I was twenty one and had been living in Rome for a month, looking in vain for a job, and staying in the cheapest hotel I could find – a garish, pink-painted pensione near the infamous Stazione Termine. One muggy afternoon, hot, bored, and mildy depressed – but too lazy to look for work – I decided just to hop on a train and see where it took me. I was idling on the Linea B, looking at the stations to come, when I saw ‘Piramide.’
I got off. As I turned the corner from the station, there it was: a two thousand year old pyramid – the last thing that St Paul is supposed to have seen before he was crucified. It was embedded in the tall, thick-stoned walls of a sealed off garden, which seemed closed to visitors but on closer inspection turned out to be the Protestant cemetery of Testaccio: grave, still and somnolent in the cool shade of trees.
I eventually found the entrance.
You rang a bell, and an old attendant, taking his time to get to the door, let you in. A place of serenity – lush and dark, where cats basked on the stones in the afternoon light. A place where your soul could stop and breathe.
Walking down a path, I suddenly saw before me a sign: ‘Here lies Shelley’s heart.’ Then, to the left, another that said, to my astonishment, ‘This way to Keats….’
My own heart beating, I wandered in the direction of John Keats’ tombstone, and as I stood before it in amazement (I had no idea he was buried there and had not long before been doing his poetry at school, which I had adored), somehow the clouds had cleared and rays of watery autumn light filtered down through the leaves, illuminating his grave. Alone in this far off corner; smothered in violets.
I cried. The violets were not quite yet in bloom but the leaves were flourishing, there, in a dark, oily green that I imagined were imbued with (but soothed), the bitterness that Keats is said to have felt before his death. It was as if they were protecting him.
Caron Violette Précieuse is like those leaves. It is tender and poetic, with a central note of strange, bitter violet leaf. The flowers are there (and iris, muguet, vetiver), but quiet; as if cowering in woodland rain.
62 responses to “VIOLETTE PRECIEUSE de CARON”
For me the markings of a great writer is someone who reveals something about his character that strikes a visceral nerve within the reader as she realizes that the feeling/situation could be as much about her as the character himself. As I read this poignant and emotionally raw story I concluded that, at age twenty, escaping the harshness of reality and ending up in a cemetery amongst violets is EXACTLY something that I would have done.
Seriously, my friend, you need to consider taking your writing beyond perfume reviews.
You make my heart rush!
How funny….looking back. Glad you made this come to fruition. Congrats on your book.
thanks very much. I want to write MORE though, MORE MORE MORE – longer, more pages, even though it is quite fascinating being condensed into a commercially viable objet
how utterly beautiful this review is, and what a wonderful experience! The thought of violets covering the place of Keats’ heart is poignant beyond belief. Wonderful.
Honestly, it was much more free, pure and beautiful than I have managed to describe. I had NO IDEA he was there whatsoever, and the sun really did pierce through the trees and I was so HALLOWED by the experience and beauty of it all. It has nothing to do with this perfume, really, although there was definitely something about the tender bitterness of the violet leaf in it that immediately took me back to Testaccio (where, incidentally, my friend Helen and I GOT LOCKED IN because we were dreamily lazing about next to Keats in the evening sunshine…..I was a teenage gothic as well, but sleeping in the cemetery was not an option for me, I can tell you, and it was a real adventure getting out: climbing up walls and walking along them…jumping down into stinging nettles if I remember correctly….though I know we were so exhilarated by it all. I have a picture somewhere. Me, Helen and a cat….
It sounds an utterly divine experience. I can feel the warmth and stillness of it.
Exactly. And the first time i had felt ALIVE in Rome.
And very shortly afterwards we moved to Testaccio itself, which is such a wonderful place. You walked over the river from our place to where all the gay clubs were, and the Almodovar-like transsexuals from Brazil hanging around the pyramid, and then the next day I would go and take my book and sit on a bench next to Keats’ grave. It was my place of absolute calm, as it was a cemetery with no darkness, seemingly.
It was an initiation, my friend.
Yes, graveyard reading of the Romantics was very popular amongst the more sensitive 80s teenager. My friend Peppina read that Mary Shelley and Shelley would frequently meet on her mother’s grave to write odes and make love, which totally fired us with wild imaginings and visions of beauty. We would meet at the local churchyard to sit among the headstones with a bag of chips and read Keats, Byron et al aloud. And of course, trusty Morrissey has immortalized such activity of the era: ‘Another sunny day, so we’ll go where we’re happy and I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates… Keats and Yeats are on your side, but Wilde is on mine’.
Ooh, Keats vs Wilde…..I’ll have both please. Have you seen Bright Star by the way? That KILLED me. Oh what a fool, weeping in the streets of Ginza….
I’d take both too, and Yeats. Morrisey was just stirring it as usual! Bright Star!!!!! Yes yes yes. I watched it whilst painting my daughter’s bedroom and was utterly transfixed (the bedroom took two days longer to decorate as a result). The brilliance of that scene with the butterflies – you can feel the utter heartbreak of the separation – the long distance – that exquisite beauty and chaos of the butterflies fluttering everywhere and that blue-violet haze in the room. And I loved the historical detail in the depiction of London – a cross between a Georgian town and a Dorset village – which of course is what it would have been then. You could never be a fool for crying at that Ginza in the Rain.
And yet, you should have seen me, blubbing and having to hold myself up against a pillar!
Totally romanticism like that just kills me.
I feel compelled now to quote some poetry to you – not Keats (forgive me) but a favourite from Byron that I learnt off by heart on those youthful days in a seaside cemetery:
“She walks in beauty
Like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that’s best of dark and light
Meet in her aspect and her eyes
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less
Had half-impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o’er her face
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place,
And on that cheek and o’er that brow
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent
The smiles that win, the tints that glow
But tell of days in goodness spent
A mind at peace with all below
A heart whose love is innocent.”
And I dedicate that to you and your friend Helen in honour of your wanderings in the Testaccio.
And another fave from Yeats, which I dedicate to gentle, passionate souls everywhere, and anyone who needs a poem:
“Had I the Heaven’s embroidered cloths
Enwrought with golden and silver light
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light
I would spread the cloths under your feet.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet.
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.”
Tell me you didn’t just write that from memory!
I did – though I did check the text for a line or two.
Yes! I spent most of my childhood and teenage years learning things off by heart as was training to do acting, and I randomly find myself reciting things as I’m walking around places. These are two old faves, and I have the Yeats’ one on my kitchen wall.
I haven’t thought about that Yeats poem for a while, and it always reminds me of Byron – but reading the end bit again now, it makes me think a little of Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit poems! Anyway, I’m off to my slumbers. Thank you, Mr Ginza.
oh, your comment about Almodovar has just popped up. What an idyllic combination of elements in one place. Have you ever been back since?
With Duncan, yes. It felt small, as though I had outgrown it. And yet, I still miss Rome continually at a low level hum somewhere in my marrow. I want to go back there again…I loved it (and hated it: Italy does my head in…so lacking subtlety – I need a Virgo boyfriend, and a Virgo country (Japan) I think)
Still, part of me IS Italian, I think. I adore the language, the cinema, the wry humour and my year in Rome was probably the most carefree in my whole life.
Have you been there?
Yes, I know what you mean. Places from youth often do feel smaller when you return to them. I think the feeling in your memories sort of fills them up, makes them bigger, and when you leave again, the earlier memories return with the same volume anyway (because the feelings are always there). I love your comment about Rome being continually at a ‘low level hum somewhere in your marrow’. I sense that the Virgoan energies of your daily life – your physical, geographical, earthly existence – are very good for your Italianate and Romantic resonances, in their subtle and intense beauties. I’ve never been there, but have been very drawn there at times. We’re planning to go to Italy next Christmas, either Florence or Rome.
I never realised Japan was a Virgoan country! That makes total sense.
To me it is…
Having visited it once, I would very much agree with you. It has Virgoan extremes – intensities of calm, precision and clarity, and intensities of excess and eccentricity in others. Also its focus on food which is very Virgoan, and the general kindness and politeness of people. I’ve just had a look in my astrology book, and that says that Tokyo is a Cancerian city, and has Japan as a Libran country – it has some elements of Libran (the extremes), but I would see it as very early Libra myself. I’m with you on the Virgo idea. Something of what you write about gardens and the stillness of reading by Keats’ grave really evoked Japan for me.
I’m a Virgo, so that all makes sense to me 🙂
Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus.
I agree with alabasterwrists about your writing. If you wrote a book, I would buy it as I often savor passages of your perfume descriptions, they are so beautiful. I also like that the people who read your blog make intelligent comments. I enjoy reading their comments as well.
I agree with Renee and Alabasterwrists on this too.
and I love this world that we are leading each other into!
> Date: Tue, 26 Feb 2013 14:26:13 +0000 > To: firstname.lastname@example.org >
It’s a wonderful one indeed!
Finally found the Caron counter at Harrods last Sunday and what a delight! Had a good conversation with a very polite, diginified gentleman in pin-stripe suit and high collar, who was espousing the virtues of the perfume house concentrating on perfume alone and not branching out into designer accessories (I agreed!). Loved Sacre intense and identified basil, patchoulie, amber and pepper in it, which according to his notes was right! Had a slight whiff of leather too as well I thought. Aimez-moi reminded me of giggly kids chewing penny sweets, French Cancan – ma parfum preferee – evoked Guerlain L’Heure Bleu – and N’aimez que moi, English Summer gardens, something evoking blackcurrant, raspberry or blackberry leaves (which I think was the violet), and that solid, soft scent of July rose – large, floppy-petalled pink ones. Sturdy, indolent, grassy and sweet. I think I like this perfume house.
> Date: Tue, 26 Feb 2013 14:34:58 +0000 > To: email@example.com >
I am loving that so far you have reblogged two of my absolute favorite posts!!! As I said above, you must get that book going….and I expect an autographed copy!
Absolutely beautiful post, Neil. You are a wonderful writer and I felt completely transported by you. In all the time that I have spent traveling in Italy, I never have been to Rome. Can you believe it? I worked my way west from Milan and all the way to Trieste with a side trip to Genoa and Sardegna, but never Rome. Now, my friend, you have inspired me to take a trip as soon as I can.
And when you do, please go to Testaccio and visit Keats… such a beautiful place of stillness.
One thing I feel about getting older is thankfulness that the world grows in richness and depth. If I could go back and warm myself against the cold… The emotion felt about one’s own life can be overwhelming sometimes, but discovering this place is warmth and light and endless riches, like discovering Keats, thank goodness we grow. This is totally beautiful and makes me thankful and happy.
I love what you write here Katherine. There’s beauty in ageing and falling into life with ever greater depth and understanding.
So very true! And, as I get closer to the half century mark, also a letting go and understanding that nothing,absolutely nothing, matters except the here and now and the small blessings we may have.
I am so glad to have such sensitive souls in here with me…
I mean that sounds a bit hippy/religious, but I mean it! That’s a beautiful post and I love reading everyone’s comments, even if my own are blundering and embarrassing it’s like an overwhelming emotion that feels right, I really love it here, sets me up for the day!
Nothing embarassing or blundering in what you wrote….I actually enjoyed reading your comment and it made me realize how blessed I am to be where I am in this stage of my life (am not missing the angst of my youth!). And isn’t it wonderful that we can come to the black narcissus and be so free with our thoughts and emotions? This is why I love it herein Neil’s garden!
Exactly! 🙂 thankyou
So glad someone got the Sunlight Bathed… reference!!!
And here i go again…
I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice
Are you a Felt fan by any chance?
Yes! And The Smiths now you mention it. Goldmine Trash was exquisite.
But don’t get ye hopes up: I would trade either, in a flash, for Scritti Politti and Madonna.
> Date: Wed, 27 Feb 2013 13:56:47 +0000 > To: firstname.lastname@example.org >
Ha, yes I thought I had read sunlight bathed the golden glow somewhere..!
I think over-listening to the smiths and felt not exactly a recipe for success! Forever reeling round in a stagnant pool! So sorry yes fan too strong a word… But some beautiful moments, especially felt. And some of the lyrics of the smiths like skipping stones through history..
Violets for remembrance. And I inhale them too … Flowers with faces: pensive, the dark violet ones. Imagine a violet violet that’s ultra-memory.
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams. Goes back a long way with me as well.
Thank you for the violets, the gentle memories and do they come ‘de Parme?’
You know, I’ve never actually in my entire life smelled a real scented violet. Only woodland ones with pale traces of scent.
Oh, yes, a book, please, m. Ginzaintherain!
I am desperate to write one . Need a sabbatical first.
I have and they smell sweet spicy, soft, you have to bury your nose within. They are not loud , like hyacinth, up close and personal. I love hyacinths in my room, vey welcoming.
And The first snowdrop two weeks ago! Really, where has winter flown to?
Too long dear friend, though I have been watching your American adventures with enchantment.
Home is near Keat’s House in London, the Heath is past his door, part of the building has been saved as a library the other a makeshift shrine.
The most tender ornament to the poet though is a sculpture to and of him in a courtyard of Guy’s Hospital where he served as an apothecary and, who knows, contracted his malady. I wonder whether he still had cause to mix, as part of his profession, perfumes, as his predecessors in that trade had done for centuries and, if so, whether violets fond their way into his tinctures and waters.
The Perfumed Dandy
All I can say is , THANK HEAVENS YOU ARE BACK.
Too true, though I depart once more too soon for the Nile.
‘Tis a hard not life for us.
The Perfumed Dandy
Exquisite piece, as always, full of symbolism and enchantment. I do adore Keats, one of my favorite tragic souls if ever there were…
How lovely to have found his resting place and the glorious violets tending to his space.
As far as this scent, I owned it as I have almost all Caron fragrances, I found it a bit too melancholy to wear on a regular basis. I do not know why but it always made me feel a bit, well, a bit off if you will.
I love reading everyone’s comments, they are so insightful and touching, but I felt a bit sad. I am also heading towards the mid life stage, yet I do not feel freedom, nor more open to adventure. I feel the weight of life profoundly upon me as I never had before. Maybe it has to do with caring for an elderly parent, one who is old enough to be my granny, that makes me feel this way. I am sure one day I will feel the lightness of being and embrace the moment, hopefully. Goodness, now I am going on as if I were Keats.
Thank you again Neil, and everyone else, for bringing a ray of sunshine to my day.
Such a pleasure to read this piece. These early mornings in mid-winter are still night-black here, and the ocean waves are heavy on the beach below the house from last evening’s wind, and we’re in a cold snap, so to be transported to Italy on a warm and emotional afternoon was balm. I love the pics, too.
Caron is not a sand pile I’ve played in, in the past. But a few weeks past I bought an early, unopened box of Caron Fleurs de Rocaille in extrait. I’m certain, given the other enfluences on my perfume buying, that I bought it either directly or indirectly because of your writing though I had not read your (Oct/2015) review of it at the time.
Your title of that reveiw began, “Too tender to live; too sweet to die.” I happened on the review the day after my German Shepherd of fifteen years had died in my arms.
Caron Fleurs de Rocaille became her scent and it remains unopened in a small place of honor.
In general I don’t allow evocative writing to make my purchase decisions but over a time of knowing someone by their writing, you come to understand whether or not they are ‘speaking your language’.
I enjoyed this piece very much.
I think I’ll be trying more Caron.
This is the first time I saw this post…what a beautiful piece of writing!
Thank you. I really love that place.