The Emily Dickinson Herbarium
One of the English language’s most important poets was also a collector of flowers that’s survived time.
Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) lived a life always full of poetry, even before she wrote some of the most spectacular verse in American literature. Always a singular writer, among the most important American poets of the 19th century (along with Walt Whitman), she was always characterized by her eccentricity and has never ceased to surprise those who come near to her enigmatic figure. It’s said that Dickinson, unmarried all her life, dressed almost always in white, preferred not to receive visitors and lived most of her life in her parents’ house. In her final years, she rarely left her own room. The author of nearly 1,800 poems (of which she only ever sought to publish some four or five), she was fond of botany and gardening. When she was very young, she made an album of flowers that still speaks of the subtle poetics that continually occupied her mind.
Dickinson’s taste for plants and for nature, extravagant in a time when science was essentially a male universe, came into being when she was nine years old, long before she began to write poetry. It developed further during her adolescence when she began formal studies in botany and herbalism. At the time, a young Dickenson was planting, collecting, and sorting flowers from the Amherst, Massachusetts area. She then flattened them and included them in her album.
Dickinson’s herbarium – strange and overflowing with a feminine delicacy – is further distinguished by the compositions of subtle detail, details that would adorn her verse years later. This collection, leather bound and lined, includes a total of 424 flowers, arranged onto just 66 pages and classified with small labels that indicate the flower species (with common or scientific names) and in Dickinson’s own elegant hand.
Dickinson’s original album was preserved in the Harvard Houghton Rare Book Library. Due to its fragility, it can’t be examined, not even by the most important academics in the university. Because the only facsimile edition of the herbarium (long out of print) was very expensive, the album and its profound importance were largely forgotten until recently, when Harvard digitized it.
One of the album’s most suggestive details is in the flower appearing on the first page: tropical jasmine. It not only a species that’s non-native to Massachusetts (it had to be planted and probably tended by Dickinson herself). But at that time, it was also a symbol of eroticism and exoticism from far eastern lands. Some experts have described this detail as a veiled expression of the few encounters with Eros thought to have happened during the life of this lonely woman. Another remarkable page displays eight types of violets, a flower of frequent and powerful presence in the poetry of Dickinson where she referred to their “unsuspected” splendor.
A detailed exploration of Emily Dickinson’s herbarium opens the possibility of a glimpse into the legendary writer’s youth. It quietly speaks to anyone of the work of a poet and a gardener. The collection also reflects a poignant sensitivity and patience of spirit, perhaps touched by divinity at a place where poetry and science momentarily come into contact. As these aren’t randomly preserved flowers, aesthetically displayed, but compositions full of rhythm, they’re also small visual poems anticipating what’s to come.
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