The Wild Wood Flower – A Great American Classic, But What Does it Mean?

I’ll twine ‘mid the ringlets

Of my raven black hair,

The lilies so pale

And the roses so fair.

Without argument one of the most charming, intriguing, and captivating of all early American folk poems and songs is The Wildwood Flower. Its haunting tale has arrested the fascination and loyalty of untold thousands. A major feature of its fascination and holding-power lies in the fact that it is a riddle that has never been solved. Clearly, as the poem unfolds, the Wildwood Flower is a jilted girl, but what is the meaning of the other metaphors and symbols built into this classic? 

As the heartbroken lover sits alone in the wooded vale that was once their trysting place, she winds the locks of her raven black hair purposefully around her fingers. That image is clear enough but then the lyric becomes vague. Are the lilies flowers of the glen or are they a metaphor for something else? And what are the meanings of the roses, the myrtle, and the pale amanita with bright blue eyes? To the discerning reader or listener is evident that something other than the literal is intended here. The amanita is a deadly poison toadstool known as the Death Hood. It does not have bright blue eyes. And what can be said about the rest of the lyric? Is it simply a lament and a fantasy to try to comfort herself in her heartbreak and loneliness; or is it the revelation of a clever plot to take revenge on this opportunistic swain who has compromised her and then lost interest?

I am going to offer some thoughts as to what this fascinating tale says to me but before I do I want to preface it with some realities about the times in which this occurred, and these kinds of situations. In the lonely backwoods of early America opportunities for romance and a future did not come around that often. Beside that, in the times in which this poem was written, a girl who had lost her virtue had a greatly reduced chance of finding marriage and happiness with a respectable man. Lying to a young woman, telling her you loved her, seducing her, and then going off and leaving her was virtually a death sentence. The hatred and vengeance that eventually emerged from these numbing heartbreaks often resulted in the death of the offender. There are many such stories that have caught on as legends from the rural settings of early America. There is Frankie and Johnny, the Banks of the Ohio, Barbara Allen, and many others where jilted love and betrayal resulted in the death of the perpetrator. That having said, I wish to give you my version of the meaning of this elusive tale. 

It is obvious that I possess no special insights and what I am going to say is nothing more than my own opinion. It is not offered to contradict the conclusions of anyone else, to intrude into the sanctuary that may have been built up in anyone’s mind about this haunting story, or to in any way offend anyone. It is just my offering as to what is taking place here.

I’ll twine ‘mid the ringlets

Of my raven black hair,

The lilies so pale

And the roses so fair,

The myrtle so bright

With an emerald hue,

And the pale amanita

With eyes of bright blue.  

A girl is sitting, probably in the all-together, in a wooded glen where she used to meet with her lover, where she succumbed to his 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 a great physical beauty, but she has some charms. She has raven black hair which she is absently but aggressively twisting around her fingers. The Song of Solomon and other historic literature lay the foundation for inferring that lilies are her breasts. The roses are her glowing red cheeks, not glowing now because of love and excitement as in verse 2, but in this instance burning with anger and hurt. The myrtle is the dark green lashes over her eyes and the pale amanita is the ghostly white face, colorless with rage and hatred (the death hood), out of which bright blue eyes are blazing as if to make appear before her now in the glen the scene that she is envisioning in her mind.


I’ll sing and I’ll dance,  

My laugh shall be gay;  

I’ll cease this wild weeping – 

Drive sorrow away,  

Tho’ my heart is now breaking,  

He never shall know  

That his name made me tremble  

And my pale cheeks to glow.  

The girl has struggled with heartbreak and hurt until her tears are dry. Now the desperate but futile hope that he will return to her has faded. In its place a plan for revenge has begun to form. First of all she must stop acting as if she cares. She must come to the party, throw herself with abandonment into the game, charm every man whom she can, and make herself an item of discussion and an object of ambition. All of this will be a part of her plot to get even with him for what he has done to her but he must never know it. He must be made to believe that she cared no more about him than he did about her and that he was just another of her flings.


I’ll think of him never –

I’ll be wildly gay,  

I’ll charm ev’ry heart,  

And the crowd I will sway,  

I’ll live yet to see him,  

Regret the dark hour  

When he won, then neglected,  

The frail wildwood flower.  

Until the trap is ready to spring she must put him out of her mind and apply herself to her plan. She will let her hair down and be the life of the party. She will play the lover to every man whom she can charm. Why not? What is there for her to lose now? But this will be an act, not the real desires of her heart. The purpose is to make him jealous. Such young men as he are selfish and possessive. The time will come when he will begin to wonder what he has walked away from and he will eventually take the bait and come back to her. When he does, their meeting place will not be the dance hall but again the wild wood glen where he broke her heart and ruined her life. Her plan will succeed and he will come back, but he will never leave her again. Once she has him in the power of her charms the death hood will engulf him and take his life from him.


He told me he loved me,  

And promis’d to love,  

Trough ill and misfortune,  

All others above,  

Another has won him;  

Ah, misery to tell;  

He left me in silence –

no word of farewell.  

As the girl sits in the wild wood and contemplates her drastic scheme, she begins to rationalize. It is his fault; not hers. He told her loved her and she believed him or she would never have given herself away to him. He spoke of love and lifelong commitment and he was so convincing. He callously took her life and future to fulfill his lust and greed. He shattered her dreams and grand hopes for husband, home, and family, and then walked away without so much as a “goodbye.”


He taught me to love him,  

He call’d me his flower  

That blossom’d for him  

All the brighter each hour;  

But I woke from my dreaming,  

My idol was clay;  

My visions of love  

Have all faded away.  

Clearly an intimate conjugal relationship is indicated here. No girl needs to be “taught” how to have feelings of love and endearment. The sweet intimacy that ought to have belonged to her soul mate alone 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 his glorious wildwood flower that kept opening out its blossom bigger and brighter each hour.”

But then the dream vanished in the harsh light of reality. It was all a lie. Her marvelous idol was nothing more that a pile 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 even. It was justified; what he had done to her, she would do to him.

Could this frail country girl actually carry out her plan for vengeance? Did her wild scheme have a chance of success? Was she another Frankie with a pistol behind her back?  Who knows? And for the narrative, it does not matter. She is a crushed, jilted, and heartbroken country maid who has been used and cast aside; and she is trying desperately to survive. She seeks to find some satisfaction for the wrong that has been done her. She will make him pay; he has to pay. If in no other way, it has all played out before her in the meadow this day while she sits as she was when she saw him last, twists her raven black hair forcefully around he long white fingers, and seeks consolation in feelings of revenge.