References to gardens, gardening, and the denizens of gardens pervade Dickinson's work. For some readers, she is preeminently a “nature” poet. As spring ripens into summer, we thought we would explore Dickinson's “garden politics”– that is, the power of gardens literal and rhetorical in her writing.
Thinking about Dickinson’s gardens and gardening has undergone something of a revolution since our recognition of the Anthropocene, the present geological age in which humans have had a dominant effect on the earth—and not for the good. This recognition has produced a “post-human” turn in thinking, a reconsideration of human subjectivity, species superiority, and materiality that has consequences for local and global ethics and ideas of scale. Several thinkers find a consciousness of these ideas in Dickinson’s famous garden poetry, and they are changing the way we read it.
The conventional consensus has been that Dickinson’s nature writings are inordinately detailed and informed because of her study of natural history at Mount Holyoke Seminary and her deep experience in nature and with gardening. Critics see gardens as often standing for something else in her work,
microcosms of nature, analogies of heaven, and representations of her soul, home, and New England culture … a setting for musing on the sublime and fallen mortal world and imagining the immoral (Yin).
They also recognize that Dickinson often reversed this metaphor, finding Eden here on earth. In 2004, Judith Farr produced the first substantial study of Dickinson’s gardening, in which she linked the poet’s passion for horticulture to her equally strong passion for poetry: in essence, Farr argued, the garden gave Dickinson her metaphors, language, and symbols.
More recent scholarship asks different questions about the literal gardens in Dickinson’s life, her representation of plants that move and act and feel, her birds that seem to possess a higher intelligence past human capabilities and ask philosophical questions, her cultivation of exotic species in her conservatory, the circulation of such species globally through the horticultural imperialism of the West, even her brother Austin’s habit of “bioprospecting,”—that is, digging up trees from the wild and bringing them back to plant in his yard or meadows.
This week, we post the results of our collaboration with my colleague Melissa Zeiger’s Spring 2018 course at Dartmouth College titled “Garden Politics: Literature, Theory, Practice.” We visited the class to talk about Dickinson’s gardening and garden politics, read some exciting recent critical work, and asked her students to write short essays about garden poems Dickinson wrote around 1862. The results are fascinating.
“May-day has come”
Springfield Republican, Review of the Week. Progress of the War: “The capture of New Orleans [on Monday, April 28] is the most important of our recent successes. It had been so long and confidently expected that the announcement of the event made no great sensation, yet the dismay it has carried throughout the South, too great to be concealed, and the renewed confidence it has produced in the loyal sections of the country, manifested especially in a remarkable appreciation of government securities, show the estimate placed upon the event in all parts of the country.”
The General Situation. “Rumors have been in circulation in respect to an armistice and compromise, but they were doubtless weak inventions of the northern allies of treason, who see the fate impending over the heads of their friends, and would gladly avert it. But neither the government nor the people will listen to any propositions until the rebels lay down their arms and make an unconditional submission, and that they are unlikely to do till their armies in Virginia and the Southwest are defeated and destroyed.”
Foreign Affairs. “The question of iron armored ships still continues to be the prominent topic in Europe.”
Local Matters. “May-day has come in the guise of a damp and chilling atmosphere, quite discouraging to out-of-doors recreations.”
The Educational Commission at Port Royal. “Very ungenerous, not to say malignant, attempts have been made to prejudice the people against the efforts made under government supervision to plant the deserted plantations on the South Carolina islands, and the men and women who have gone from New England and New York to direct the labors of the negroes and educate their children have been ridiculed and their efforts pronounced a failure in advance. But so far as we can judge from the most reliable accounts they are doing the difficult work of their mission with great tact and energy and with every prospect of success.”
“The government mail service has been thoroughly revised and improved this season, by placing new routes in operation, increasing the frequency of trips on the old and infusing additional vigor into every part of the system.”
The New Slave Trade Treaty. “The new treaty negotiated by Mr. Seward and Lord Lyons for the prevention of the slave trade, is published. … [it] will be hailed with joy by all true citizens.”
School-Girls, Ideal and Actual. —
An ideal school-girl is one of the very loveliest things on earth. Personally so fair, so fresh, so hopeful, the beauty of womanhood in its dewy promise, “a rose with all its sweetest leaves folded.” … But the real school-girl is sometimes a very different person. She is a rose too early opened, with its petals imperfect yet widely flaunting to catch the reluctant gaze. … She is only bent on amusing herself in her own untrammeled way, a way which lowers her position, depraves her taste, and robs the budding rose, while yet enfolded in protecting moss, of half its fragrance and its dew.
Poetry: “Under the Snow” by the Late Gen F. W. Lander (1821-1862) from The Atlantic for May.
It is an account, in four-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter rhyming abab, of a “fallen woman” driven out into the winter, pregnant and alone, back to the place of “her spring time vows” and, presumably, her fall, described as
where one ghastly birch
Held up the rafters of the roof,
And grim old pine trees formed a church.
Compare this to Dickinson’s “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” (F236B, J324), a poem about the garden as a very different kind of church.
“Life’s Question” by the Dean of Canterbury
Books, Authors and Art. Reports publication of a collection of writing by Thomas de Quincey and previews the contents of May’s Atlantic Monthly:
The only bit of romance in the number is in the first part of a story by Miss Prescott, showing a good degree of her peculiar power, somewhat chastened and pruned of its early redundancies of expression. … it is not lavishly sensuous in its descriptions, and has many touches of simple, genuine nature. It awakens an interest which may not be fully sustained in the concluding chapter, as this writer, with all her vividness of imagination and pictorial power, does not usually excel in conclusions.
Hampshire Gazette May 6: Begins with “Lines, for Mrs. W. addressed to her husband, on their “Silver Wedding,” April 25, 1862 by E. T. Hayward
From the Beaufort Cor. Phila. Inquirer: Secession in its Effects upon Women.
The secession females (I will not call them ladies) … here, as elsewhere, endeavor to take advantage of their sex, and the disinclination of the officers to use harsh measures with them, to show their malignity and to do us all the injury in their power.
Notice about selection of officers of the Horticultural Club (of Springfield, MA): all males in the subcategories of agriculture and horticulture except for three females “on Floriculture.”
Col. W. S. Clark has sent home to the College six muskets taken from the enemy at Newbern. In examining them, Mr. Oliver Hunt, the Janitor, found one loaded with six charges of Minnie balls, and burst the barrel in getting them out. Probably it is in this way that the rebels count one Southerner equal to five Yankees.
Amherst is now quite independent of the rest of the world on the score of news, for she boasts a daily newspaper—even the Amherst Daily Express. This little issue comes forth at the early hours of 6 o’clock, A. M. , containing “all the latest news from the seat of war by [illegible] telegraph.”
“Earth as Heaven”
Dickinson once remarked to her Norcross cousins,
I was reared in the garden you know,
and the frequency and accuracy of garden imagery in her poetry substantiates this boast. Dickinson’s mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, is generally credited with her children’s love of gardening. She was renowned around Amherst for her skill in producing the most delicious fruits, especially figs. Dickinson started gardening at age eleven at least, and never stopped.
As a child, Dickinson painstakingly filled an herbarium book with over 400 specimens of plants, which she labeled in Latin. We know from her letters to friends that she collected and traded specimens. In 1845, for example, she wrote to her friend Abiah Root,
I am going to send you a little geranium leaf in this letter, which you must press for me. Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you … If you do, perhaps I can make some addition to it from flowers growing around here (L6).
Creating herbariums was a common occupation among young girls at the time, in part because the natural sciences were considered an acceptable feminine occupation which girls were encouraged to practice. Books were specially published with labeled spaces for pressed plants. Dickinson and her female peers studied natural science extensively at Mount Holyoke and Amherst Academy.
Judith Farr, who has made a deep study of Dickinson’s gardens, points out that in 1855, Edward Dickinson built his daughter a glassed-in conservatory off the dining room, so that she could garden year round and also keep exotic species of flowers like jasmine. Farr suspects that Edward gave this particular gift not only to please his daughter but
because growing flowers was, to him, a more suitable occupation for a woman than writing verse.
Wily Dickinson made the two occupations interdependent, and often sent gifts of pressed flowers in her letters or tucked poems into bouquets from her garden and conservatory.
Two garden poems:
“Caging the Tulips”
Every spring their pale tips
poke through soil
in my neighbor’s plot,
a tiny platoon of beauty.
I imagine the autumn muster:
plump bulbs with papery skins,
bottoms fringed with roots,
roll from perforated
sacks to be nestled
in close rank and file,
precisely eight inches beneath the loam.
In May, showers roust them out,
green recruits of incipient joy;
sun gives the drill command,
and we brace for the cadence of color—
when the cage goes up around them.
Four feet of chicken wire
open at the top but tall enough
to deter winter thin deer.
They come, then, smoldering
orange petals with blazing yellow
throats, pitch black at the center,
erect three lobed stigma
ringed by six slender stamen,
their anthers dusty with pollen and curved daintily outward,
splayed cups of exultation
penned in for their own protection.
I lope past after my morning run,
suddenly remembering how you reached for me
last night, unexpectedly,
how we panted in the dark air suffused by scents
from my rowdy spring beds
laced with manure.
Oh glorious disorder, I croon to the captives,
let us throw reason to the winds,
let us plant tulips for the spring
and let ravenous deer
eat the sweet tips,
“Bringing down the Basil”
Outdid yourself this summer—
thigh high and
lording it over the bush beans
rivaling the Sun Gold tomatoes,
rampant and clustered like grapes,
their simmering flesh panting
for your heady infusion.
Subjected to weekly sheering and pinching
of blossoms, you grew potent by thwarting,
turning the heads of passersby
who paused, asking for my secret—
what is there to say?
manure and ruthlessness.
Broken on the blades of my blender,
your majesty challenged with
lobes of garlic, pignoli and reggiano,
pesto is a balm for the
Now cool September nights nip your leaves.
My pruners neatly sever your woody stems,
releasing a scent
like a sigh
like the spirit escaping the lips of prey
at the moment of passing—
Something ancient in reaping
what we have sown and fostered,
until in the fullness of touch
we break its body
bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.
Farr, Judith with Louise Carter. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, 4-5.
Yin, Joanna. “Garden, as Subject.” The Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 122-23.
This week in History
Hampshire Gazette, May 5, 1862.
Springfield Republican, Sat May 3, 1862.
This week in Biography