This week, we reprise the theme of gardens, which we began at the beginning of the month, but in a different mood. New England is burgeoning, but there is trouble in paradise. We take our cue from the second batch of essays written by students in Melissa Zeiger’s Spring 2018 course at Dartmouth College entitled “Garden Politics: Literature, Theory, Practice.” This group of papers explores the effects of moving away from an anthropocentric understanding of nature to a landscape that is active in its own right. Students read a cluster of Dickinson poems presented in the poems section that includes one of her most striking poems, “Four Trees – upon a solitary Acre.” What happens when God becomes–simply–a “neighbor,” and concepts like “Providence,” which undergird a Christian/religious set of beliefs, and any idea of human control over nature are called into question?
In our visit to Meli’s class, we talked about Dickinson’s gardens in particular, and how her representations of plants and the denizens of nature like birds, bees and butterflies, are shockingly radical, even for her time, in which prominent scientists advanced theories of plant sentience that help to topple humans from their pedestal of species dominance. We referred to the work of Mary Kuhn, summarized in the post for April 30-May 6, who argues that “Dickinson finds in the plant realm another possibility: life whose very nature is collaborative, decentralized, and communicative with other environmental agents in ways that human actors cannot anticipate or control.” These might be welcomed models for humans, but no one willingly gives up “the neat rhetoric of cultivation and human control.”
Though these thoughts are sobering, we can see from Anna Reed’s imaginative rendition of the moment “When Butterflies renounce their “drams”– from “I taste a liquor never brewed” (F207B, J214), a poem we explored in the first post on gardens, we all still have some things very much in common
“Gardens are being made”
Springfield Republican, Saturday May 17, 1862
Review of the Week. Progress of the War, page 1
There is no pause in the march of events. If they do not keep pace with popular impatience, they at least fulfill reasonable expectation. Norfolk has been abandoned by the rebels, being untenable after the retreat from Yorktown peninsula, and is now occupied by our troops. The Merrimac was blown up by the rebels, and the navy yard destroyed. But Norfolk was spared from destruction, and Suffolk has since been occupied by our advancing forces. Gen McClellan was still moving towards Richmond, at last accounts, as is probably in possession of the rebel capital by this time. … there are good reports of growing Unionism at the South, and in all respects the military and political situation is rapidly improving. We see the end of the great peril.
The rumor that France and England are going to interfere to stop the war in the United States is again started, and repeated by every arrival from Europe. But this report can hardly excite much apprehension or command much credit at this late day. The time for European intervention has passed forever.
New England Matters.
The most remarkable feature of the week … is the terrible conflagrations that have raged, extending from Troy and Long Island, on the borders of New England, to Boston and the rural villages of Maine, and devastating large tract of woodland. … The shad fisheries are in successful operation, gardens are being made, vegetation is rapidly advancing, the fruit trees blossom liberally, the birds sing sweetly, the sunshine is warm enough for summer, and the moonlight charming beyond description; so we may consider the vernal season as fully inaugurated.
Rose and Grape Culture, page 2
A choice coterie of ladies and gentlemen, under the auspices of the Hampden Horticultural Society, anticipated the season somewhat, Friday evening, by discussing, in this city, topics of bloom and fruitage.
"Not every tender-hearted and patriotic girl is fit for a nurse in an army hospital. An Illinois surgeon at Pittsburg Landing writes:–"
The duties required of an effective nurse are not the administering a spoonful of wine, nor bathing an officers temples with a sponge. … but combing matting hair, washing dirty faces, hands and feet, binding putrid wounds, and numbers of things which cannot be described. The lady who cannot, with a smiling face, roll up her sleeves, go on her knees amongst the black boilers and wet straw to wait upon an unfortunate private soldier, repulsive in his manners and words, is here sadly out of her proper sphere. It is a noble sight to witness one who bears the impress of nature’s nobility in every movement and every expression, a highly educated lady, accustomed to every indulgence that wealth can furnish, thus employed, with disordered hair, hoopless, in a soiled calico dress, bespattered with blood, coal smut and grease, forgetful of every feeling but the one of seeking ad helping the most wretched and neglected. … Send us ladies of this caliber, or send us negro servants.
“Books, Authors and Art.” page 7
Has a long and very positive review of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s serial novel, now in book form, Agnes of Sorrento:
And now that we review it collectively, we are more and more convinced that the work is not a novel but a poem. Its frequent passages of marvelous descriptive beauty are bathed in poetry as flowers are bathed in dew. Its very plot is laid in dreamland and not in the actual world … Indeed, that [central] romance discloses itself as an allegory, typical of the highest truths … Viewed in this light, we can safely place the book in the hangs of our questioning daughters …
Hampshire Gazette, May 20, 1862. Leads off with a poem, “Bury me in the Morning by Mrs. Hall,” a ballad in 12 line stanzas and loose meter rhyming abacadaeabac. It is an affecting poem spoken in the voice of a dying child to its mother, which can certainly represent the growing number of young men dying in the war. It was set to music by A. C. Farnham in sheet music published in St. Louis 1855, with the lyricist recorded as “S. C. Hale.”
Another poem graces the front page, column 3:
The following humorous description of their Bill of Fare, was composed by the prisoners taken at Bull Run, while imprisoned in Richmond, and brought home by Philander A. Streeter of the 2d Vermont Regiment, he being held there five months and fourteen days.
It is in rhyming couplets and quite hilarious. At its conclusion is a column titled “Literary” that reports the publication of The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, Part 16 of the record of the Rebellion, a diary with photographs and “many important documents, edited by Frank Moore and published by G. P. Putnam, New York. Also,
Blackwood’s Magazine, for April has its usual spiteful, prejudiced and provoking article on American affairs, but its other papers are of unusual attractiveness.
Includes notices about George Eliot and Mrs. Browning’s poems.
A short piece by “Louise S.” on “How to Avoid a Bad Husband,” which begins: “Never marry for wealth. A woman’s life consisteth not in these things that she possesseth.”
News from Amherst:
The four members of the sophomore class in Amherst College, who disgraced themselves by “rowing” a freshman a few days since, having been removed from the college, the freshmen have unanimously pledged themselves not to “row” or “haze” the next class.
“The Heart Wants What it Wants”
In our post from two weeks ago, we quoted a letter Dickinson wrote in early May to Mary Bowles, wife of the editor Samuel Bowles, who was abroad at the time (L262). Her first line discloses how highly she valued Samuel’s friendship:
When the Best is gone – I know that other things are not of consequence – The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care– … Not to see what we love, is very terrible – and talking – doesn’t ease it – nothing does – but just itself. … I often wonder how the love of Christ, is done – when that – below – holds – so –
How do we love God, Dickinson questions, when our earthly loves are so powerful? She then suggests anodynes for the “pain” of separation: hoping the Bowles’ little boy “coos away the pain – Perhaps your flowers, help – some–.” It is revealing that Dickinson offers flowers and gardening as possible modes of alleviating the pain of absence. She goes to say:
Vinnie and Sue, are making Hot beds –but then, the Robins plague them so – they don't accomplish much –
The Frogs sing sweet – today – They have such pretty – lazy – times – How nice, to be a Frog! Sue – draws her little Boy – pleasant days – in a Cab – and Carlo – walks behind, accompanied by a Cat – from each establishment –
These comments give us a glimpse into the gardening techniques used at the Homestead. “Hot beds” were popular in Victorian times. People dug a bed about 2 ½ feet deep and lined it with fresh, uncomposted (and plentiful!) horse manure, which is rich in nutrients. This formed the nitrogen layer, which would soon heat up, providing warmth and fertility for the roots of plants. This layer could be covered by straw, woodchips, branches or shredded paper (the carbon layer) with a cold frame placed over it and tender plants in it. As soon as the manure “composted” or broke down, the bed would lose its warmth, but creating hot beds gave gardeners at least two months of additional growing time in the spring. Using this technique, people in colder climates could also grow cold hardy plants like lettuce through the winter.
This detail dates this letter to early spring, as does Dickinson’s reference to the song of the frogs, “spring peepers,” Pseudacris crucifer, whose chirping calls at night announce the beginning of spring and the mating season. Her exclamation here suggests one of her most famous poems, which Franklin dates to 1861: “I’m Nobody! Who are you? (F 260, J288), with its memorable lines in which she comically disparages existence as a frog:
How dreary – to be – Somebody!To an admiring Bog!
How public – like a Frog –
To Tell your name – the livelong June –
Note that spring peepers vocalize between March and June and their songs are indeed “pretty” and “lazy.” Dickinson might be thinking in this poem of the American bullfrog, whose vocalizations last until July in the Northeast and sound much more like the self-promoting “roaring” she conjures here.
The name of our course, “Garden Politics,” may seem counterintuitive; what could more perfectly represent refuge, haven, retreat than a garden? When you think about it, however, gardens have been packed with ideology since their beginnings. In Egypt, Sumeria, Alexandria, Rome, and onward, they formed monuments, in trees and flowers, to empire, religious belief, rulers, and ruling classes. In the Old Testament, God’s commandments to Adam license human dominion over the rest of nature, causing a great deal of trouble down the ages––in very beautiful language.
Our class on “Garden Politics” considered other questions of meaning and belief suggested by gardens, beginning with some postcolonial gardens and critiques that explicitly comment upon the politics, ethics, and power relations encoded in these topics, and moving to other examples. Ivy’s White Heat blog provided a perfect, and exciting, extension of our discussions thus far. Our look at Dickinson and her poems about gardens also created a context for thinking about the way twentieth century female poets reacted against traditional poetic representations of women as like garden flowers, constricted and conventional.
In response to the Dickinson poems for this week, Ivy’s visit to our class, and the readings we assigned them, the students in the course wrote the varied comments she has posted here. Broad in their range of concerns, they pick up on certain repeating themes: erotic feelings, transgression of accepted conventions, and innovation in garden writing in the first set. In the second set, prevailing themes are the attraction to and embodiment of estrangement in Dickinson’s poetry, doubts about poetry’s usefulness or aliveness, the isolation of gardens and humans, and a move away from anthropocentric understandings of nature. Perhaps bringing the strands together, one paper on “Four Trees – upon a solitary Acre ”suggests that the trees' solitude and removal from ordinary human concerns, like that of Dickinson’s poetry, allows for poetic autonomy.
bio: Melissa Zeiger is Associate Professor of English at Dartmouth College. She teaches courses and writes on: garden literature; ecocriticism; immigrant writing; Jewish women’s writing; feminist criticism and theory; queer poetry; politics of the love lyric; modern poetry; women's poetry; Elizabeth Bishop; the poetry and politics of illness; cultural memory theory. Her first book was a feminist analysis of elegy (Beyond Consolation, 1997); she recently published an article on romance novels about heroines recovering from breast cancer and mastectomy; and she is currently writing a book on the poetics and politics of garden writing, one chapter of which appeared in 2017 as "Derek Jarman's Garden Politics" in a special issue of Humanities Journal on "Crisis."
Kuhn, Mary. "Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility." ELH, vol. 85 no. 1, 2018, pp. 141-170, 142, 151
Hampshire Gazette, May 20, 1862
Springfield Republican, May 17, 1862.