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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.