Closer Readings Commentary

Emily Dickinson's The Language of Flowers

How oft does an emblem-bud silently tell 
What language could never speak half so well!

Louisa Anne Twamley, Romance of Nature (1836)

As this quote suggests, in the 19th century, flowers and their hidden meanings often spoke more powerfully than words—conveying the underlying emotions and sentiments of the sender—but Emily Dickinson gardener/poet had a profound mastery of both!

For a fresh approach to this multifaceted poet, open the student resource Flowers from Emily. Have students consider Dickinson's use of flowers as metaphors through examples of poems that show how she translated her love and delight of the natural world into language that expresses a deep understanding of human nature and the meaning of life.

Well known in her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, as an accomplished gardener, Dickinson was often observed by neighbors tending her flower beds by moonlight on summer evenings wearing her signature white dress. Have students visit The Dickinson Properties: The Landscape to read about Dickinson’s experience as gardener. They can view the actual flowers that Emily pressed from her garden in the digitized book at Harvard’s libraryThe Academy of American Poets resource discusses this Victorian Treasure: Emily Dickinson's Herbarium.

Like many Victorian women, Dickinson communicated through the 19th-century language of flowers, using their underlying meanings to send messages and express hidden sentiments to people in her life. She applied her botanical knowledge and love of flora along with all of the emotional and personal connotations they held into a number of her poems.

There are many online and print resources to induct students into the 19th-century language of flowers, including the following:

Robert Tyas, The Language of Flowers or, Floral Emblems of Thoughts, Feelings and Sentiments.(London: Routledge and Sons, 1869); digitized by Oxford University, September 12, 2006.

Judith FarrThe Gardens of Emily Dickinson. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).