Illustration by Susan Strawn Bailey
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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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