Emily Dickinson is widely accepted as one of America’s leading 19th-century poets whose influence on poetry and culture is still felt today.
A major interest of the trailblazing poet was botany. And it was this passion for plants that helped her hone her skills as a pioneer of verse and brought us Dickinson's outstanding garden poems.
Where Emily Dickinson's Found her Love of Gardening
Dickinson’s gardening gifts were acquired as a child. In an 1859 letter to her first cousin, Louisa Norcross, which is full of comments and queries relating to her own-grown flowers and vegetables, she wrote “I was reared in the garden, you know”.
Her mother is generally credited with instilling this passion for plants in both her daughters, though it was further cultivated in Dickinson during her time at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.
In these schools she took botany lessons, putting together an impressive herbarium (a book of pressed plants) in the process.
Her herbarium included over 400 specimens, each carefully labelled by the budding botanist with its Latin name.
Reproductions of several of these specimens along with several of Emily Dickinson's garden poems are included in the elegant notebook from Princeton Architectural Press, sold in Enya’s Attic.
Inspiration for Emily Dickinson's Garden Poems
At home, Dickinson’s mother, her sister, Lavinia and she spent hours tending to their own garden and its great variety of shrubs, climbing vines, annual flowers and perennials.
This deep connection to her plants and the natural world provided the young poet with a wellspring of inspiration and a way for her to explore the complexities of the human experience through the lens of nature.
It served as both a subject and a source of solace for her, and many of her poems reflect Dickinson's profound appreciation for the beauty and mystery of the natural world.
Exploration of Love, Life and Death
Furthermore, Dickinson’s botanical knowledge allowed her to draw upon an array of plant symbolism to convey complex emotions, ideas, and themes. She frequently turned to flowers and plants to explore themes of life, death, growth, and decay, among other topics.
Her use of flowers as symbols of both beauty and the briefness of time was often used in poems including Bloom and Apparently with no surprise, to explore the cycles of life and death. Though she also used the language of flowers to mine feelings such as love and passion.
Using flowers to reflect different emotional expressions was a popular pastime in the sexually-repressed era of Victorian Britain and America. A rose received from a suitor was supposed to symbolise devotion, while tulips stood as a secret code for passion!
Dickinson would not have been ignorant of these meanings, though she may have attached her own contexts to different blooms. Certainly, she used the language of flowers to explore her own heart’s wants and unspoken desires, such as in the beautiful poem below:
I hide myself within my flower
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too –
And angels know the rest.
I hide myself within my flower,
That, fading from your vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
Almost a loneliness.
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Dickinson's interest in botany also enabled her to hone her sharp skills of observation. As a botanist, she learned to pay close attention to the details of the natural world.
It was this keen consideration that when translated into verses enabled the singular poet’s remarkable ability to describe the intricacies of the world around her.
Unique Poetic Voice
Finally, it must be argued that Dickinson's combination of botanical knowledge and her innovative use of language contributed overall to her distinctive poetic voice, one which would grow in influence over the next century and beyond.
Her poems are known for their unconventional punctuation, dashes, and capitalisation, which can be seen as a reflection of her unique perspective.
This unconventional style, along with her use of natural imagery, set her apart from the poetic norms of her time and made her work not just richer and resonant of the wondrous natural life around her - but also pioneering.
Enjoy one of Emily Dickinson's Garden Poems (found in our Emily Dickinson Notebook):
We should not mind so small a flower
Except it quiet bring
Our little garden that we lost
Back to the Lawn again.
So spicy her Carnations nod
So drunken, reel her Bees
So silver steal a hundred flutes
From out a hundred trees
That whoso sees this little flower
By faith may clear behold
The Bobolinks around the throne
And Dandelions gold.