- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 22, 2004

No reader of Emily Dickinson’s poems can miss her constant and loving references to flowers. Sometimes she simply glorified their beauty, but closer reading shows that she also associated them with her own spiritual or emotional state, often linking the writing of poetry and the cultivation of flowers as related gifts of her muse.

It therefore comes as no surprise that while Dickinson adored wildflowers, she was also a painstaking gardener, laboring lovingly in both the outdoor flowerbeds on her father’s 14-acre property in Amherst, Mass., and in the conservatory he built so she could preserve tender plants and grow tropical flowers despite the rigors of the New England winter.

It was her gardening skills that her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson eulogized in the poet’s obituary, noting that she frequently sent flowers to Amherst residents, and that “her conservatory [was] ever abloom in frost and sunshine, so well she knew her chemistries.”

As Judith Farr explains in “The Gardens of Emily Dickinson,” “chemistries” in this case refers to the scientific knowledge that underpins gardening. She points out that Dickinson’s education at the Amherst Academy and Mary Lyon’s Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) included instruction in botany and chemistry as well as in the humanities.

Collecting and preserving wildflowers was a popular hobby among the young ladies at these schools, and when she was still only 15, Dickinson sent a friend a geranium leaf, asking her, “Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you.” Her own “herbarium” — an album of pressed flowers and leaves — eventually included 400 plant specimens, and is now preserved in the Houghton Library at Harvard.

The inspiration for her precocious start on the collection was Edward Hitchcock’s book, “Catalogue of Plants Growing without Cultivation in the Vicinity of Amherst College.” While Dickinson’s knowledge of local field and woodland plants was early informed by this work of an Amherst College teacher, later in life she benefited by plants that came from the Agricultural College, now the University of Massachusetts (also located in Amherst).

She exchanged cuttings and plants with friends and relatives, including her Norcross cousins of Cambridge. Like them, she and her sister Lavinia “prospected” for seeds and plants in the many seedsmen’s catalogues available to Massachusetts residents.

Thus, Dickinson was both a well-informed and well-supplied gardener, and as Louise Carter’s contribution to this book makes clear, she became an expert. In Chapter Five, “Gardening with Emily Dickinson,” Ms. Carter writes, “Emily apparently experimented with a wealth of native and newly available exotic plants with remarkable success.”

While determining exactly which plants she grew is sometimes complicated by changes in names and in the cultivars now used, it is clear from Dickinson’s own correspondence and from those who knew her gardens that she grew both the popular plants of the cottage garden — favorites such as anemone, crocus, daffodil and snapdragon — and wildflowers like buttercup, violet and dandelion that she had brought into her beds.

More surprisingly, she also had foreign blooms: camellias, oleander, pomegranate, amaryllis, and zinnia (then a plant newly arrived from Mexico), all of which called for particular care, especially as winter struck.

While Dickinson’s horticultural skills were outstanding, her interest in flowers and gardening was shared by many middle-class women. Influenced both by romantic writers such as William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who focused on the redeeming and inspirational powers of nature, and by the social strictures that confined them to the home, women often prided themselves on their gardens.

A love of flowers was considered seemly in a woman, and women and gardens was a favorite subject of 19th-century painters. Among the many illustrations in “The Gardens of Emily Dickinson” are several of canvases by Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson and Frederick Frieseke that show women either in a garden, where they seem like flowers themselves, or indoors but posed with flowers or plants that suggest their affinity with them.

In exploring the role of flowers and gardening in the daily round of 19th-century women, Judith Farr casts light into a life that remains mysterious because Dickinson secluded herself, seeing virtually no one except the closest members of her family. Such illumination is one of the author’s aims, as is enhancing the appreciation of Dickinson’s poetry.

As she notes, the premise of her book is that “an understanding of the importance to her of flowers in general and specific flowers in particular enriches the understanding of Emily Dickinson’s life and art.”

But does knowing more about Dickinson’s passion for flowers really clarify her art? To a limited extent, yes. Certainly, the description of the numerous books that explained flower symbols helps explicate some of Dickinson’s poems.

The author lists numerous such books, mostly published in the first half of the 19th century. The rose, famously, symbolizes love; day-lilies in the 19th century signified a coquette, while the white jasmine could mean either passion or separation.

Dickinson routinely used favorite flowers as emblems. “To Emily Dickinson, the heliocentric daisy represented faithful devotion; the gentian, determination, ability and industry in the face of difficulty and scorn; the violet, modesty and fidelity; the lily, hallowed beauty; the trailing arbutus, affection and pluck; the aster (as she wrote Samuel Bowles), the “everlasting fashion” of eternity; the rose, romance or conjugal joy.

“Humble flowers like the violet, arbutus, daffodil, or crocus, which struggle courageously against soil hardened by winter and associate themselves with blessed spring and the advent of the royal season of summer, inspired Dickinson to write poems of praise and empathy. As in the case of the gentian, these flowers reminded her of her own need, as a poet and a woman, for courage.”

So far, so good. Words change in meaning; writers use them evocatively. Understanding their transformations is essential to teasing out the literal meaning of a text.

But beyond this limited knowledge of the poet’s language, the author’s premise that knowing about Emily Dickinson’s gardens “enriches” our understanding of her “art” is intellectually sloppy, founded on the unstated assumption that any knowledge about the poet must yield such enrichment.

This assumption draws strength from curiosity about a beloved writer. Like the infatuation with pop stars or high-performing athletes, it leads those within its grip to gather every shred of information about the object of their devotion and to treat them uncritically, in effect to idolize them.

Such idolization is evident throughout “The Gardens of Emily Dickinson,” most notably in its overly insistent rejection of critics such as Domhnall Mitchell, who noted that Dickinson’s writing and gardening were privileged activities made possible by servants who did the heavy work, and Alfred Habegger, who has written that “her great genius is not to be distinguished from her madness.”

Thus, while the author often mentions Dickinson’s seclusion, she offers no explanation or comment. Why not? Surely it was central to her life as poet and gardener. Can it be that commentary would have to focus on behavior that cannot be admired?

Writing at excessive length is another problem inherent in the obsessive interest in all the minutiae of a writer’s life.

“The Gardens of Emily Dickinson” is a beautifully designed book with attractive illustrations, both of Dickinson’s home and of 19th-century paintings and botanical prints. Louise Carter’s chapter includes a brief account of 19th-century gardening as well as a practical description of how gardeners today can grow the same plants as the poet. But the rest of the book, while often illuminating, is longer than it needs to be, sometimes quite simply because it is repetitive.

In her introduction the author writes, “This book is written for the general reader, for gardeners, and for scholars interested in Emily Dickinson’s life and writing, and in nineteenth-century gardening as depicted in American literature and painting.”

While scholars interested in Dickinsonia may find much to appeal here, that rare bird, the general reader, is unlikely to stick with Judith Farr as she draws her fine-toothed comb through Dickinson’s texts.

What a pity! Gardens, flowers, poetry, painting, 19th-century America: There is much here that would delight the general reader had the author been able to keep this audience, rather than her fellow scholars, clearly in her sights.

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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