-handkerchiefs with asafœtida or carbolic acid, or walk behind a dust-cart, or wade through miles of fetid slime in some tropical morass, or take up some mephitic animal, like the skunk, and fondle it as we would a kitten, yet experience no pain, and no sensation of nausea. We can, if we like, call up all the sweet and abominable smells in nature, just as Owen Glendower called spirits from the vasty deep, but, like the spirits, they refuse to come; or they come not as smells but as ideas, so that phosphuretted hydrogen causes no pain, and frangipane no pleasure. We only know that smells exist; that we have roughly classified them as fragrant, aromatic, fresh, ethereal, stimulating, acrid, nauseous, and virulent; that each of these generic names includes a very large number of distinct odours: we know them all because the mind has taken note of the distinct character of each, and of its effect on us, not because it has registered a sensation in our brain to be reproduced at will, as in the case of something we have seen or heard.
It is true that we are equally powerless to recall tastes. Bain admits that “these sensations are deficient as regards the power of being remembered”; but he did not discover the fact himself, nor does he verify it from his own experience, merely telling us that “Longet observes.” But taste is not an emotional sense. I know, for instance, that if I were to partake of some once familiar, long-untasted dish, flavoured, let me say, with some such abomination (to the English palate) as cummin-seed or garlic; some vegetable, or fruit, wild or cultivated, that I never see in England, it would not move me as I am moved by an odour, and would perhaps give me less pleasure than a dish of strawberries and cream. For in the flavour there is obvious contact with the organ of taste; it is gross and inseparable from the thing eaten to supply a bodily want, and gives a momentary and purely animal gratification; therefore to the mind it is not in the same category, but very much lower than that invisible, immaterial something that flies to us, not to give a sensuous pleasure only, but also to lead, to warn, to instruct, and call up before the mental eye bright images of things unseen. Consequently our inability to recall past flavours is not felt as a loss, and no effort is made to recover them; they are lost and were not worth keeping.
This, then, to my mind, is the reason that smell is an emotional sense in so great a degree, compared with the other senses — namely, because, like sight and hearing, it is an intellectual sense, and because, unlike sight and hearing, its sensations are forgotten; and when after a long interval a forgotten odour, once familiar and associated intimately with the past, is again encountered, the sudden, unexpected recovery of a lost sensation affects us in some such way as the accidental discovery of a store of gold, hidden away by ourselves in some past period of our life and forgotten; or as it would affect us to be met face to face by some dear friend, long absent and supposed to be dead. The suddenly recovered sensation is more to us for a moment than a mere sensation; it is like a recovery of the irrecoverable past. We are not moved in this way, or at all events not nearly in the same degree, by seeing objects or hearing sounds that are associated with and recall past scenes, simply because the old familiar sights and sounds have never been forgotten; their phantasms have always existed in the brain. If, for instance, I hear a bird’s note that I have not heard for the last twenty years, it is not as if I had not really heard it, since I have listened to it mentally a thousand times during the interval, and it does not surprise or come to me like something that was lost and is recovered, and consequently does not move me. And so with the sensation of sight; I cannot think of any fragrant flower that grows in my distant home without seeing it, so that its beauty may always be enjoyed; — but its fragrance, alas, has vanished and returns not!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51