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The Wildwood Flower: A Great American Classic, But What Does It Mean?

I’ll get tangled up in the middle of the curls
Of my jet black hair,
The lilies so pale
And the roses so beautiful.

Without question, one of the most charming, intriguing, and captivating of all early American popular poems and songs is The Wildwood Flower. Its haunting story has captivated the fascination and loyalty of countless thousands. An important feature of its fascination and holding power lies in the fact that it is an enigma that has never been solved. Clearly, as the poem unfolds, Wildwood Flower is a waif, but what is the meaning of the other metaphors and symbols embedded in this classic?

As the heartbroken lover sits alone in the wooded valley that was once her testing ground, she winds the strands of her jet-black hair determinedly around her fingers. That image is clear enough, but then the lyrics become vague. Are the lilies flowers of the glen or are they a metaphor for something else? And what are the meanings of roses, myrtle and pale amanita with bright blue eyes? It is evident to the perceptive reader or listener that something more than the literal is intended here. Amanita is a deadly poisonous mushroom known as Death Hood. He doesn’t have bright blue eyes. And what about the rest of the lyrics? Is it simply a lament and a fantasy to try to console himself in her heartbreak and loneliness; Or is it the revelation of a clever plot to get back at this opportunistic crush who got her engaged and then lost interest in her?

I am going to offer some reflections on what this fascinating story tells me, but before doing so I want to present some realities about the times in which this happened and these types of situations. In the lonely woods of early America, opportunities for romance and a future didn’t present themselves as often. Furthermore, at the time this poem was written, a girl who had lost her virtue had very little chance of finding marriage and happiness with a respectable man. Lying to a young woman, telling her he loved her, seducing her, and then walking away from her and leaving her was virtually a death sentence. The hatred and revenge that ultimately arose from these crippling anxieties often resulted in the death of the assailant. There are many such stories that have become legends from the rural settings of early America. There is Frankie and Johnny, the Ohio Banks, Barbara Allen and many others where abandoned love and betrayal resulted in the death of the perpetrator. Having said that, I wish to give you my version of the meaning of this elusive tale.

It is obvious that I do not have special perceptions and what I am going to say is nothing more than my own opinion. It is not offered to contradict anyone else’s conclusions, to intrude on the sanctuary that may have been built in someone’s mind about this disturbing story, or to offend anyone in any way. It’s just my offer of what’s going on here.

I’ll get tangled up in the middle of the curls
Of my jet black hair,
The lilies so pale
and the roses so beautiful,
The myrtle so bright
With an emerald hue,
And the pale amanita
With bright blue eyes.

A girl is sitting, probably all together, in a wooded glen where she used to meet her lover, where she succumbed to her lies of love and marriage, and where she lost her virtue. The last line of verse 3 reveals that she is a frail girl and not of great physical beauty, but she does have some charms. She has raven-black hair, which she absentmindedly but aggressively twists between her fingers. The Song of Songs and other historical literature provide the basis for inferring that the lilies are her breasts. The roses are her glowing red cheeks, now not glowing with love and emotion as in verse 2, but now burning with anger and grief. The myrtle is the dark green lashes over her eyes and the pale amanita is the ghostly white face, colorless with anger and hatred (the hood of death), from which the bright blue eyes shine as if to make appear before she now in the glen. the scene that she is imagining in her mind.


I will sing and dance
My laugh will be joyful;
I will cease this wild cry –
drive away sorrow,
Though my heart is breaking now
he will never know
That his name made me tremble
And my pale cheeks to shine.

The girl has fought against anguish and pain until her tears dry. Now the desperate but futile hope that he will return to her has vanished. In her place a plan of revenge has begun to form. First of all, she needs to stop acting like she cares. She must come to the party, throw herself into the game with abandon, charm as many men as she can, and become the subject of discussion and the object of ambition. This will all be part of her plot to get back at him for what she has done to him, but he must never know. He had to make her believe that she didn’t care about him any more than he cared about her and that he was just another one of her affairs.


I will never think about him
I’ll be wildly gay
I will enchant every heart,
And the crowd I will sway,
I will live yet to see it,
Sorry for the dark hour
When he won, then he got careless,
The fragile wild flower.

Until the trap is ready to spring, you must put it out of your mind and stick to your plan. She’ll let her hair down and be the life of the party. She will play the role of lover to all the men she can charm. Why not? What is there for her to lose now? But this will be an act, not the true desires of her heart. The purpose is to make him jealous. Young people like him are selfish and possessive. The time will come when he will begin to wonder why he has walked away from her and will finally take the bait and return to her. When he does, his meeting place will not be the ballroom, but again the wild forest where he broke her heart and ruined his life. Her plan will succeed and he will return, but he will never leave her again. Once she has him in the power of his charms, the hood of death will wrap around him and take his life.


He told me he loved me
And promised to love
Through sickness and misfortune,
Everybody else upstairs
Another has won it;
Ah, misery to tell;
I keep quiet –
no parting words.

As the girl sits in the wild forest and contemplates her drastic plan, she begins to rationalize. It’s her fault; not hers. He told her that he loved her and she believed him or she would never have given herself to him. She spoke of love and lifelong commitment and was very compelling. She cruelly took her life and her future to satisfy her lust and greed. He shattered her dreams and high hopes of husband, home, and family, and then walked away from her without so much as a “goodbye.”


He taught me to love him
He called me his flower
that bloomed for him
All the brightest every hour;
But I woke up from my dream,
My idol was mud;
my visions of love
They have all vanished.

An intimate conjugal relationship is clearly indicated here. No girl needs to be “taught” how to have loving and caring feelings. The sweet intimacy that should have belonged only to his soul mate was given to this deceiver. He told her the things she wanted to hear. “She was what he had always wanted and what he lived for. She was her glorious wildflower that kept opening her biggest and brightest flower every hour.”

But then the dream faded in the harsh light of reality. It was all a lie. His wonderful idol was nothing more than a heap of dirt. He was gone, and with him her hopes for a happy future. He had killed her, and now she had a plot to get back at her. He was justified; what he had done to her, she would do to him.

Could this frail country girl really carry out her plan for revenge? Did her wild plan have any chance of succeeding? Was this another Frankie with a gun behind her back? Who knows? And for the narrative, it doesn’t matter. She is a crushed, abandoned, heartbroken country servant who has been used and discarded; and she is desperately trying to survive. She seeks to find some satisfaction for the wrong that has been done to her. She will make him pay; has to pay. If not otherwise, all of him has unfolded before her in the meadow this day as she sits as she was when she last saw him, twisting her jet-black hair tightly around her long white fingers and searching consolation in feelings of revenge.

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