Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Forgotten Treasure at the Intersection of Science and Poetry
An elegy for time and the mortality of beauty, composed with passionate patience and a sensuous cadence.
By Maria Popova
UPDATE 2019: The story of Dickinson’s herbarium, along with its larger significance in the poet’s work and world, figures prominently in Figuring.
UPDATE 2022: The poet’s herbarium is now an animated song.
In an era when the scientific establishment barred and bolted its gates to women, botany allowed Victorian women to enter science through the permissible backdoor of art, most famously in Beatrix Potter’s scientific drawings of mushrooms and Margaret Gatty’s stunning illustrated classification of seaweed. Across the Atlantic, this art-science adventure in botany found an improbable yet impassioned practitioner in one of humanity’s most beloved and influential poets: Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886).
Long before she began writing poems, Dickinson undertook a rather different yet unexpectedly parallel art of contemplation and composition — the gathering, growing, classification, and pressing of flowers, which she saw as manifestations of the Muse not that dissimilar to poems. (More than a century later, Robert Penn Warren would articulate that common ground in his observation that “poetry, like science, draws not only those who make it but also those who understand and appreciate it.”)
Dickinson started studying botany at the age of nine and assisting her mother at the garden at twelve, but it wasn’t until she began attending Mount Holyoke in her late teens — around the time the only authenticated daguerrotype of her was taken — that she began approaching her botanical zeal with scientific rigor.
Mary Lyon, the school’s founder and first principal, was an ardent botanist herself, trained by the famous educator and horticulturalist Dr. Edward Hitchcock. Although Lyon encouraged all her girls to collect, study, and preserve local flowers in herbaria, Dickinson’s herbarium — with which I first became enchanted at the Morgan Library’s fantastic Emily Dickinson exhibition — was a masterpiece of uncommon punctiliousness and poetic beauty: 424 flowers from the Amherst region, which Dickinson celebrated as “beautiful children of spring,” arranged with a remarkable sensitivity to scale and visual cadence across sixty-six pages in a large leather-bound album. Slim paper labels punctuate the specimens like enormous dashes inscribed with the names of the plants — sometimes colloquial, sometimes Linnaean — in Dickinson’s elegant handwriting.
What emerges is an elegy for time, composed with passionate patience, emanating the same wakefulness to sensuality and mortality that marks Dickinson’s poetry.
Although the original herbarium survives in the Emily Dickinson Room at Harvard’s Houghton Rare Book Library, it is so fragile that even scholars are prohibited from examining it and the out-of-print facsimile book is so prohibitively expensive that this miraculous masterpiece at the intersection of poetry and science has practically vanished from the popular imagination. But in a heartening testament to the digital humanities as a force of cultural stewardship, Harvard has digitized Dickinson’s herbarium in its totality.
Judith Farr discusses the herbarium in her altogether wonderful book The Gardens of Emily Dickinson (public library), in which she writes:
The photo facsimiles of the herbarium now available to readers at the Houghton Library still present the girl Emily appealingly: the one who misspelled, who arranged pressed flowers in artistic form, who with Wordsworthian tenderness considered nature her friend.
One of the most aesthetically dramatic pages in the herbarium features eight different kinds of violet, a flower Dickinson cherished above others for the “unsuspected” splendor with which it ambushed the meadow-wanderer.
An especially peculiar feature of Dickinson’s herbarium is her choice for the opening page: tropical jasmine — not a plant native to the traditional flora of her time and place, but one native, perhaps, to the wilderness of her imagination — the selfsame imagination from which her tradition-breaking verses and forbidden loves blossomed.
Farr considers the significance of the jasmine:
On the very first page, the first flower pressed by the girl Emily, was the Jasminum or jasmine, the tropical flower that would come to mean passion to her as a woman. This “belle of Amherst,” as she once imagined herself, this poet who liked to think that she saw “New Englandly,” was, though Puritan in her disciplined upbringing, profoundly attracted to the foreign and especially to the semitropical or tropical climes that she read about in Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly-Santo Domingo, Brazil, Potosi, Zanzibar, Italy… Domesticating the jasmine in the cold climate of New England, writing sensuous lyrics about forbidden love in spare meters, Dickinson followed a paradoxical pattern that related poet to gardener in one adventurous pursuit. Just as her fondness for buttercups, clover, anemones, and gentians spoke of an attraction to the simple and commonplace, her taste for strange exotic blooms is that of one drawn to the unknown, the uncommon, the aesthetically venturesome.
The appearance of the jasmine as the first flower of the herbarium is symbolic of that aspect of Emily Dickinson’s life that is most associated with love and crisis. The poet some think of as a maiden recluse-very “spirituelle,” as her minister’s wife said of her appearance in death, had her own encounters with eros, as the “Master” literature and her many wistful, ardent, sometimes disappointed letters to Susan Dickinson make clear.
All sixty-six pages of Dickinson’s herbarium can be seen at the Harvard Libraries website.
Complement Farr’s thoroughly wonderful The Gardens of Emily Dickinson with Cynthia Nixon’s beautiful reading of Dickinson’s “While I was fearing it, it came,” then revisit botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer on gardening and the secret of happiness.
Published May 23, 2017