Perfumery and Death - Necro-Romanticism & poetry

Marble angels, grieving mourners and bas-reliefs portraying a soul's ascension to the heavens appeared in cemeteries only in the XIX century, when death was  romanticized, suddenly gaining some mysterious beauty and even a certain allure. Romanticism and its literary authors sung praises in verse and in prose honoring the deaths of the young and beautiful. The most popular ones would be novels and poems featuring the death of a young female character.

The entire reading world mourned for instance the death of Little Nell form Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, not even knowing that the author was thus mourning the death of young Mary Hogarth, his sister-in-law, who had literally died in his arms, forever remaining his greatest love, for the dead never disappoint us…

Nunhead cemetry London

The poetry of that time was full of stories of love and loss. In a poem by William Wordsworth, a young lover rushes to meet his date and suddenly asks himself "What if Lucy has died?" – and most certainly Lucy did die, even though there had seemingly been no omen of that whatsoever.

 


 

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

 

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

-William Wordsworth

 

John Keats, in his Ode to a Nightingale, calls death upon himself. And he did happen to die young, as if death had heard his plea. He died from consumption, which was a real epidemic of the times, showing no mercy to either log cabins or castles; poets or peasants, or even young Tsarinas.

 


 

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

 To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!

Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—

To thy high requiem become a sod.

 

–John Keats "Ode to a Nightingale"

 


It was a time when it became fashionable to look pale, weak and, coughing into a handkerchief, suspect that "death had already woven a nest in your chest." Young women suffering from consumption (i.e. tuberculosis) were thought to be especially passionate in love, possessing that special charm of a wilting flower. The final stage of consumption with its sticky sweat, suffocation, and bloody foam around the lips, would hardly be the source of aesthetic delight for any, but that stage would only be witnessed by the closest family members, doctors and nurses. Even our (mostly optimistic) great poet Alexander Pushkin, singing the praises of the beauty of Fall in central Russia, wrote:

 
People have harsh words for these days of autumn,
but, reader, they are dear to me, I love
their unassuming light, their quiet beauty.
Autumn attracts me like a neglected girl
among her sisters. And, to be quite honest,
she is the only one that warms my heart.
She has her good points; whimsically dreaming
and free from vanity, I find her charms appealing.

How can I put it? She perhaps appeals
as sometimes a young sufferer from consumption
catches my eye. Unseen, her death awaits,
and without protest, quietly she sickens;
she cannot sense the yawning of the grave,
but life fades from the lips that still are smiling;
a rosy hue still plays around her eyes,
today she is alive, tomorrow dies.

–From "Autumn (a fragment)" (1837) by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Peter France.

 

Even in fairy tales, thanks to Hans Christian Andersen, the cult of Beautiful Death  became the new norm! The Angel, The Travelling Companion, and Little Ida's Flowers, The Little Mermaid, and certainly the wonderful The Nightingale, where Death is portrayed as a sentient being capable of thoughts and actions, are all excellent examples of that literary phenomenon.

 



"…and the nightingale continued her singing. She sung of the quiet churchyard, where the white roses grow, where the elder-tree wafts its perfume on the breeze, and the fresh, sweet grass is moistened by the mourners’ tears. Then Death longed to go and see his garden, and floated out through the window in the form of a cold, white mist." 

–Hans Christian Anderson, The Nightingale
 

Other storytellers also followed suit and wrote their own sad stories that were loved by grownups and children alike. One can even say that there was a cult of early death: if in the past people were proud of their ancestors' living well into old age, now they tried to immortalize the memory of those who died young.

A lot of attention was given to the exquisite beauty of mourning dress. There were commemorative pieces of 'jewelry' made out of the hair of one's dearly departed and even embroidery done with human hair. Postmortem photographs became an integral part of that culture, and sometimes the living would pose for photographs with the dead.

The lavishness of tombstones was constantly growing with the cemetery symbolism becoming increasingly complex: a luscious rose that fell from its bush would denote a woman who died in her prime, while a beveled sheaf denoted a person who lived to reach old age. Most certainly we are talking strictly about the wealthy here: the poor would sometimes have no money to even properly bury their deceased and entire families would go hungry for many days, only so that they could afford a simple casket and the services of an undertaker. Well-to-do families had it all; the finest silk satin and lace for the grave-clothes, luxurious wreaths and ornamental crosses made out of the most redolent greenhouse flowers.

The deceased were no longer embalmed, but wealthy families would bury their dead in three coffins: an oak casket, that would be lined in silk and decorated in silver glaze with ornamental silver corners, then a mahogany or orange tree coffin, and then finally  - a galvanized metal casket. Sometimes the coffin was not hammered shut, but was closed with one or two sophisticated locks instead; this was especially common on women's and children's coffins. The gold, silver, or simply a metal key with which these locks were locked was then kept as a memento and/or served as a jewelry pendant; a trinket on a chain if the wearer was a man or a brooch if the owner was a woman.

Such were the times; rapid technical and scientific progress cozily co-existed with the cult of Beautiful Death which lasted until the beginning of the ХХth century, or until the period of Decadence when it finally reached its peak – even suicides were fashionable then... It ended with the beginning of the Great War, in 1914, when death abruptly lost all of its aesthetic attractiveness.

 

There are significantly fewer perfumes rendered in the Era of Beautiful Death style (and created in order to remind us of those times) than there are ironically macabre fragrances out there, but the former are more complex and more subtle.

Nevermore by Frapinthis is one of the most somber, Gothic fragrances that exist in perfumery today. Its name links it to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the great Gothic writer from the U.S. and one of the greatest fiction writers of all time. "Nevermore" is a grim prophecy from a bird we find in his poem 'Raven': Poe wrote it when his great love, his wife Victoria Clemm was still alive, but already terminally ill. She was his cousin, and Edgar married her when she was barely 13 years old. Edgar and Virginia adored each other. Despite poverty, they were the happiest couple, but the young woman suffered from tuberculosis for many years, so in 1845, when Raven was published, everybody knew that she did not have long to live. Thus Poe was forecasting his own future as a widower:

 

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing

To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;

This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining

On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,

But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,

She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.

“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee

Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

 Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven, 1845

 


Virginia died on January 30, 1847. That winter was very cold -  it was impossible to dig out a grave for her – so the coffin with her body was placed in their neighbors' family crypt. After his wife's death, Poe seemed to have lost his mind. He would go out at night and people would often find him cold and partly covered in snow, kneeling or all crooked next to the entrance to the crypt… He then became ill. Once Poe recuperated from the illness, he tried to go back no normalcy again,  socializing and even courting a woman - and he even intended to re-marry. But suddenly he disappeared again and was later found delirious and dying. Sometime in his childhood Edgar would say that he saw a "sea of darkness" and that he was afraid that that sea would eventually engulf him. It is likely that the sea of darkness did engulf his mind in his final days. He tried to survive Victoria's death, but he could not.

Nevermore — here, frankincense is combined with aldehydes, tobacco smoke, spices and woods, aptly recreating the scent of a funeral performed on a bad weather day; somehow, interwoven, all of those scents create the natural scent of raw soil, fertile, nurtured with all the bodies that were buried in it, and the flowers that have covered it. A moist suspension hangs in the air ("Is it about to rain?"), and one smells the just-planed boards of the coffin, the scent of incense that has gone cold coming from the church, and the undertaker who is smoking nearby, waiting for everybody to say their last goodbyes... And then a single rose falls on the coffin. Just one, but a very tender, fresh and redolent one. After that, more and more roses start falling, their number growing by the minute, their redolence filling the moist air - and yet it cannot fully conceal the scent of the soil, the frankincense, and the tobacco. And so it remains: the competition between a heap of roses and a newly dug grave.

Even if the fragrance was named "Resort Morning" or "Pink Marzipan Fairy" instead of "Nevermore," it would still elicit exactly the same associations. Because Shakespeare was right, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," and the same is true for a grave - it will always smell like a grave. Even though the scent of raw soil or freshly planed wood could provoke merrier associations in some, the frankincense is still very much there and it has to be reckoned with. And the roses are covered in ashes, too, possibly the ashes of burnt love letters.

Despite the abundance of roses this is a very suitable fragrance for a man. It is slightly in the style of Dorian Gray, but that makes it even more attractive.

 

 

Mourning

in the XIX century, expecially in Victorian England, was a very important but prohibitively expensive enterprise. Wealthy ladies were supposed to wear mourning clothes for years, and not only for their relatives (the closer the relative, the longer and more strict the mourning), but also on the occasion of a monarch's death. When travelling, people would take a full outfit of mourning clothes just in case. Common women had to dye their regular clothes black. A veil (or at least a black ribbon for a hat) was obligatory for all women regardless of their social status.

  



De Profundis — Psalm 130: "Out of the depths I have cried to Thee O Lord! Lord, hear my voice.…'

This psalm was the one read the most often during funerals, but it was also very popular among prisoners that felt as though they were buried alive. This is why De Profundis is also the title of Oscar Wilde's letter to Alfred Douglas, the man due to whom Wilde had suffered through bankruptcy, shame, and all the perils of imprisonment:

 'I don't regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure. I did it to the full, as one should do everything that one does. There was no pleasure I did not experience. I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine. I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes. I lived on honeycomb. But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting. I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for De Profundis 12 me also. Of course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my books.'

I think a phrase from another letter of Wilde's would be more suitable for this fragrance though: "Pleasure hides love from us, but pain reveals it in its essence."

The flacon filled with purple liquid contains coolness and calm. You sometimes find similar smells at old European cemeteries, for example at Père Lachaise – and I mean the oldest, most forlorn, and overgrown nooks of such cemeteries, there where the common people, not celebrities, found their final resting place for all eternity. There is no sharpness of grief there, just silence, a bird chirping on a tree, a sunbeam gliding across the wall of an old crypt, and a fragrance – wet cool violets, wet cool greenery, and moss. The scent of full and calm soil, wet cold stones and, coming from the depths of the old crypt, you can see a thin trickle of frankincense long gone stale, while the blue and purple iris buds are exuding their foggy and cool redolence...

…Oscar Wilde had a sister. Her name was Isola. At that time sons were more appreciated than daughters. This girl, however, the youngest child in the family, born after the two sons William and Oscar, was adored by her parents and brothers alike. She was the family's own little idol, but she died from 'sudden brain hemorrhage,' not even reaching the tender age of ten.

Even when he was already a married adult, at dusk Wilde would occasionally say that he saw the ghost of his sister dancing near their house, like a sunbeam come alive. Wilde dedicated his 'Requiescat' poem (which means "May she rest in peace") to Isola, and its first lines are engraved on her tombstone:

 

 

Tread lightly, she is near

Under the snow,

Speak gently, she can hear

The daisies grow.

(Oscar Wilde, Requiescat)

 

In the tender and quiet, suave sweetness of the fragrance ( violets )... is the presence of Isola who finally reunited with her brother on the other side of eternity.

Yes, violet is the scent of eternity and calm. It is also the fragrance of eternal life. And here I mean not the life in heaven where there possibly is no continuation of any sort for us... But the eternal life here on earth – invincible, ever resurrecting in new people. They will love again, and this will go on for ever and ever.

Find Violet in these B L I S S II M O products 

Cire Trudon Scented Candle | CARMÉLITE - Old Mossy Walls

Cire Trudon Perfume | BRUMA -  In the Forest at Night, Dark & Earthy

Carthusia  | FIORI DI CAPRI - Gardenia, Violet & Wild Strawberry

Lubin | EPIDOR

 


 

 

 

This article is an expert from FRAGRANTICA. 
The article features photographs of gravestones and monuments found in London's old cemeteries of Highgate and Nunhead.

Author

Elena Prokofeva

Elena Prokofeva Writer

Elena was born in Moscow. She studied at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography and at the Philological faculty of Moscow State University. She is the author of several novels (some of those written under the pen name of Elena Klemm) and specializes in writing biographical books. She loves history, Gothic novels, tales of terror, ancient cemeteries and old maisons, St. Petersburg, Carcassonne, Blois, Siena, Toledo, and Cesky Krumlov. Her enamorment with perfumes dates back to her childhood, and now she has a profound collection of perfumes significant for her.