May 14-20, 1862: Hot Beds

This week, we reprise the theme of gardens, which we began at the beginning of the month, but in a different mood. We take our cue from the second batch of essays written by students in Melissa Zeiger’s Spring 2018 course at Dartmouth College that explore the effects of moving away from an anthropocentric understanding of nature to a landscape that is active in its own right.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Melissa Zeiger

“Hot Beds ”

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?

treeIn 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 all still have some things very much in common. In the class on “Garden Politics,” we explored the poem “I taste a liquor never brewed” (F207B, J214), discussed in the first post on gardens. Below is an imaginative rendition of the moment in that poem “When Butterflies renounce their ‘drams’–” by Anna Reed, a student in the class.WhenButterflies


“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.

Foreign Affairs

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 tracts 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.

Civil War Nurses


“The Style of Women for Army Nurses,” page 5

“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 officer's 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 and 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 hands 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 horse manure, which was plentiful in this era and 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, wood chips, branches or shredded paper, forming the carbon layer, with a cold frame placed over it and tender plants placed 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.

The mention of “hot beds” 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!
How public – like a Frog –
To Tell your name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

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.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Melissa ZeigerMelissa Zeiger

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.


April 30-May 6, 1862: Gardens

References to gardens, gardening, and the denizens of gardens pervade Dickinson’s work. For some readers, she is pre-eminently 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.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection - Ivy Schweitzer
Sources/Further Reading

“Garden Politics”

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.

New York Botanical Gardens' recreation of Dickinson's gardens, 2010
               New York Botanical Gardens’ recreation of Dickinson's gardens, 2010

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.”

Capture of New Orleans, 1862
Capture of New Orleans, 1862

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.”

Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons (1817-1887). Public Domain,
Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons (1817-1887). Public Domain,

“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.

Frederick W. Lander (1821-1862)
Frederick W. Lander (1821-1862)

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.

A page from Dickinson's Herbarium. Houghton Library, Harvard University
A page from Dickinson's Herbarium. Houghton Library, Harvard University

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.

Dickinson's original conservatory, Dickinson Museum
Dickinson's original conservatory, Dickinson Museum

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.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Ivy Schweitzer

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,
or not.

My greenhouse
My greenhouse

“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
     bruised soul.

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
     and time
we break its body
     for succor.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.



“Emily Dickinson and Gardening.” The Emily Dickinson Museum.

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

Letter 233. Letters from Dickinson to Unknown Recipients, DEA.