Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium

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This tinted herbarium ­specimen sheet is reproduced from a page of Emily ­Dickinson’s herbarium (bMS Am 1118.11), which she started in 1845. It is used by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
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“My plants look finely now. I am going to send you a little
geranium leaf, 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. ‘Most all the girls are making one. If you do,
perhaps I can make some additions to it from flowers growing around
here…”

In May 1845, fourteen-year-old Emily Dickinson wrote these lines
to her school friend, Abiah Root. Emily was full of the excitement
of discovery and the joy of life–giving no hint of the eccentric
recluse she would become in the last decades of her life.

She continued, “I have been to walk tonight and got some very
choice wild flowers…I have four studies. They are Mental
Philosophy, Geology, Latin and Botany.” She was a student at
Amherst Academy in her Massachusetts hometown that year, and the
young women were learning to make herbariums by gathering,
pressing, mounting and identifying plants and wildflowers of the
area.

In this introduction to the botanical world, Emily learned
science and record keeping and honed her powers of observation. She
was also experiencing the fleeting beauty and fragility of life,
major subjects of her later poetry.

In a letter she wrote to a friend in autumn 1845, Emily sounds
like any other gardener who goes out in the dark to gather the last
blooms of the season to outwit the frost:

I had a beautiful flower garden this summer, but they are nearly
gone now. It is very cold tonight . . . and I mean to pick the
prettiest ones before I go to bed. I would love to send you a
bouquet if I had an opportunity, and you could press it and write
under it, The last flowers of Summer.

Paging Through Time

Emily assembled sixty-six herbarium pages, with five or more
plant specimens on each page. Now more than 150 years old, they
survive today in the safekeeping of the Houghton Library of Harvard
University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Time has ravaged the frail pressed plants, fading the colors to
pale sepias. To preserve them, archivists have prepared
black-and-white photographs of each page for use by researchers,
keeping the originals under lock and key. By special arrangement, I
was able to view several folders of the original pages. The pressed
flowers are attached to the right-hand page; the left-hand pages
are blank and protect the flowers when the folder is closed. The
flowers and leaves, which have yielded the last of their color,
resemble line drawings.

Emily’s herbarium begins with flair. The specimens on the first
page are arranged carefully, obviously with some thought as to
design, symmetry, and presentation. A large leaf and flower form
the focal point; five smaller plant specimens are displayed around
it. The plant parts are affixed to the page with one or more narrow
strips of paper glued at each end. (Professional botanists still
use this method of attachment, which enables them to remove a
specimen from the page for study without damaging it.)

This is the work of fine fingers and a careful hand. Each
specimen’s botanical name is written in black ink with tiny,
precise lettering. Emily misidentified a few of the plants, but
Edward L. Davis of the University of Massachusetts botany
department has supplied corrections, which are recorded on separate
sheets.

The meticulous labeling continues throughout the early pages of
the herbarium, but then Emily’s attention apparently waned: on page
29, a specimen lacks its botanical name, and on page 35, four
specimens are unidentified. Emily seems to have been more
interested in the design of her pages. On page 55, she placed a
big, bold catnip next to an unidentified flower as delicate as a
spiderweb, completing the page with an exquisite rosebud and a
malva blossom.

Some of Emily’s page designs hint at the wry humor that later
surfaced in her poetry. On page 12, two wild sarsaparilla flowers
lie like crossed sabers. The botanical name is written on a paper
strip that lies precisely at the crossing point. Who can say how
she saw it, but the image looks for all the world like two leafy
swords in a floral coat of arms. On the same page, she placed a
delicate Hepatica triloba as though in counterpoint.

On another page, Emily arranged narcissi, mostly unidentified,
and a collection of violets. Their faded beauty calls to mind these
lines:

I dared not meet the daffodils– For fear their yellow gown Would
pierce me with a fashion So foreign to my own–

Numbers following most of Emily’s plant names are probably
cross-references to field notes giving the date and location where
the specimens were ­collected. These did not survive. Some of the
specimens themselves are today nothing but dust in an envelope.

Engaged with the Natural World

Emily Dickinson, born in 1830, attended Amherst Academy with her
younger sister, Lavinia, starting when she was ten years old. In
1847, she entered South Hadley Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke
College) to continue her education. In November, she wrote to her
brother, Austin:

How do the plants look now and are they as flourishing as before
I went away? I wish much to see them. Some of the girls here have
plants, but it is a cold place and I am very glad I did not bring
any, as I thought of doing.

Even at sixteen, Emily recognized how hard it is to leave one’s
garden in the waning weeks of the season and to miss even a single
flower. Her letter distills ideas and images that later became
themes of her poems.

Emily’s parents decided she should return home after only a year
at the seminary. In her letters, Emily intimates that they thought
school was too exciting for her and that she needed more exercise;
at home again, she learned to make bread.

Emily’s school years may have been the happiest of her life.
Documents dating from this time reveal a spirited young woman
deeply interested in the world around her who took pleasure in
friends, nature, the passing of seasons, and not least, the
herbarium she created as a class project and an expression of her
passions.

Withdrawal

Emily Dickinson matured in the Victorian Age, but she was not a
Victorian: her formative years were spent in a strict Calvinist
household. Her poems represent a raw struggle to reconcile the
faith of her parents with the reality of her own experience during
rapidly changing times. Critics call her poems “deceptively
simple”: they are short, many comprising only two quatrains, with
meter and structure mimicking Congregationalist hymns.

Emily’s transformation from a bright child of fourteen to a
recluse was nearly complete by the time she was thirty. She
withdrew from life. She dressed only in white and hardly ever left
the house, and then only to go into the garden. Townspeople knew
her as Squire Dickinson’s addled daughter. She was so sensitive, so
fragile, that she could not enter the parlor when guests were
present. Sometimes, close friends and family members could speak to
her only as she hid behind a door left ajar. Even her
sister-in-law, Sue, who lived next door, communicated with her
primarily by letter.

Some of Emily’s biographers have linked her withdrawal from life
to her abrupt removal from the seminary, her portal to the wider
world. Her father had served as judge, state legislator, and U.S.
representative; his Puritan values included industriousness,
thrift, and civic service. Perhaps he thought that keeping Emily at
home would prevent her exposure to new religious and intellectual
ideas then sweeping New England.

Others theorize that a broken heart led to Emily’s
self-imprisonment. On a trip to Philadelphia in 1855, she met
Charles Wadsworth, a forty-one-year-old married minister, and began
a cor­respondence with him. Although most biographers maintain that
he was her lover in imagination only, Wadsworth’s departure for
California is often cited as the cause of Emily’s severe emotional
upset.

Emily’s poems, filled with despair and concern for uncertain
immortality, were sometimes scratched on the backs of receipts,
grocery lists, used writing paper, and other scraps. Most of her
poems were written between 1859 and 1865, though she wrote until
the end of her life. Stashed in her dresser, most were discovered
only after her death in 1886.

Emily in her later life is the one so richly portrayed in
biography–not the young Emily who created the herbarium as her
window on the wonders of the natural world. Here, we see the
curious, observant child from which the poet grew.

Sue Brander is a freelance writer who lives in Tolland,
Connecticut. She is indebted to Houghton librarians William
Stoneman and Virginia Smyers for their help in researching this
article.

Excerpts of poems and letters are reprinted by permission of the
publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of
Emily Dickinson and The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by
Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, copyright 1983 and 1986, respectively, by
the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Sources:

Allen, Gay Wilson, Walter B. Rideout, and James K. Robinson,
eds. American Poetry. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

Bloom, H., ed. Emily Dickinson: Modern Critical Views. New York:
Chelsea House, 1985.

Mainiero, L., ed. American Women Writers. New York: Frederick
Ungar, 1979.

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