Emily Dickinson’s Paradise Regained
In commemoration of the 130th anniversary of her death, the poet’s gardens are being restored to the way she saw them grow.
The career of flowers differs from ours only in inaudibleness. I feel more reverence as I grow for these mute creatures whose suspense or transport may surpass our own.
During her lifetime, poet Emily Dickinson was probably better known for her fondness for plants and botany than for her poetry. Amongst her almost 2,000 poems, scholars have recorded references to the vegetable and floral worlds at least 600 times. The garden of her poetry is home to some 80 varieties and 350 flowers, and the rose is the most frequent symbol.
130 years after her death, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst – Dickson’s hometown – has proposed saluting her by returning life to the garden where the poet spent long, happy hours. According to the property records, Dickinson’s father, Edward Dickinson, built a greenhouse on the family property for his daughters in 1855. From her 30s on, Dickinson rarely left the family home, and spent the rest of her life devoted to poetry and the flowerbeds filled with daffodils, chrysanthemums, hyacinths, peonies and lilies.
In a letter to her friend, Abiah Root, Dickinson wrote: “Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you.” And she said this knowingly, as her personal herbarium contained more than 400 plants, often classified with their Latin names. This gives us an idea of the particular importance in which Dickinson held the plant world, not only as a source of aesthetic pleasure but with knowledge of the cycles of life, the seasons and their processes.
According to the executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, Jane Wald:
It’s about trying to understand what her personal, physical world was like, juxtaposed to her immense universe of thought and imagination. All that creativity and keen observation happened right here. Her home and gardens — these places were her poetic laboratory.
For her part, Judith Farr, author of The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, thinks that the poetic vocation and botany of Dickinson are inseparable from one another and can illuminate, each the other; “her gardens often provided her with the narratives, tropes, and imagery she required.”
It’s not just a project of literary gardening, but a way to read, on its own terms, Dickinson’s work. The garden was an entertainment and a contemplation, but also the place where many of her discoveries and experiments with language took place. The museum plans to renovate not only the garden but also the greenhouse adjacent to the property, and this in conjunction with an archaeological process that’s lasted 2 years. The leader of the excavation, Kerry Lynch of the Archaeological Services at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, noted that the original land divisions from Dickinson’s own time, as well as traces of the locations of plants and flowers were all re-discovered. The poet referred to these same plants in her poetry as “beautiful children of the spring.” The project should be completed and opened to the public in late 2016.
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