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In the Garden with Emily Dickinson

“Dear March Come in How glad I am I hoped for you before

Although Emily Dickinson found poetic inspiration in every season, spring for her held special appeal. “Spring to her was the great subject,” said Dr. Judith Farr, a Dickinson scholar and author of The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. It was a time of hope and revelation, but more importantly, an opportunity to return to her work in the gardens of The Homestead, the family estate in Amherst, Massachusetts. “She actually liked winter because it gave her time to think about her bulbs,” Farr said. “She waited very eagerly for spring.”

Although Dickinson was virtually unknown as a poet during her lifetimeshe saw only a handful of her poems publishedher prowess as a gardener was well-known. “People remarked in Amherst that her gardens were superior to all others,” said Farr, and she was noted for her ability to cultivate notoriously fragile flowers despite the harsh New England climate. Passerby peeking through the hedges might catch a glimpse of Dickinson gardening by moonlight, a tendency now thought to stem from an ocular sensitivity to sunlight rather than mere eccentricity.

We know now, of course, that as Dickinson gardened, she was planting seeds too for her creative work. Farr estimates that roughly one-third of Dickinson’s 1,800-odd poems and over half of her letters revolve around flowers, incorporating everything from nosegays, poppies, and lilacs, to foxgloves and orchis. Like the herbarium, or collection of pressed plants, she kept as a teen, her poetry allowed her to preserve her beloved blooms on paper and share them with readers. As she writes in “With Flowers”:

"South winds jostle them,
Bumblebees come, 
Hover, hesitate,
Drink, and are gone.

Butterflies pause
On their passage Cashmere;
I, softly plucking,
Present them here!"

Beyond content, Farr also sees the structure of Dickinson’s poems as reflecting her love of flowers, particularly her affinity for the exotic varieties she grew in her conservatory. “One of the reasons she tried to use meters that were unique had to do with her feeling that meter was the fragrance of the poem,” Farr said, noting how Dickinson resisted the traditional iambic pentameter of her day. “It was the sonorous embellishment of the poem. It was the delicate aspect of the poem. She didn’t want her poems to be typical or usual.”

Like Dickinson’s unexpected syntax and punctuation, “Her flowers too had fragrances that were different and unique,” said Farr. She grew sweet clover, lemon verbena, and bourbon roses, as well as a jasmine plant she kept alive for over 25 years. This type of devoted botanical care was typical of Dickinson and paralleled the care with which she composed her poems.

As Dickinson grew increasingly reclusive, her garden—still a constant source of aesthetic and personal pleasure—came to take on a significant social role. She was generous with her flowers, frequently sending blooms as gifts, or enclosing them with poems she sent to family and friends. Often, these flowers carried deeper meanings, serving as their own sort of poetic metaphor. Although some of these meanings were well-known thanks to the Victorian interest in the “language of flowers,” Dickinson had also developed her own set of botanical associations for individuals in her life. Her sister-in-law Susan, for instance, was a cardinal flower, brilliant and vibrant but potentially toxic, which reflected Emily and Susan’s deeply intimate, complex, and occasionally fraught relationship.

Dickinson’s relationships with flowers were much more placid, which is perhaps why she so valued their company. “The flowers were so much like friends to her,” said Farr, explaining yet another aspect of the garden’s social function. “One poem after another talks about them as her children, her friends, her other selves.”

As these “other selves,” her flowers were as significant a part of her life as her poetry, and in the end, the two were inextricable. “She must have been thinking of her two vocations every minute,” said Farr. “They were always present in her mind.”

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