In search of ‘grass’ in literature

Grass in literature

There’s an ancient proverb in China: “Plant one bamboo shoot, cut bamboo for the rest of your life.” Bamboo is the largest member of the grass family.


Papyrus sedge was beaten into strips to form the earliest know ‘paper’ for writing. According to Theophrastus (371-287BC), who wrote the earliest known history of plants, papyrus sedge ranged from North Africa to as far away as Syria. Theophrastus’ extensive works were recorded on papyrus scrolls.




Milton speaks of God dressing the naked earth in his vivid re-imagining of the biblical creation story, Paradise Lost:

…when the bare Earth, till then

Desert and bare, unsightly, unadorn’d,

[He] Brought forth the tender Grass, whose verdure clad

Her Universal Face with pleasant green…

(Book VII, 313-316)



In Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807), William Wordsworth celebrates ‘splendour in the grass’, by which he refers to the child’s retention of some memory of paradise. This state glorifies children’s existence on earth, something lost to distracted adults.


In Ruth, a novel of seduction by Elizabeth Gaskell (1853), Jemima learns of Ruth’s illicit relationship and the truth surrounding the birth of Ruth’s son: “The diver, leaving the green sward, smooth and known…down in an instant in the horrid depths of the sea, close to some strange, ghastly, lidless-eyed monster, can hardly more feel his blood curdle at the near terror than did Jemima now.” The grassy bank represents safety, innocence; the lidless-eyed monster, the way the 19th Century viewed sex.


The title of Walt Whitman’s celebration of nature and the human body, Leaves of Grass (1855), was intended as a pun. “Leaves” is another word for the pages on which the poem is written, and “grass” was used by publishers of the day to refer to works of insignificance.


Because of blight, drought, grasshopper plagues, debt, and other troubles, Isak Dinesen was forced to sell her coffee farm in Africa. Her lover, Denis Finch-Hatton, was due for a farewell lunch but failed to arrive. She learned later that his plane crashed outside the city of Voi and he was killed. Because she and Finch-Hatton once spent lovely days in the Ngong Hills, Dinesen buried him there among the waving grasses. Later, years after her return to Europe, she heard from friends that a lion and a lioness had been frequently seen sitting on his grave. (Dinesen writes of this episode in her memoir, Out of Africa, first published in 1937.)


In A Thousand Plateaus (1980), the second part of their work Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari borrow the concept of a thousand plateaus from a Balinese Tantric tradition signifying a non-climactic orgasmic field. They reject hierarchical (or ‘arborescent’) organisation, which is vertical and linear, in favour of ‘rhysomatic’ organisation, which they see as being horizontal and therefore having the possibility for more connections. (I’m not kidding.)


Meanwhile, in a marijuana fog, Grady Tripp, the hero of Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys (1995), broods about love and literature while he does just about everything possible to mess up his life. Getting high on pot, he says, “makes me feel like everything already happened five minutes ago.” Everything, that is, but growing up.


Mark O’Flynn gives us strange, mentally disabled Edgar, who collects dogs. When the dogs find the corpse of a man, Edgar is arrested for the murder. In Grassdogs (2006), the harrowing experience of prison life is contrasted with the wild, and often dangerous, freedom of the Australian landscape.


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