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Emily Dickinson at the NYBG

A little Madness in the Spring

Is wholesome even for the King,

But God be with the Clown–

Who ponders this tremendous scene–

This whole Experiment in Green–

As if it were his own!

Emily Dickinson

Spring madness was in the air when I trekked to the New York Botanical Garden for the special exhibit Emily Dickinson’s Garden: Poetry in Flowers. Two rooms of the stunning Enid E. Haupt Conservatory were given over to interpretations of the gardens and Dickinson’s home, The Homestead, in Amherst.

While many of us have a vision of a slight, white clad woman quietly writing odd verses in her bedroom, seeing no one, Emily Dickinson’s early years were quite ordinary. She did not become reclusive until she was in her thirties. Her father was a prominent citizen of the town who served as treasurer of Amherst College for decades, as well as a state legislator and as a member of the U.S. Congress. The household was busy and engaged in the social life of the town.

Born in 1830 Emily, and her sister Lavinia, attended school at the Amherst Academy, and later attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Throughout her girlhood she suffered from health problems, and it was poor health that ended her attendance at Mount Holyoke after only a year.

In spite of her poor health, the family deaths that occurred while she was young, and the view of the Amherst cemetery from the Homestead’s windows, her life was not drenched in sorrow. Emily grew up in a busy family, in a handsome pale yellow house, amid flower and vegetable gardens and once declared, “I was reared in a garden, you know.”

In fact she studied botany, and when she was only 11 she began putting together an herbarium that ultimately included 400 plants, each labeled and identified with its proper Latin name. A beautiful facsimile of this herbarium was created and published by Belknap Press of Harvard University; the original resides in Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Dickinson gardened all her life, caring for roses, lilacs, tulips, zinnias, foxgloves, sweet Williams and poppies as well as all the bulbs that bloom in the spring. When the family was prosperous enough a small conservatory (now gone) was added to the house. Plantings there included a fig tree and other tender and exotic plants.

All these and more are included in the lush plantings in the Conservatory. I was particularly taken with the recreation of the well traveled path between The Homestead and The Evergreens, the house her brother Austin built for his family next door. Of course the Conservatory staff has the skill to bring flowers from a whole season into bloom at the same time, peonies with roses, delphiniums with foxgloves, columbine with morning glories.

Set among the plantings are little placards with appropriate poems including all the creatures that visit the garden including birds, and bees. Only 18 of Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime. It is only after her death that her sister found the little booklets in a drawer – the more than 1700 poems her sister had written and organized.

One of the poems set among the flowers shows a more positive feeling about fame than I ever imagined she possessed.

“Fame is a bee.

It has a song –

It has a sting –

Ah, too, it has a wing.

That poem strikes me as wistful, a peek at Dickinson imagining a different world for herself if she had found fame. Yet another poem with its black cawing crow presents a very different picture of fame and its consequences.

Fame is a fickle food

Upon a a shifting plate

Whose table once a

Guest but not

The second time is set

Whose crumbs the crows inspect

And with ironic caw

Flap past it to the

Farmer’s corn

Men eat of it and die.”

Fame did come to Emily Dickinson, but not until many years after her death in 1886.  She is now considered a major American poet. The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. By R.W. Franklin have been published by the Belknap  Press of Harvard. The exhibit in the Conservatory gives an idea of the joys and inspiration Dickinson found in the garden.

Nearby the Conservatory is a Poetry Walk with 30 Poetry Boards featuring some of Dickinson’s poems about flowers and the garden.

Dickinson's garden included vegetables

A further exhibit is on display in the NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library Gallery will showcase items reveal the context of her life. It should be noted that Jane Wald, Executive Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum is a key member of the Curatorial Team that put this exhibit together.

The exhibit will continue at the NYBG until June 13. On Saturday, June 12 from 10am to 6 pm visitors are invited to read their own favorite Dickinson poems aloud, and on Sunday, Judith Farr, author of  The Gardens of Emily Dickinson will give a talk about Dickinson’s Eden” at 4 pm.

Even if you can’t nip down to the exhibit, we have the Emily Dickinson Museum in our own backyard, and there is a whole raft of beautiful and fascinating books about Emily, her garden, and an imagined life in the novel I Never Came to You in White, also by Judith Farr.

*************************

One place to spruce up our own individual Edens, is the Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale next Saturday, May 22, from 9 am to noon at the Green at the corner of Main and Water   Streets. In addition to a wonderful selection of perennials, and annuals, the following vendors will be on hand: Nancy Dole Books; OESCO, Michael Naldrett’s photo notecards; Steve Earp’s pottery; and John Sendelbach’s garden art.

Between the Rows   May 16, 2010

2 comments to Emily Dickinson at the NYBG

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    What an interesting display. I will have to look for Judith Farr’s books since I can’t get there to see the garden.

  • Thank you for sharing this with us, Pat! I’ve always loved Emily’s poetry, and seeing this recreation of her garden makes me feel a little closer to her. I see we share some of the same tastes in plants, though I wish I could grow delphiniums like those! If I lived closer to your area, I would definitely make the time to see this exhibit.

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