Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Little Garden Within: the Poet Emily Dickinson and Her Love of Flowers

I don't know if I'll ever get to Amherst, Massachusetts to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum, so instead, while I was in New York this week, I made a pilgrimage to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, where there was a wonderful exhibit pairing her poetry with many of the flowers and plants she grew in her garden. Known more as a prolific gardener than a poet in her day, Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 - May 15, 1886) often worked in her garden by moonlight. As she aged, she had problems with her eyes that made bright sunlight prohibitive.

Although it only took less than an hour to see the exhibit, what I value most from making the journey was simply enriching my connection to the poet. I read the 28 page Emily Dickinson's Garden: Poetry of Flowers catalog from cover to cover as I waited for my train back to Grand Central station. Various bits of trivia spoke to me. Her poems speak to me more and more every time I make the effort to read them. Some years ago, we had a wonderful minister at our Unitarian Universalist Church who we fondly referred to as the 'poetry preacher", and for several weeks a bunch of us met with Bruce Bode to read aloud and discuss Dickinson's poems. Of course the poems bore much inspection, and sometimes we'd spend as much as an hour on one short poem, falling completely under her spell.

Dickinson's mother was an avid gardener, and thus the poet spoke of being "reared in the garden." Her favorite flowers included roses (the most mentioned flower in her verse), daisies (I connect to this because the daisy is my mother's favorite flower), lilies, tulips, daffodils, jasmine (especially loved because of its fragrance), indian pipe, gentians and even the common dandelion. Like any good gardener of the Victorian age, she understood the language of flowers/floriography. She sometimes called herself "Daisy". The most common meaning attributed to daisies is innocence, interesting because in Dickinson we do see profound purity, yet it is paradoxically paired with a multi-layered, rich, dark, complicated wisdom and intelligence. For me, her deep rootedness to the earth couples with her light-as-air, far reaching acquaintance with the heavens, an inexplicable package of genius and inspiration.

As a young girl, Emily Dickinson kept a leather bound scrapbook of pressed flowers and plants identified as to genus and species, commonly known as a herbarium. In the winters, she gardened in a small conservatory her father added to their Homestead. She sent pressed flowers in her letters and inserted her poems (also known then as posies) into bouquets she gave to friends. She was a "lunatic on bulbs" and favored perennials over annuals, though her garden was known to include nasturtiums (an annual I have always loved for their round leaves). The family kept vegetable gardens and an orchard, as well as an 11 acre meadow where wildflowers went wild.

I learned that Emily Dickinson was buried in a white coffin, holding heliotrope, with lady's slippers at her throat. Her coffin was carried through a field of buttercups near the Homestead, and her grave covered with flowers. There's lots more to read and learn about Emily, but for now here is poem 106, written in 1859:

The Daisy follows soft the Sun -
And when his golden walk is done -
Sits shyly at his feet -
He - waking - finds the flower there -
Wherefore - Marauder - art thou here?
Because, Sir, love is sweet!

We are the Flower - Thou the Sun!
Forgive us, if as days decline -
We nearer steal to Thee!
Enamored of the parting West -
The peace - the flight - the Amethyst -
Night's possibility!

photo by KAO: "The Little Garden Within " (from Letters 969, Emily Dickinson), with floral display at NY Botanical Garden, June 2010.


Ann Flowers said...

You have got a nice garden out there. I think a connection with plants means a connection with the nature itself.

TigressPen said...

What I loved about Emily was that she wasn't afraid of using nature to express life. She let it speak through her. I truly believe she left us her garden within her poetry, her gift to future generations. Because in a garden life goes through all the phases. It's eternity. She gave us all the emotions of angst and true love, loss, pain and the light that follows it.

Shirley Graham

I really enjoyed your blog piece. And I agree, Emily understood the language of flowers. Not just because of her own heritage but because it was Her.