‘Listen to the girl/ as she takes on half the world / moving up and so alive / in her honey-dripping beehive’
—The Jesus and Mary Chain
My Grandmother, who spent the first part of her childhood in India, always described the air there as being like honey: a heat so intense it seems to trap you in syrup. So, as the the ‘heatwave’ of this unexpected British summer – and thirty degrees in London is an event, whatever our bemused continental cousins think – makes sitting in the un-air-conditioned office I’m interning in feel increasingly like being slowly caramelised to death, my Grandmother’s favourite phrase is at the forefront of my mind. She isn’t alone in making this connection, either: honey and the sun, and honey and heat, have a long and prolific analogical relationship that goes deeper than their shared golden hue. Sunshine (and its serotonin-boosting vitamin D) is inherently linked with happiness, and honey is superficially widespread shorthand for the sweet and good. This is explained to an extent, of course, by honey’s actual properties. Full of anti-oxidants, honey is recognised as a Very Good Thing (particularly Manuka honey, which had alleged healing properties some people swear by, going some way to explaining its £11 price tag in my local Sainsbury’s) and it is one of the few homeopathic remedies that has some actual benefit: it can be used as an effective burns treatment, or to aid recovery after cardio-vascular surgery. So far, so wholesome, but our more abstract uses of honey don’t stop there: the more you think about the various contexts in which we use it as a metaphor or a comparison, the more it becomes clear that honey has deeper, more complex associations stemming from centuries of literature in which it is explored in myriad, protean terms.
For Shakespeare, that little-known English poet, honey is a property of summer, and in Sonnet LXV the two intertwine as the antithesis of mortality and ‘time’s decay’: ‘ O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out / Against the wreckful siege of battering days’. Placed as it is within a sonnet sequence preoccupied with the ephemeral sweetness of youth and beauty, honey here becomes as bittersweet a concept as, particularly for inhabitants of the rain-soaked British Isles, the brilliant sunshine of a summer day, a concept rooted farther back than Shakespeare. ‘The Land of Milk and Honey’ in the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible refers to Israel, but the fourteenth century poem ‘The Land of Cockayne’ creates a decidedly irreverent variation on the holy scripture: this idyllic land is full of sweet things, with rivers flowing with ‘oile, melk, honi and wine’ and cheerfully erotic visions of monks merrily spanking the rounded bare buttocks of nuns. All Edward Lear’s similarly irreverent Owl and Pussycat need in their new pastoral life is ‘honey and plenty of money,’ and even the more serious contemplators of the pastoral dream seem to link honey with the bounty of the land, a culinary equivalent of the restorative rays of the sun. In Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, arguably the birthplace of pastoral literature, the very trees exude ‘sweet honey-dew.’ Indeed, honeyed imagery has become a persistent part, too, of the increasingly blunted, cosy embodiments of pastoral unrealities in literature, from the endearing sweetness of A.A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh’s taste for the stuff to Rupert Brooke’s nauseatingly saccharine celebration of Cambridgeshire ruralities: ‘and is there honey yet for tea?’
The innocent façade of honey, however, provides a jumping-off point into more adult terrain. Used as a term of endearment it’s often merely a quick absent-minded nod to intimacy, or a cringe-inducing display of dependency, but it also skims the surface of a deeper accumulation of connotations. Sweetness and sex are not uncommon bedfellows, and particularly in poetry and music honey is associated with sexual desire or intercourse itself, as is perhaps the most succinctly summed up by Langston Hughes’ playful poem Harlem Sweeties, Hughes’ ‘Brown sugar lassie, / Caramel treat, / Honey-gold baby / Sweet enough to eat,’ echoing hundreds of musical tributes to girls and boys that taste like caramel. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Just Like Honey’ and the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ follow this sticky trail, with Camera Obscura, Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty but a few of the artists who have returned to honey imagery more than once in a musical tribute to a lover; although of course (fuck the haters) the seminal work of the genre is indisputably Billie Piper’s ‘Honey 2 the B.’
D.H Lawrence, never one to be left behind in the verbalisation of the erotic, uses honey repeatedly in his descriptions of sex, linking it to the half-idealised, half-violent natural world he obsesses over and to the idea of light and warmth: in ‘Cruelty and Love/ Love on the Farm’ he talks first about the ‘golden light’ of the warm evening before writing his protagonist’s lover as a honey bee, a ‘sun-lit flirt’ who eventually ‘her bright breast she will uncover / And yield her honey-drop to her lover,’ the light and the honey of the image consistently wedded together. Honey has always had a hint of the illicit about it in its association with sex, particularly with the female body: from Sappho to the Bible (‘Your lips distil nectar, my bride; / honey and milk are under your tongue’, the Song of Solomon) to Shelia Delaney’s ‘A Taste of Honey’ there is a clear and evolving link with female sexuality. Tony Harrison’s first Curtain Sonnet, ‘Guava Libre,’ beats this old gold into new shapes: its opening stanza, full of ‘clitoridectomies’ and ‘vulva mummified’ finishes with the delight of the smooth and completely charming ‘the honeyed yoni of Eurydice/ and I am Orpheus going down again.’
Harrison’s use of Orpheus returns us again to the almost triangular link between honey, sex (or love, depending on who you’re talking to) and music that seems to be a key factor in our fascination with honey as a comparative. Honey in Latin is simply ‘mel,’ a word immediately, obviously related to music and subsequently lyric poetry, itself often associated with expressions of love. Several writers and theorists have used honey in their thinkings on poetry: Ezra Pound talked of the melody in poetry with his theory of melopoeia, whilst Northrop Frye distilled the matter of melos (the way lyric sounds) and opsis (the way it looks) to the ridiculous, charming ‘babble’ and ‘doodle,’ and Rosalie Collie contrasted the mel of love poetry with the tart sal, or salt, of epigram.
So, even in writing that attempts to analyse the very way we use language, honey is returned to almost as a concept in its own right rather than a metaphor. This notion of honey as a linguistic characteristic has an illustrious history: ‘mellifluous,’ meaning sweet or pleasing to the ear, has strengthened the ties between honey and lovely language since the early fifteenth century. As ever, Shakespeare has a lot to answer for in the embedding of this into our collective consciousness. Shakespeare himself was referred to as ‘mellifluous and honey-tongued’ by Francis Meres in 1598, who later urged people towards Shakespeare’s ‘sugared sonnets,’ and throughout his collected works honey is a sign of linguistic skill. This is not, however, necessarily an innocent one: in the very first scene of Henry V we hear the reformed Prince Hal’s skilled politic rhetoric described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as ‘sweet and honey’d sentences,’ but this, as with Paulina’s declaration in II.ii of The Winter’s Tale ‘if I prove honey-mouth’d let my tongue blister’, suggests a potential for duplicity and corruption within the smoothness.
Honey, then, is incredibly evocative, and constantly shifting in its relation to us and what we choose to use it for, both literally and metaphorically. Perhaps this is unsurprising—and only the natural heightened symbolism and importance that belongs to a substance that looks like liquid gold and is made from flowers. But either way the fact remains that for us, throughout history, honey has remained as simultaneously suggestive and curiously undefinable as the liquefied, heavy air of a summer evening.