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Emily Dickinson – Poet and Gardener

Emily Dickinson's flowers at NYBG exhibit

Emily Dickinson’s flowers at NYBG exhibit

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was born into a prominent Amherst family so everyone knew who she was. She attended the Amherst Academy and went on to the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (as it was called at the time) for a period before she went back home, to garden and write poetry. She was more known for her gardening than her poetry in those days; now she is more known for her poetry and her reclusiveness. In the spring of 2010 I experienced both at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) exhibit titled Emily Dickinson’s Garden – The Poetry of Flowers.

This exhibit presented Emily Dickinson as gardener and botanist as well as a poet, and the ways her observations of nature and love of flowers fed her poetry. The original garden was no longer in existence at the time of this exhibit but research and a close reading of her poems were the basis for recreating the gardens around the Dickinson house.

The exhibit also included a conservatory, a reminder of the small conservatory Emily’s father Edward built adjoining the dining room. Here were small placards with poems as well as some of the exotic houseplants that would have been sheltered in the conservatory.

Dickinson felt the appeal of flowers as a young girl and by the time she was 14 she had completed an herbarium, a collection of over 400 pressed and dried flowers, complete with proper botanical names, bound into a book. This was not an unusual pastime for a girl during those times, but it indicates the start of her knowledgeable approach to gardening. A printed facsimile of that herbarium was published, and Harvard University, where the book now lives, has made it available to the public online at https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:4184689$1i.

Tulips at NYBG Emily Dickinson exhibit

Tulips at NYBG Emily Dickinson exhibit

The NYBG exhibit was set up in the great Enid Haupt Conservatory and presented a section of the house exterior surrounded by garden beds separated by paths. The effect is that of a charming New England garden in spring with tulips, narcissus, forget-me-nots, primroses and lily of the valley blooming beneath lilacs, dogwoods and magnolias. In fact many of the plants in her garden were ground covers which run so quickly over the ground choking out weeds. There were occasional signs with names of flowers and appropriate poems.

          There I have ‘shares’ in Primrose “Banks” –         

          Daffodil Dowries – spicey “stocks” –

          Dominions – broad as Dew

          Bags of  Doubloons – adventurous Bees

          Brought me – from firmamental seas –

          And Purple – from Peru.

Grandpa Ott morning glories at NYBG Emily Dickinson exhibit

People may sometimes think of Dickinson as a difficult poet but I think this is a delightful poem touching on the way primroses and daffodils increase every year, and even the part bees play in the garden.

Another poem, an ode to a dandelion, one of my favorite flowers, celebrates spring just as I do when I see the first dandelion.

          The Dandelion’s pallid Tube

          Astonishes the grass –

          And Winter instantly becomes

          An infinite Alas –

          The Tube uplifts a signal Bud

          And then a shouting Flower –

                                                                 The Proclamation of the Suns

                                                                That sepulture is o’er.

By chance a book about her gardens, with garden tips, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens: A celebration of a poet and gardener by Marta McDowell, was given to me years ago. McDowell’s book concentrates on the garden, and the flower poems that quite clearly tell of Dickinson’s planting chores from planting seeds to harvesting of “grape – and Maize.” This is an excellent book attaching the realities of the garden to Dickinson’s poems.

Of course, in addition to gaining some insight into Emily Dickinson and her poetry, such exhibits and books supply a different kind of inspiration to us individually – plans for our own gardens. Nowadays, we can visit the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst and stroll through the gardens that have been designed and planted using knowledge of the plants that were originally in the garden, or likely to have been in the garden. In this high tech world visitors can bring their smart phone to the garden and connect to an audio tour as they follow the paths.

Dickinson’s garden was not an exotic garden and most of us will likely have at least a few of her flowers in our own gardens: violets, daisies, peonies, morning glories, marigolds, zinnias, asters, taking us from spring to fall. At the Museum we can even buy packets of seed collected from the gardens in the fall.

Zinnias at NYBG Emily Dickinson Exhibit

zinnias at Emily Dickinson exhibit held at NYBG

When I look at my own roses, morning glories and autumnal chrysanthemums I can imagine Emily, and the generations of other women that have come before me, wandering their garden paths, sometimes with poetry on their minds, sometimes simple appreciation of the loveliness of the flowers – and sometimes just checking off items on their to-do lists.

I wrote more about the Emily Dickinson/NYBG exhibit here

Between the Rows   January 20, 2018

8 comments to Emily Dickinson – Poet and Gardener

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    What a lovely post. This has inspired me to get out a book of her poems that I have to track down all of these garden poems. Fun.

  • Pat

    Lisa – I live very near the Emily Dickinson Museum and know one of the ED experts. Hers is a fascinating story – what we understand of it – and her poetry is beautiful and makes our brains work in different ways.

  • Yenna Yi

    A timely post of flowers and poetry.

  • Pat

    Yenna – I wonder if the 19th century provided a whole garden full of poetry calling on flowers to provide metaphors and a way of looking at the world “slant.”

  • Emily Dickinson has always been one of my favorite poets–thank you for this delightful post, Pat. I’d love to see the museum in Amherst one day.

  • Pat

    Rose – If you get to Amherst you have to alert me so we can meet. I’ll take you to t he Bridge of Flowers as well.

  • Great post.I love her poems.

  • Pat

    Chloris – The visit was wonderful in NYC – and writing about it reminded me it has been a while since I’ve visited the Museum and it is practically around the corner.

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