Hidden Joy
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In Praise of Ambergris

Fumee d'Ambre Gris - John Singer Sargent
Ambergris
- by Stanley Kunitz -

This body, tapped of every drop of breath,
In vast corruption of its swollen pride,
Proclaims itself the very whale of death;
Yet, I believe, the hand that plumbs its side
Will gather dissolution's sweet increase.
Exquisite fern of death--in nature, ambergris.

Meanwhile, thinking of love, I have been dressed
For such destruction. Though it surely break,
Come pluck the deep wild kernel of my breast,
That wafer of devotion, and partake
Of its compacted sweetness, till it bring
The soul to rise upon its fleshly wing.

If gentle heart be scorned, in scorn of it
I shall immerse it in such bitterness,
Bathe every pulse in such an acid wit,
That from my mammoth, cold, and featureless
Event of age, my enemies will flee,
Whereas my friends will stay and pillage me.

From The Collected Poems by Stanley Kunitz, W. W. Norton & Co., 2000, p. 27.

---

Last week I received an email from perfumer Michael Storer, with whom I have had the pleasure of corresponding ever since I ordered several samples from his collection.  Michael is aware of my love of poetry and he forwarded me this Eighteenth Century epigram from Alexander Pope, likening praise to the fragrant material ambergris:

"For Praise is like ambergrize; a little unexpected Whiff of it... is the most agreeable thing in the world;  but when a whole lump of it is thrust to your nose, it is a Stink, and strikes you down."

Michael's missive couldn't have come at a better time; I'd been thinking about the concept of praise, what it does to the recipient and how it can shape or destroy a work of art in unexpected ways.  But what I found even more fascinating was that the theme of praise is often illustrated in poetry by alluding to the substance of ambergris.  For instance, in Andrew Marvell's "Bermudas" the poet quotes singers in a boat praising their Lord:

"What should we do but sing His praise
That led us through the watery maze,
Unto an isle so long unknown,
And yet far kinder than our own?
[...]
Proclaim the ambergris on shore ;
He cast (of which we rather boast)
The Gospel's pearl upon our coast,
And in these rocks for us did frame
A temple where to sound His name."

Seventeenth Century poet Robert Herrick invokes the praiseworthy qualities of ambergris in his poem "The Argument of His Book":

I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.

Oscar Wilde, in his "Canzonet":

Then pluck a reed
And bid me sing to thee,
For I would feed
Thine ears with melody,
Who art more fair
Than fairest fleur-de-lys,
More sweet and rare
Than sweetest ambergris.

Twentieth Century mystic and hedonist extraordinaire Aleister Crowley (who is alleged to have worn an ambergris perfume as an aphrodisiac) wrote a book of poetry entitled Ambergris, in which he described various divinities, including the Reaper: "She stood, the reaper, challenging a kiss;...the perfume of her skin was ambergris." He prefaced the volume with the following sarcastic note: "In response to a widely-spread lack of interest in my writings...this volume...is now submitted...with the fullest confidence that it will receive the same amount of acclamation as that to which I have become accustomed." We can infer he meant: none at all.

And the list of poetic ambergris references goes on.Ambergris

Incredibly rare and expensive, ambergris is the dried vomit of a sperm whale.  It occasionally washes up on beaches and supposedly stinks in large quantities; however, when properly tinctured it is an excellent fixative which makes fragrances last longer with a subtle, earthy, musky, velvety base scent.  Ambergris is the original "amber" for which all ambery fragrances are named.  According to a 2006 New York Times article:

During the Renaissance, ambergris was molded, dried, decorated and worn as jewelry. It has been an aphrodisiac, a restorative balm, and a spice for food and wine. Arabs used it as heart and brain medicine. The Chinese called it lung sien hiang, or “dragon’s spittle fragrance.” It has been the object of high-seas treachery and caused countries to enact maritime possession laws and laws banning whale hunting. Madame du Barry supposedly washed herself with it to make herself irresistible to Louis XV. (Kilgannon, Corey. "Please Let it Be Whale Vomit." New York Times, December 18, 2006).

Pomander It was ambergris that was typically carried by medieval and Renaissance persons in pomanders (pomme d'or) to ward off unpleasant smells. Cropwatch reports that ambergris was being traded by the Ninth Century in upper Africa, and in The Magical and Ritual Use of Perfumes, (Inner Traditions, 1990) Richard and Iona Miller write that ambergris was an important trade commodity since at least 1000 BCE, when Arabian traders began to export it to other lands for use in perfumery and as a food spice. (I hear that eggs scrambled with ambergris is still quite the delicacy.)  Herman Melville addresses the use of ambergris as food and ritual item in Moby Dick (1851):

The Turks use it in cooking, and also carry it to Mecca, for the same purpose that frankincense is carried to St. Peter's in Rome.... Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is....  Now that the incorruption of this most fragrant ambergris should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing? Bethink thee of that saying of St. Paul in Corinthians, about corruption and incorruption; how that we are sown in dishonor, but raised in glory. And likewise call to mind that saying of Paracelsus about what it is that maketh the best musk. Also forget not the strange fact that of all things of ill-savor, Cologne-water, in its rudimental manufacturing stages, is the worst." (Chapter 92, "Ambergris")

Sperm whales were hunted for the oil that their fat produced, but a lucrative side-product was the extraction of ambergris material from the whale's gut, furthering the endangerment and extinction of this animal.  These days, ambergris is legal to use and import, however, it is still extremely rare and strictly regulated in most countries.  A good deal of it is rumored to be traded on the black market.

Reading about it and smelling it in person are two separate events, though, and this week I finally had the opportunity to smell real ambergris for myself at last.  In the Austin home of a noted botanist and writer, I meet every two weeks with a group of friends for an informal workshop in natural perfumery and aromatic exploration.  This meeting place is for me a wondrous combination of science lab and magical treasure trove.  Our host has an astounding cache of books on perfumery, aroma materials, aromatics, tinctures, and fragrant doodads.  At the end of last week's session, I wondered aloud if heAngelique_encens had any "real ambergris" that I could smell.  Oh yes, he said. He pointed to a shelf lined with jars all filled with variously tinted liquids. 

Taking down the ambergris tincture and opening it for me to smell, he cautioned that I shouldn't expect anything from the raw tincture; he was right: it smelled like alcohol and nothing else.  We dipped a strip of blotter into the tincture and let it dry.  By the time I left his house, the ambergris had begun to bloom into a musky, slightly sweet aroma.  And after a day, the scent of that strip was utterly divine. 

Suddenly I could pick real ambergris out of the few fragrances I own that I know contain it: Creed Angelique Encens and Ambre Cannelle in particular.  I adore well-constructed amber fragrances; the best ones temper the sweet muskiness with unexpected complements.   Angelique Encens (created for Marlene Dietrich in 1933) contains notes of vanilla, Marlene Dietrich 1952incense, ambergris, jasmine of India and Bulgarian rose and is a "timeless and theatrical" smoky incense perfume with a warm ambery vanilla base.  It is among the most alluring and "adult" fragrances I own.

Ambre Cannelle (released in 1949) is a more masculine but no less beautiful blend of ambergris and cinnamon notes.  It is rich and has a vintage character - both soapy-clean and complexly "dirty," this is one of the most fascinating ambers I've tried, and along with Angelique Encens, one of the more uncharacteristically daring offerings from this old and venerable house.

The raw ambergris tincture that I smelled all alone on that blotter strip was so beautiful that I contacted a perfumery supplier and ordered a tiny amount of ambergris tincture for myself - not to make perfumes with or to wear - just so I'll always have the ability to smell it again. And I know that I will want to smell it again. Exquisite fern of nature, ambergris in this minute quantity is among the most praise-worthy things I have ever smelt.

But what of too much ambergris (fecal in a heap on the beach) and what, Mr. Pope, is too much praise?  I like to quote my favorite poet John Berryman on the matter in "Dream Song 340":

The secret is not praise.  It's just being accepted
at something like the figure where you put your worth
anywhere on this bloody earth...
...Of course, praise is nice too,
particularly when it comes to a stop.

I have frequently quoted Berryman on this subject because, for a long time, any praise was too much - it all smelled bad to me.  I had the strange misfortune of receiving early praise for my writing many years ago, and because I hated my work, I was unable to respect anyone who praised it.  Therefore, the world was wrong and I sank deeper into perfecting my own self-propelling critique mill.  As I work my way out of a long history of debilitating perfectionism, it gets a little easier to view praise positively and openly.  And it's probably not coincidental that it gets easier to praise others honestly.  No patronizing, no self-pity, no fluff.  No need to Be Someone, no need to shrink from the possibility of attention.  The clearer I try to be with myself, the easier is to afford others the same candor.

Here's to hoping that each of us, like whales in Stanley Kunitz's universe, leaves a body of thought behind that is worth pillaging.

--
Where to acquire raw/tinctured ambergris:

Poems and Literature:

  • "Ambergris" by Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) from The Collected Poems by Stanley Kunitz, W. W. Norton & Co., 2000, p. 27.
  • Quotation from Alexander Pope (1688-1744) from a letter written in 1725, quoted in Collected in Himself by Maynard Mack, University of Delaware Press, 1982
  • "Bermudas" [excerpt] by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) from The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900, via Bartleby
  • "The Argument of His Book" [excerpt] by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) via Humanities Web
  • "Canzonet" [excerpt] by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) via Online Literature
  • "The Reaper" [excerpt] from Ambergris by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), Ordo Templi Orientis, 1910, page 60
  • Chapter 92, "Ambergris", [excerpt] from Moby Dick by Herman Melville, 1851
  • "Dream Song 340" [excerpt] from The Dream Songs.  Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1969, p. 362

Images:

Posts prior to 2015 first appeared on my previous website, memory & desire (memoryanddesire.net).

Comments

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Wendy

I had never heard of Ambergris until recently when i came upon Natural Perfumery. I am from NZ and now living in Australia and have my Mum searching the NZ coastline for any small sample (or large) of Ambergris, its gotta be there somewhere.
Looking forward to using some in a blend of my own someday.
Thanks to the beautiful whales i say.

Heather

Anya: I do wonder that, particularly when I smell the wonder that is civet or castoreum in a well-tuned blend. These transformative essences certainly do stretch the imagination in every possible way.

Anya

There's enough ambergris around for everyone, Heather, don't hoard, enjoy, use with abandon!

The many modifications necessary to really achieve the perfect accords, then the perfect perfume are exemplified by the phrase Mandy Aftel coined for the Guild: Slow Scent. It all takes time, observation, and the ability to accept - or toss out - the end result.

You have to wonder who, in the lost passages of time, first discovered the uses for ambergris, from perfume, to tucking a piece in a lit candle, to putting it into wine and food. We're an odd and adventurous race, we humans.

Heather

Anya: Beautifully put! It's this exalting quality that I think Pope must have had in mind when he rewrote his phrase in a later poem, the "Essay on Man." This time, he likens ambergrise to wealth (not praise) with:

Wealth in the gross is death, but life diffused;
As poison heals, in just proportion used:
In heaps, like ambergrise, a stink it lies,
But well dispersed, is incense to the skies.
(source: Pope's "Essay on Man" at Fullbooks.com)

I think his point in the essay was that, properly used, wealth (like ambergris) is transformative. I imagine it's quite an alchemical experience to use ambergrise in a blend, knowing that sometimes one must go through a lot of modifications before the perfume is considered "final." Pope's poem is also, I think, a nice reminder not to hoard, which I know I will have a tendency to do with this beautiful tiny bottle of ambergris tincture.

Thank you very much for your visit and for your lovely comment. It's a pleasure to welcome you here.

Anya

Hello:

I find that in even a 3% dilution the scent of ambergris is quite pronounced and easily identifiable. My chunk ambergris, wrapped in muslin and stored in a wooden box (as is the custom) perfumes a huge cabinet with its soft, seductive scent.

Lovely soft scent or not, the beauty of ambergris lies not in its scent, rather in its ability of transform, smooth, exalt and serve as a setting for the notes in a perfume to marry.

It is my most treasured aromatic because it is elusive, addictive and magical.

Heather

Chaya: How great to see you here! I just received my ambergris tincture (3%) in the mail today from Perfumers Apprentice and it is all I hoped it would be: soft, subtle and mesmerizing. Fascinating to compare it to ambrox as well. When I smell these truly ancient essences I understand so much more about how and why we humans have been using perfume in our love/worship/grooming rituals since before we were even able to record our progress.

chayaruchama

Love this verse.

I was fortunate to receive a very attenuated tincture from a sweetie in Holland.
Even in extreme dilution- which this vial clearly was- it fascinates.

Heather

Rita: How interesting! I've never been to Australia or New Zealand but I imagine I'd want to give beachcombing for ambergris a swing, even though the odds are overwhelmingly against finding any. Sanctity, ambergris... very interesting.

Rita

Hi Heather, I spent more than a while searching in vain for ambergris at whalers bay in South Australia on my recent trip there. One can always hope... The Al Qurashi shop in London has some very expensive ambergris. It looks thick and oily and as you say only unfolds over time, but it is gorgeous. I asked the master natural perfumer George Dodd what he thought the odour of sanctity might smell like and he replied ambergris. Also a perfume sales assistant from Miller Harris in London told me how she became addicted to ambrox while working above the perfumery studio. Thankyou for another beautiful and fascinating article.

Heather

Suzanne: After reading your comment I dug out all my Creed samples. Right now I'm wearing Fleurs de Bulgarie on one arm and Fleur de The Rose Bulgare on the other arm. Both are suddenly much more beautiful and interesting than the last time I tried them on. I'm looking forward to experiencing their development on the skin over the next few hours. Thank you for reminding me of them! (P.S.: Your journal inspired me to order my own version of the olfactionary from Perfumer's Apprentice, with the ambergris added. Not that I wouldn't love to have the Le Labo kit too...!)

Suzanne

Hi Heather,

I have a teeny bottle of the Ambergris tincture that I got from The Perfumer's Apprentice last fall. I use it as a base to layer under perfumes that are too fleeting on my skin. You're right--there's not much of a smell when you inhale directly from the bottle, but it develops a very soft muskiness on the skin.

I know you don't like roses, but another Creed that has a nice amount of ambergris in it is Fleurs de Bulgarie. The ambergris is rather soapy in that one, but I like a bit of soapiness from time to time!

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