Posted by: macusack | October 4, 2018

Emily Dickinson’s Language of Flowers

This past weekend I visited the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. During our tour I thought about what specifically struck me as Victorian about Emily Dickinson (a poet I do not immediately think of as being part of the Victorian era). On the tour our tour guide, the incomparable Elaine, dissuaded misconceptions about Dickinson being the “woman in white” relegated to her bedroom. Besides being a prize-winning baker, Dickinson had an avid interest in gardening and plants.

images.jpg (Back of Emily Dickinson’s house from the garden)

Exploring the garden after the tour, I wondered which plants would have inhabited the gardens when Dickinson was its gardener. At fourteen Dickinson created her own herborarium, a leather bound book holding 400 dried plants she had collected from the woods and meadows of Amherst, 65 of which are labeled (Farr). The herborarium signifies Dickinson’s scientific interest in plant life; she went on to study botany at Mount Holyoke. After the tour I wonder why Dickinson chose those 65 plants for labelling. Her favorites perhaps, or ones she thought most potent for her writing? I found a digitized version of Dickinson’s herbarium online. Here are a few example pages:leaves.pngemilydickinson_herbarium8.jpg

After looking through the herbarium images, I think Dickinson’s curation and placement of the plants on the pages demonstrates her artistic interest in plants as well as the scientific. How did Dickinson’s knowledge and passion for plants and flowers intertwine with her poetic interests?

Something I found very interesting was that Dickinson paired flowers with her poems during her life: “Though only a few of Dickinson’s poems were printed during her lifetime, many people remembered receiving one of them, often tucked into an exquisite bouquet that she had grown and arranged herself” (Farr). The herbarium can then serve not just as a scientific text, but as an artistic accompaniment to her poetry. I would love to know which flowers Dickinson chose to go with which poem, particularly if the poem made no direct mention of a flower. Dickinson’s use of flowers in poetry does align with a particularly Victorian interest in flowers.

During the Victorian era, the interest in assigning symbolic meaning to flowers, floriography, became tremendously popular in England and the United States. Under strict codes of Victorian etiquette people could send discreet messages through the selection of a flower. Soon there were dictionaries to decipher flowers’ meanings, floriography dictionaries.

language-of-flowers-meaning.jpg

Dickinson’s teacher, Mrs. Almira H. Lincoln, wrote a book Symbolical Language of Flowers. Perhaps Dickinson, an avid reader, was familiar with the definitions used this book as a reference. According to Professor Judith Farr, to Dickinson “the jasmine (which appeared on the first page of her herbarium) meant “passion” while to give someone a jasmine vine meant, “You are the soul of my soul”” (Farr). Dickinson’s poems, which I have found to be very enigmatic and comfortable shirking traditional codes of poetry, do not seem like a natural fit for the definition of floriography.

One poem I found concerning flowers posed an interesting comparison to floriography.

 

That wearing on your breast,

You, unsuspecting, wear me too –

And angels know the rest.

I hide myself within my flower,

That, fading from your vase,

You, unsuspecting, feel for me

Almost a loneliness.

 

In this poem Dickinson invests emotional, perhaps romantic significance in offering someone a flower. The speaker in the poem invests herself in the flower. The use of a flower in this poem, however, does not abide by the Victorian floriography fascination with decoding a flower’s meaning. The speaker does not specify what type of flower (a key to floriography). The speaker in the poem knows that the flower means to her. The wearer is “unsuspecting” and may never know it’s symbolic meaning nor receive any message. The flower’s significance is to remain between the speaker and the “angels”, or a secret. In floriography the flower contains a meaning, in Dickinson’s poem the flower contains a person: “I hide myself within my flower.” The life cycle of the flower, from breast to vase, mirrors the progression of feeling the wearer has for the speaker. As the flower “fades,” so too will their connection. While in this poem a flower still holds the covert messaging of a Victorian floriography bouquet, the flower here retains its mystery by going without traceable meaning.

Sources

“Emily Dickinson and Gardening” Emily Dickinson Museum. https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/gardening

“The Language of Flowers.” Smithsonian Gardens. Smithsonian. http://www.gardens.si.edu/come-learn/docs/Template_HistBloom_Language%20of%20Flowers.pdf.

Farr, Judith. “Victorian Treasure: Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium.” Poets, 19 Feb. 2014. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/victorian-treasure-emily-dickinsons-herbarium. 

“Floriography: The Language of Flowers in the Victorian Era.” ProFlowers, 16 Nov. 2016. https://www.proflowers.com/blog/floriography-language-flowers-victorian-era.

 

 


Responses

  1. The poem you chose struck me, particularly in how it alludes to mortality and death (as Emily Dickinson’s work often does). Dickinson’s house being near the cemetery directed her thoughts often to this topic, as she was afforded a view of funerary processions from the window; she also lost many family members and friends during her life. Flowers are tied closely with death, in the Victorian era and today, with their use in funerals and as gifts to those in mourning. As this poem suggests, there is also the notion of the flower as a symbol of life in decay–for, after it is cut and brought inside to be placed in a vase, it begins to slowly die.

    Dickinson captures this grief in her lines with words like “angels”, “rest”, “fading”, and “loneliness”. On the whole, the poem gives me a feeling of sadness, of a beauty that is disappearing into nothing, creating a hole of absence and a sense of loneliness once it’s gone. Perhaps the flower acts as a stand-in for Dickinson herself, or for her love that she has given to another, concealed in the language of a flower. It seems that the message went unrealised, and now the love droops as the love interest watches, “unsuspecting” that the flower meant something more.

    Alternatively, one could read this poem as the end of a knowing relationship, with flowers worn on both breasts, as indicated by the first two lines. Now, they are divided, Dickinson fading back away from the ties of love, leaving the other in “loneliness”. At the end, I wonder if there was ever a flower at all, or a vase, or any interaction outside of fantasy.

    Sources:
    https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/death


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