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.
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.
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.
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