Flowers from Emily
Emily as Myth | Emily as Poet-Gardener | A Lady Red Upon The Hill | The Daisy Follows Soft the Sun | A Sepal, a Petal, and a Thorn | The Gentian Weaves Her Fingers | When Roses Cease to Bloom, Dear | Reference
If we love Flowers, are we not ‘born again’ every Day?
-- Emily Dickinson, Letter 1037
Emily Dickinson, now widely recognized (alongside Walt Whitman) as among the first American poetic voices, published only a handful of poems in her lifetime. In fact, much of Dickinson’s reclusive life remains an enigma to scholars, who piece together what they know from her poems and letters. In the following, you will learn about Dickinson’s life, her poetry, and the influence of gardening on both.
Emily as Myth
Read the overview of Dickinson’s life, and then explore the context of when and where she lived in order to understand the mythic status she achieved in her home community.
- The Poetry Foundation Biography of Emily Dickinson including podcast, video, and App resources.
- The Emily Dickinson Museum is housed within the actual site of the Homestead, where Emily was born and spent much of her life. The Town and the Times page of the site introduces students to 19th-century Amherst, Massachusetts, where Emily wrote. Emily Dickinson Family and Friends identifies the important personages in Emily’s circle. Illustrated with photos and pictures, Dickinson's Family Tree, A Timeline of Emily Dickinson's Life further rounds out students’ understanding of Emily’s world.
Upon moving to Amherst in 1881, Mabel Loomis Todd, who would become a family friend and correspondent to Emily, wrote to her parents of the town’s “Myth”: “She dresses wholly in white, & her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful.”
Richard Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson. (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1974).
- Why did Mabel refer to Emily as the town “Myth?” Through your background reading into Emily’s life, do you agree with Mabel that “myth” is an accurate description of her? How so?
- If you were to identify Emily as a mythic figure, such as one of the Greek goddesses, which one would she be? Explain your answer. You may use examples of Emily’s poetry, such as the ones listed later in this resource, to illustrate your answer.
- What contributes to the making of a myth or a legend in the 19th century? In the 21st century? How does Emily’s life in a 19th-century small New England town provide a context for her mythic status? If Emily were living in the 21st century would she have become a legend? How might living in the 21st century with our current technology affect Emily?
Emily as Poet-Gardener
Did you know that Emily Dickinson was better known in her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, as a gardener rather than a poet?! She was often observed by neighbors on summer evenings tending her flower beds by moonlight in her signature white dress. Dickinson, like many women of her day, even communicated through the 19th-century “language of flowers.” Women in the Victorian age used flowers to send messages and convey hidden meanings. There are many online and print resources that identify these sentiments. See EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library reference Language of Flowers.
Visit Dickinson Properties: The Landscape to take a virtual tour of Emily Dickinson’s actual garden and the flowers she cultivated in full bloom! As you travel through this narrated clip, "Grounds of Memory," consider her use of flowers as metaphor. Think about how she translates her love and delight in the natural world into poetry that expresses her deep understanding of human nature and the meaning of life.
Select one of Dickinson’s poems about gardens and flowers at the end of this resource or consider one of her nature poems drawn from your own research. Note that her poetry is identified by number and by first line, instead of having a formal title. Highlight or copy lines that provide floral or gardening imagery to answer the following:
- How does Dickinson use the flower images in your selected poem? In addition to figurative language, think about different literary elements such as symbolism, assonance, rhyme-scheme, and imagery. Talk or write about your personal reaction to the poem.
- If you were to identify Emily as a flower, which one would you choose? Explain why.
Read one of the following articles, and then re-read the flower poem(s) you read before in order to respond to the following questions and writing activities.
- Emily Dickinson and Gardening, from The Emily Dickinson Museum, discusses how the poet’s life revolved around her garden.
- The New York Times article, “The Poet as Gardener and Tiger Lily,” recalls the gift Dickinson had for cultivating flowers; she identified strongly with flowers like the tiger lily, daisy, and rose. Emily was partial to wildflowers. One of her favorite, Indian pipes, gained special significance: it was the flower her friend, Mabel Todd, used to adorn the cover of the first edition of Dickinson's poems, published in 1890.
- “Dickinson as Gardener,” in NEH Humanities magazine, highlights a recent NEH-funded exhibition linking to her love for poetry and flowers, “Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers,” hosted by the New York Botanical Garden. You may also be interested in listening to the NPR radio program broadcast A Flowering Tribute To Emily Dickinson.
Would you like to see actual flowers that Emily pressed from her garden? See the digitized book at Harvard’s library. The Poets.org resource discusses this Victorian Treasure: Emily Dickinson's Herbarium.
- Emily’s garden served as a laboratory for her poetry. What did she seek there?
- It has been said that nature was Dickinson’s “church.” How do her poems support or refute that idea?
- How did Dickinson use flowers to serve as personal emblems and emissaries in the 19th-century language of flowers?
- Emily was known for putting together and dropping little bouquets of flowers on the doorstep of family, friends, and associates as a gift to them. Identify key people in the authors circle, then reference the Victorian language of flowers to select several flowers she might have included in one of her nosegays to them. Discuss the significance of your selections.
- According to the NEH Humanities magazine article, “Emily Dickinson, Gardener,” “The reinvention of Dickinson by each generation of readers is the mark of a great poet, whose work holds up a mirror in which people through the ages can see some version of themselves.” How does Dickinson hold up a mirror to your generation? What do you and your peers “see” when you look into and through her poetry?
A LADY red upon the hill
Her annual secret keeps;
A lady white within the field
In placid lily sleeps!
The tidy breezes with their brooms
Sweep vale, and hill, and tree!
Prithee, my pretty housewives!
Who may expected he?
The neighbors do not yet suspect!
The woods exchange a smile—
Orchard, and buttercup, and bird—
In such a little while
And yet how still the landscape stands,
How nonchalant the wood,
As if the resurrection
Were nothing very odd!
THE daisy follows soft the sun,
And when his golden walk is done,
Sits shyly at his feet.
He, waking, finds the flower near.
"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,—
Enamoured of the parting west,
The peace, the flight, the amethyst,
A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer's morn,
A flask of dew, a bee or two,
A caper in the trees, —
And I’m a rose!
The gentian weaves her fringes,
The maple's loom is red.
My departing blossoms
A brief, but patient illness,
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angels are.
It was a short procession, —
The bobolink was there,
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.
We trust that she was willing, —
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph,
Let us go with thee!
In the name of the bee
And of the butterfly
And of the breeze, amen!
WHEN roses cease to bloom, dear,
And violets are done,
When bumble-bees in solemn flight
Have passed beyond the sun,
The hand that paused to gather
Upon this summer’s day
Will idle lie, in Auburn,—
Then take my flower, pray!
NOTE: The above poems along with many others with floral imagery can be accessed electronically from New York: Bartleby.com, 2000, The Complete Poems, an online text repository of the Boston: Little, Brown, 1924 edition of Dickinson's poems, selected and introduced by Martha Dickinson Bianchi.