Assia's Dior: A Mystery
The Occasional Pie

The Violet Hour


Ode to a Cluster of Violets
- by Pablo Neruda -

Crisp cluster
plunged in shadow.
Drops of violet water
and raw sunlight
floated up with your scent.
A fresh
subterranean beauty
climbed up from your buds
thrilling my eyes and my life. 

One at a time, flowers
that stretched forward
silvery stalks,
creeping closer to an obscure light
shoot by shoot in the shadows,
till they crowned
the mysterious mass
with an intense weight of perfume
and together
formed a single star
with a far-off scent and a purple center.

Poignant cluster
of nature,
you resemble
a wave, or a head of hair,
or the gaze
of a ruined water nymph
sunk in the depths.
But up close,
in your fragrance’s
blue brazenness,
you exhale the earth,
an earthly flower, an earthen
smell and your ultraviolet
in volcanoes’ faraway fires. 

Into your loveliness I sink
a weathered face,
a face that dust has often abused.
You deliver
something out of the soil.
It isn’t simply perfume,
nor simply the perfect cry
of your entire color, no: it’s
a word sprinkled with dew,
a flowering wetness with roots. 

Fragile cluster of starry
tiny, mysterious
of marine phosphorescence,
nocturnal bouquet nestled in green leaves:
the truth is
there is no blue word to express you. 

Better than any word
is the pulse of your scent.

from Odes to Common Things, translated by Ken Krabbenhoft, Bullfinch Press, 1994

Note: This article began during a conversation with fellow writer Michelle Krell Kydd and serves as a companion piece to her Violet Pleasures in Food and Drink at Glass Petal Smoke.

Wolber_wild_violetsI've heard there's a thin line between love and hate, but for as long as I can remember, I have hated violets.  I hate them so much it's hard to locate exactly what I hate about them anymore.  Even more than the flower itself, I hate the scent of violets with their powerful burnt sweetness.  To me, fragrances in which violets are the center are the powdery ash of martyrs who have died at the stake, shrieking.  They are the whimpers of every man and woman who has lived a subservient life in the shade of some greater power.    They are the "nice" people staring absently into a space inhabited by dust mites on plastic.  Violet perfumes are outdated confections being dropped into misshapen, odorous mouths.  Yes, I smell all that in a violet. Plus, I smell my occasionally mean-spirited and not always freshly-washed grandmother wearing way too much cheap perfume in her advanced age.  And I smell my father's anger at her, and my mother's love and frustration, and my own adolescent hatred of everything inside that house and beyond it.

Violets can't really win with me. The dice have been loaded against them. 

So it was with an almost unspeakable fear that I read, for the first time, Pablo Neruda's superb "Ode to a Cluster of Violets," which was sent to me by fellow writer and friend Michelle Krell Kydd, of Glass Petal Smoke.  Michelle and I met this January during my vacation in and around New York City, and as we enjoyed one extraordinary dish Pablonerudaafter another at the sensational Vietnamese restaurant Boi, she mentioned that she was considering using several lines from Neruda's lovely ode in a forthcoming article.  She asked if I'd be interested in exploring the poem as well, and I immediately agreed.  I've loved Neruda's poetry for years, but was not familiar with this particular work and I was delighted to have the opportunity to explore a theme in tandem with Michelle.  For Michelle's beautiful article on Violet Pleasures in Food and Drink, please visit Glass Petal Smoke.

I knew, though, that I would be challenged in certain insurmountable ways. I don't think I mentioned my hatred of violets to her exactly, but I'm glad that I didn't because if I had passed on this poem, I would have missed all the adventures in violetness of the last week, and--this is no exaggeration--I have come to understand some things about myself through Neruda's poem and through it, I've found the courage to re-explore the violet perfumes in my collection:  from the legendary 1906 Guerlain classic Apres L'Ondee, to the "miraculous" 1992 Serge Lutens/Christopher Sheldrake masterpiece Bois de Violette and Caron's sugary disaster, Aimez-Moi.

Subterranean BeautyProserpine

In Ovid's telling of the kidnapping of Persephone/Proserpine, violets were among the sweet flowers Hades used to draw his victim away from her companions (translation by A. S. Kline, 2000):

"While Proserpine was playing in this glade, and gathering violets or radiant lilies, while with girlish fondness she filled the folds of her gown, and her basket, trying to outdo her companions in her picking, Dis [Hades], almost in a moment, saw her, prized her, took her: so swift as this, is love. The frightened goddess cries out to her mother, to her friends, most of all to her mother, with piteous mouth. Since she had torn her dress at the opening, the flowers she had collected fell from her loosened tunic, and even their scattering caused her virgin tears."

In the very first stanza, Neruda dazzles us with mythology as Persephone, the archetypal subterranean beauty, climbs up through the roots and stalk of this tiny plant, bringing sunlight back from the soil in drops of violet water.  Proserpine/Persephone is not the only subterranean beauty associated with the violet, however.  In Greek, the word for violet is "Io."  Fragrance enthusiasts will recognize this as the root of the word ionone, which is the chemical name for synthetic violet fragrance.  Io was a nymph upon whom Zeus focused his amorous advances.  To protect Io from his wife Hera's wrath, Zeus transformed Io into a heifer and caused sweet violets to spring up where she grazed. (Hera, unassuaged, eventually caused the heifer Io to be driven into foreign lands, lending her name to the Ionian sea as well as to the volcanic moon of Jupiter.)

Aimez_moi I don't know about other fragrance enthusiasts, but there's nothing about being turned into a wandering heifer by a lover with a jealous wife that really makes me want to smother myself in violets, but there is certainly that smothering quality in Caron's Aimez-Moi (Love Me), one of the first violet fragrances I ever owned, and one that I almost immediately resold.  It was a heartbreaker, because I'd bought it unsniffed based on the enthusiastic reviews of others.  I didn't know at that time that violet was what I associated with all those unpleasant things I mentioned at the beginning, but on my first spray of Aimez-Moi I was almost sick with disappointment.  There is a burnt plastic note in Aimez-Moi that, no matter how lightly I apply, sticks in the back of my throat for far too long.  It was the first and last full bottle of a violet-themed perfume I have ever bought.

Ruined Sea NymphClytie

Despite their easy cultivation in shady, moist environments, violets are heliotropic: their flowers turn toward the light. Ovid tells the tale of the first violet in Metamorphoses, Book Four (translation via The Human Flower Project): The sea nymph Clytie was so besotted with Apollo (Helios) that she could not tear her eyes away from him as he rode his daily chariot across the sky. Somehow, in all this ceaseless watching, she managed to catch him in an affair with the daughter of a Babylonian king.  Enraged with jealousy, Clytie told the king of his daughter's impropriety, which caused the king to murder his daughter and bury her underground, far from the eyes of sunny Apollo.  Clytie continued to burn with passion and eventually spread out into the ground, her face turning purple, constantly facing the sun.

"Her limbs caused her to cleave to the ground,
A wan pallor transposing her into bloodless petals.
In part, she was flushed red and a violet concealed her face.
Thus she, whom roots held, turns always to the Sun.
Now she watches over him, having been transformed for the sake of love."
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by Ariel Singer)

The sadness of unrequited love is a concept I can easily connect to the fragrance of violets.  Luca Turin finds in the violet's smell "a peculiarly poetic combination of warm, sweet, floral, and woody notes...a Apres_londeemixture of delicacy and brutality which, to my mind at least, is an allegory of childhood love." (The Secret of Scent, HarperCollins, 2006, p. 62). 

It is through Luca's description of the "poetic combination" within violets that I can finally appreciate the legendary Apres L'Ondee, created by Jacques Guerlain in 1906. Apres L'Ondee (After the Rain Shower) is singularly beautiful in its simplicity.  It evokes the "word sprinkled with dew, a flowering wetness" of Neruda's Ode and at the same time seems ghostly and slightly sad.  Violets in perfume have been out of fashion for some time, but Apres L'Ondee was created when they were well-beloved, and it is one of the few remaining fragrances that I know of which displays the violet with both confidence and restraint.  In her review of the fragrance, Victoria of Bois de Jasmin describes it eloquently:

"Après l'Ondée ... seems like a radiant and exquisitely graceful composition, and yet there is the suggestion of a brooding darkness hiding in its opulent layers....Its bittersweet beauty captures the nostalgia that I felt and could not express. Like the memory of a first kiss, it was innocent and tender. It was born in 1906 during the joie de vivre of the Belle Époque with its vibrant art and social movements. It was a year when the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt still reigned supreme on stage; when Pablo Picasso was paid the enormous sum of 2,000 francs for thirty canvasses; when the Dreyfus Affair exposing French anti-Semitism came to an end and when Paul Cézanne, the father of modern art, passed away after being caught in a rainstorm…" (November 21, 2006)

Something Out of the Soil

In The Secret of Scent (p. 62) Luca Turin notes that even though the structure of ionone (violet fragrance) and irone (iris root fragrance) are very similar, the difference between their fragrances is "huge but subtle."  To me, there is a very clear resemblance: both smell earthy but with a slightly different soil compositon.  While iris tends toward "frosty luxury," violets exude something that is rich and humid, a kind of turned-earth smell within a floral smell that, to some, is uniquely appealing. Bois_de_violette For me, this dense richness is part of the problem, for the sweetness of violets is unrepentant and threatens constantly to break out into full-blown decay.  One of the few perfumes I have ever worn that seems to halt this side of violet is the much-beloved Bois de Violette, created by Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake in 1992.

Bois de Violette is a dark fragrance, as dark as violet, but the violet in this case is foiled by a masterful dose of cedar.  And therein lies the magic.  Again quoting Luca Turin (this time from the website for the forthcoming Perfumes: The Guide) "I remember stepping out of Lutens’s purple shop into the perpetually quiet walled gardens, armed with this purple smell with a purple name, thinking I was carrying the most precious object in the world." In the hands of Sheldrake and Lutens, violet "exhales the earth / an earthly flower, an earthen /smell" as in Neruda's poem, and it does even more than that.  It conjures not just the forest floor but the forest itself.  It seems to me almost that the perfumers could have been inspired by Neruda's lines:

Into your loveliness I sink
a weathered face,
a face that dust has often abused.

Into the loveliness of violet flowers and soft, green violet leaves, they plunged cedar, and back into the warmth of cedar they poured dusty, nostalgic violet.

It isn't simply perfume,
nor simply the perfect cry
of your entire color ...

Neruda also tells us something about the structure of the violet earlier in the poem.  A ground-covering, creeping plant, it can be considered difficult to control once its root system is well-established.  Unchecked, it will create a "mysterious mass" that will grow best in shady areas. Parma violets are grown in shade of Mediterranean olive trees, constantly creeping toward an "obscure light." And Neruda hasn't forgotten: Io, the fiery volcanic moon orbiting Jupiter, continues to churn its mass of rock and "faraway fires," unable to escape the pull of its gravity.

The Pulse of Your Scent

Neruda's final lines allude to one of the most mysterious qualities of the violet: it's ghostly "pulse." Like the periodicity of a volcano, of a heartbeat, of breath being drawn and exhaled, violets cannot be smelled constantly, only in intervals.  Jeanne Rose explains it beautifully in 375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols (Frog, Ltd: 1999):

"The scent of Violet flowers is very evanescent, and as soon as you are able to detect the fragrance, it disappears.  What happens is the scent paralyzes the nasal cilia so that they are unable to detect scent. One has to walk away from the Violet and come back to it to be able to experience once again this very particular fragrance." (p. 156)

I wanted very much to experience this mystical effect and went on a field trip to several local floral shops looking for violets.  One after the other, violets were presented to meNine_violets and much as I inhaled, I could smell nothing resembling the sweet, warm fragrance that they personify in perfumes.  Not just a come hither/go away flash of fragrance; nothing.  Well, not nothing: I could smell the dirt, the slightly bitter/metallic leaves (which smell like freezer burn to me) and nothing else.  No powdery candy, no oozing purple toothache, not even an old lady digging in a garden.  Suddenly, realization struck: I am anosmic to violets! I can't smell them at all!

And then, just a few days later,  I read this on page 176 in Edwin T. Morris' Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel (Scribner, 1984): 

"North Americans are often mystified by the "violet" odor because their common violet (Viola canadensis) is odorless; the scented Parma violet can only grow in a Mediterranean climate."

So...not anosmic, just North American.   I thought it was poetic to have been hating all these years something I couldn't actually smell at all.  It would have been so much easier to just go on hating it.  But Neruda has now come between me and my hate and I'm not sure I can understand my experience of violets in the same way as before.  I doubt I will ever come to love the note itself but I am able to experience it now with a depth of curiosity that I did not have when I was operating with only my preconceived biases.  This is the magic of learning for me, of learning to love -- to go beyond my own vivid imagination and be connected with the universe beyond.  As Neruda said, "the truth is / there is no blue word to express you."

It is ultimately task of the artist to enable the voyeur to experience life more deeply, to understand one's inner workings and surroundings in a way that adds meaning and value to one's existence.  Art embeds itself in the onlooker and becomes a real, functioning part of the subject's psyche. Today, I wore a dab of  Apres L'Ondee on one arm and a little Bois de Violette on the other.  I did not fall in love with them, I have loved them only for their stature in the history of perfumery.  But perhaps Neruda has given me the means to learn to cultivate a relationship with these strange violets.  I understand for the first time the greater meaning of a poignant quote attributed to Mark Twain:

"Forgiveness is the scent the violet releases upon the heel that has crushed it."

And now that I think of it, my grandmother probably bathed in cheap perfume because she had scores of grandchildren who gave her cheap perfume every birthday Christmas. I remember picking out the Chantilly myself. 



"Ode to a Cluster of Violets" appears in Odes to Common Things, bilingual edition translated by Ken Krabbenhoft and beautifully illustrated by Ferris Cook.  (Bulfinch Press, 1994)  This hardcover volume of poems is simply superb and shows the great depth and love with which Neruda viewed the "stuff" of the world around him.  No detail in this great poet's life went unnoticed. Pablo Neruda was awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize for literature


Photo of glass sculpture Violet Volcano by Epiphany Glass

Painting Wild Violets for Mother's Day by Paul Wolber

Photo of Pablo Neruda via Today in Literature

Painting Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rosetti via Liverpool Museums

Photo of Caron Aimez-Moi via

Detail of painting La Metamorphose de Clytie by Jean Francois de Troy via The Human Flower Project

Photo of vintage Apres L'Ondee bottle via Le Figaro

Photo of Bois de Violette via Salons-Shiseido

Collage of nine violets via Travis Violets

Posts prior to 2015 first appeared on my previous website, memory & desire (


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


wow I'm really impressive with the picture. its such beautiful picture !!!



(from Taiwan)


Wow, What a photo!

Liz (zz)

Yes, I agree. I have that book also. I like the way Luca approaches perfume. He doesn't romanticize, or politicize it. Just the facts mam. Arctander wrote much in the same way, minus Lucas dry humor.
Years ago I raised Parma Violets. I kept them indoors in window boxes. But unfortunately my cats liked them too, and were always chewing on them and pulling the little darlings out of their pots and dragging them around the house.
It is from that smell, and memory that I have been working from. I am tempted to try growing them again, (the violets). Because they are so lovely. But they don’t all smell exactly the same.
Not having the botanical names handy, there are several varieties and colors.
The potted plant African Violet, has no smell to speak of. And I believe that most folks, when thinking of violets are picturing those. Or those ubiquitous ground cover violets that grow wild here in the US. They have no smell either.


Liz I'm really looking forward to Domino, particularly because I feel I finally have a "way in" to violets that just wasn't there before. All this week I've been retesting violets (Lipstick Rose, DSH Violetta di Murano, and others) and am finding the process so much richer and more exciting. As soon as you have it online, a sample will find its way to my shopping cart. Luca Turin echoed your thoughts on bringing back violets in The Secret of Scent (page 62): "Violet smells are rare in perfumes nowadays...a victim of their own success [in an earlier generation]. Such is the Biblical curse visited on over-exposure that people whose parents are too young to have smelled the original violet fragrances still find the smell cheap, which it isn't. Its day will come back, probably soon."

Liz (zz)

I have been working on a violet perfume for awhile now. I love the smell of violets. and think them drop dead sexy. Complex and electric. Naughty and nice all at the same time.
A fragrance of violets need not be old fashioned, powdery or overly sweet.
Hopefully by putting a contemporary spin on an old idea, we will change some of the perceptions.
Love that poem too.


sweetlife To receive such a comment from you is particularly thrilling, and I'm very happy that you enjoyed it. I owe you a special debt of gratitude for encouraging me to greet my violet hatred head on and see where it would take me. And, as Dr. Seuss said, the places I've gone... I haven't tried Vert Violette yet but who knows... I never thought I'd even like half the things that I've learned to love through these excavations.

I once had a pot of live african violets for a while when I lived in Austria. (They were given to me as a gift.) They did surprisingly well (considering my blackest black thumb) but then all of a sudden one day they just gave up the ghost. Which probably just fed my hatred of violets further. I don't remember them having any smell at all though. I'd love to get the name of that nursery from you and see if I can go there and invoke the cilia-freezing spirit from a willing Parma plant.


vida Thank you very much for the lovely comment - I need to get some of those pastilles. I've looked at them in various stores and on the Web but as you can imagine, I never wanted anything violet-smelling to eat before now. I think, though, that I might seek them out the next time I'm in a place with some confectionery variety. Some of the fondest memories of my life are of France, but not of violets - of the sage and rosemary and herbs growing wild alongside the roads in Provence; of the seaweedy, salty, rocky ozonic air on the ocean after a storm.


Like Divina, I'll take this opportunity to tell you in public how stunning the Assia/Dior post was--I was speechless, clearly.

And I too, thoroughly enjoyed your excavation of your violet hatred. I thought that I disliked violets too, but I dug out my sample of L'Artisan's Vert Violette to wear while reading your wonderful essay and I can't imagine what I found objectionable about it before, unless it's simply that it is altogether too "sweet," not sugary, or syrupy, but uber-feminine, like face powder and lipstick. Still, I am thoroughly enjoying its transparence and find it much more "green" than my memory recalled.

I did once smell Parma violets, at a plant nursery in Austin. I bought them, but the sun promptly killed them off and I've never seen them again. They smelled quite similar to the L'Artisan rendition, but woodier, and without a trace of powder. I was mesmerized.


Your writing is so thought provoking and so well researched. It's nice to learn something new in such a beautiful format.

I love violets, for the very reason you hate them...grandmother! (well, at least the one I LIKED!) She always had violet pastille candies from France that I would stash in my little pockets (only to be scolded by my mother when they stained the laundry...) To me, the taste of France will always be violets!


Fragrantica - Hi there, and welcome! I enjoy Fragrantica, too, and have found it a fun and useful research tool (especially the "columns" section!) Your method of linking individual notes to visuals is novel. I've linked to you in the "Read & Research: Perfume" section and am happy to recommend your excellent site further.


We love your articles! They are always fresh and with insight. Allow us please to promote little fragrance pool we are running at

Our aim is to find out what the opposite sex prefers. We think that this experiment is an interesting one and that the results might be very diverse, but let us see.


Suzanne I've been saving up all my strength for Lipstick Rose. I have a problematic relationship with roses as well as violets, but there's something about LR that I love and I can't quite get my mind around it just yet. You're so right - it has a weird drawing power. I shouldn't like it at all... and yet... I want to put it on one day and realize that I can't bear to go without it. I'm very happy that you enjoyed the post about Assia. As a fellow book lover (Assia was, too), I hoped it would strike a chord for you.

Divina I think part of the North American perception of violets as old fashioned has to do with the fact that these violet fragrances really were much more popular in a time when the current generation did not yet exist. In those days, people tended to stick with one fragrance or within a fragrance concept (we're so much more polyamorous in our fragrance-loving these days) so when older people consistently wear a fragrance with a certain sweet, powdery smell that actually seemed young and fresh decades ago, we are bound to suffer for the association. Personally, I really enjoy "vintage"-smelling fragrances but I think that as a child, I must have been sitting too close in church to someone who wore a violet scent, and there it sticks in my head, a church memory of a little girl surrounded by very old people. I so wish I could love Aimez-Moi. Maybe I should really try it again... Has Neruda actually made me ready for that?


Beatiful, wonderful writing as always Heather! A joy to read.

As for me, even though I very much appreciate the way scent has cultural connotations, I always find myself perturbed that North Americans perceive the scent of violets as grandma-ish. (I first discovered this fact when I was reading Anansi Boys..) Thankfully the smell of violets has no such connotations for me. It is a scent I absolutely adore and Amaiz Moi is one of my favorites - I can't get enough of it when I wear it. (Btw, does the drydown bother you too? It changes dramatically as it develops)

To me violets hold beautiful, sunny memories..Playing in the garden of my paternal home and always being attracted to these little special blooms, stunned at how something so tiny could emit such a powerful scent.



I love the Neruda poem (especially his comparison of a cluster of violets to "the gaze of a ruined water nymph sunk in the depths"), and I love that you took on the challenge of trying to cultivate an appreciation for a fragrance note that has, at least up until now (and maybe still), aroused a certain amount of disgust.
I too find that violet can be rather plasticky in some fragrances, and it took me awhile to appreciate them, but now I rather like them in certain scents (the 1970s men's fragrance, Grey Flannel, where violet is paired with oakmoss) and in FM Lipstick Rose, where the violet gives a retro feel to the fragrance. Oddly enough, I thought Lipstick Rose smelled cheap when I first sniffed it, but I think it was the violet weirdness to it that kept drawing me back--and though it's not a scent I would wear often, there are days when I just crave it.

By the way (and changing subjects), I just wanted to tell you that your last post on Assia and Ted Hughes and the Dior perfumes was phenomenal!!

The comments to this entry are closed.