This is the story of three remarkable flowers: one of these flowers is from the past, one is from the future, and one, perhaps even more remarkably, is from a dream. These blooms are made remarkable because through the powers of the human imagination they have invaded our reality, and in that sense they have been made real.
First published in 1895, H.G. Wells’ classic fantasy novel The Time Machine tells of an unnamed inventor who builds a machine which can travel through time. Wells’ protagonist journeys to a far future in which humanity has evolved into two separate species. The working classes of Wells’ own time have become sinister creatures known as the Morlocks who live in underground darkness. The upper classes have evolved into effete and idle beings called the Eloi. The Eloi spend their time picking flowers, eating fruit, and living in what the Time Traveller at first presumes to be an indolent paradise. But he later discovers to his horror that any Eloi who have not taken shelter by nightfall become the prey of the predatory Morlocks.
Although this background gives the story an undercurrent of social satire, with Wells' narrative making a dry observation about the English class system, what truly drives the narrative forward are Wells’ astonishing powers of description. We see in our own imagination what the Time traveller experiences, and with him we endure the horror of the possibility of being stranded in this unknown and dangerous future when his machine is stolen by the Morlocks, and he is forced to make a hazardous journey to the subterranean world in his attempt to recover it.
During his sojourn with the Eloi the Time Traveller is befriended by a young woman whom he has rescued from drowning. The little Eloi presents him with some white flowers as a gift, and it is two of these blooms from the future which the Time Traveller discovers in his coat pocket upon his eventual return to his own time: the only tangible evidence of his fantastic adventures in the world of the far future.
Wells’ precious flowers from the future find an echo in words written by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge almost exactly a century in time before Wells wrote his own story. The poet relates how he lapsed into sleep, during which he dreamed a glorious visionary poem of several hundred lines. Upon awakening he immediately began to write down the poem of his dream – only to be interrupted by an unexpected visitor. Once his visitor had departed he again set to work, but to his dismay discovered that he had by then forgotten most of what he had dreamed. The surviving fifty-two lines we know as the masterful poem Kubla Khan, with its stately pleasure dome, its gardens redolent with incense, and its Abyssinian ‘damsel with a dulcimer’: the remaining snatches which Coleridge managed to rescue of a far grander design.
In attempting to come to terms with his bitter-sweet experience, Coleridge wrote a brief sentence which to me is one of the most reality-challenging phrases in all of literature: “If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke – Aye! and what then?” What then, indeed. Were this dream flower truly to materialize in our world then the fabric of our own reality would collapse. So we now have a flower from the future and a flower from a dream. But what of the flower from the past?
It is one of the most quoted passages in scripture, and its message is so immediate that, two millennia later, we still can readily relate to it: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” These words attributed to Jesus come from Matthew 6:28-29. This short passage assures us that we will be provided for, but it also underscores the vainglory of worldly wealth when compared to the unsurpassable creations of the natural world. We do not even need to be particularly religious to feel the truth which is uttered here. But why should these flowers from the past be grouped together with the fantastic flowers from the future and from a dream? Are not lilies real enough?
Well, not these lilies, no – because they could not have been lilies. Lilies are not native to the Holy Land, so whatever flowers were being used for this lesson in trust and earthly humility, they must have been some other bloom. Scholarship suggests that the most likely candidate would have been Sternbergia, known as the Autumn crocus, which grows in profusion in such areas around Galilee. It seems that, once again, the magnificent prose of the King James Version opted for a telling turn of phrase over accuracy.
But let’s face it: ‘Consider the Autumn crocuses of the field’ just does not have the resounding ring of the more familiar phrase which has come down to us. Poetry can reveal the greater truth, and with a greater power, than a more prosaic reality. And so we comfortably can place the lilies in Matthew alongside the fantastic botany of Wells and Coleridge without doing a disservice to any of them. The lessons – and the sense of wonder – remain the same. The essayist Jorge Luis Borges remarked that “a false fact may be essentially true.” These mysterious flowers from time and from dreams bloom in spite of their unreality, and we are left to wonder at their strange and fragile beauty.
 Ultra-violet tests on the original Greek manuscript of this gospel held by the British Museum have revealed that the original text reads, not ‘they neither toil nor spin’, but: ‘they neither card nor spin’. Since carding is a process of combing yarn, this makes more sense within the context of the phrase.
 This comment appears in Borges’ essay Note on Walt Whitman.
H.G. Wells: The Time Machine. Pan books Ltd. 12th printing, 1975. The watercolour illustration of the Time Traveller being attacked by Morlocks is by Alan Lee, scanned from the cover of my own edition of this title.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poems, selected and with an introduction by John Beer. J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd. 1974 edition.
John Livingstone Lowes: The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. Pan Books Ltd. Picador imprint, 1978.
Jorge Luis Borges: Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L.C. Simms. University of Texas Press, 1964. My post is in part inspired by the essay in this title The Flower of Coleridge, which draws the comparison between Coleridge’s statement and the flower of Wells’ story.
Robin Lane Fox: The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. Penguin Books, 2006. Chapter 8 of this title examines the errors of translation mentioned in my text.