Where did the idiom, "shrinking violet," originate?
William Safire wrote that the earliest usage of the term "shrinking violet his researcher (Elizabeth Phillips) found was in the 1827 play, Sylvia, by George Darley. Fifteen pages into Darley's lyrical drama, Morgana, Queen of the Fairies, praises Floretta, Queen of the Flowers, for her kindness:
The shrinking violet thou dost cheer; and raise
The cowslip's drooping head: and once did'st cherish
In thy fond breast a snowdrop, dead with cold...
If Elizabeth Phillips could have searched Google Books, she would have found several earlier mentions of shrinking violets. In 1826, a poem by James Gates Percival, titled "The Perpetual Youth of Nature - A Soliloquy" was included in the book Miscellaneous Poems Selected from the United States Literary Gazette. Here is the relevant portion:
The wind is very low—
It hardly wags the shrinking violet,
Or sends a quiver to the aspen leaf,
Or curls the green wave on the pebbled shore...
A second reference to shrinking violets is found in "A Song Over the Grave of a Lover", in the same 1826 collection of poetry.
And I have sought
The lowly violet, that in shade appears,
Shrinking from view like young love's tender fears,
With sweetness fraught
And Dorothea Lynde Dix, in The Garland of Flora which was published in 1829, has a chapter about violets. From her collection of quotes about violets, I found an even earlier mention of the shy nature of violets (in Lalla Rookh by Thomas Moore, published in 1817).
While she who sung so gently to the lute
Her dream of home steals timidly away,
Shrinking as violets do in summer's ray...
Safire thought the violets might be shrinking from the still-wintry winds of an early spring, based on a bit of poetry by John Byrne Leicester Warren from 1893. However the phrase by Moore, "shrinking as violets do in summer's ray," predates Warren's use of the idiom by 75 years and suggests that violets were said to shrink from the heat of the summer sun.