Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Beautiful Digital Edition of the Poet’s Pressed Plants & Flowers Is Now Online

So many writ­ers have been gar­den­ers and have writ­ten about gar­dens that it might be eas­i­er to make a list of those who didn’t. But even in this crowd­ed com­pa­ny, Emi­ly Dick­in­son stands out. She not only attend­ed the frag­ile beau­ty of flow­ers with an artist’s eye—before she’d writ­ten any of her famous verse—but she did so with the keen eye of a botanist, a field of work then open to any­one with the leisure, curios­i­ty, and cre­ativ­i­ty to under­take it.

“In an era when the sci­en­tif­ic estab­lish­ment barred and bolt­ed its gates to women,” Brain Pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va writes, “botany allowed Vic­to­ri­an women to enter sci­ence through the per­mis­si­ble back­door of art.”

In Dickinson’s case, this involved the press­ing of plants and flow­ers in an herbar­i­um, pre­serv­ing their beau­ty, and in some mea­sure, their col­or for over 150 years. The Har­vard Gazette describes this very frag­ile book, made avail­able in 2006 in a full-col­or dig­i­tal fac­sim­i­le on the Har­vard Library site:

Assem­bled in a pat­terned green album bought from the Spring­field sta­tion­er G. & C. Mer­ri­am, the herbar­i­um con­tains 424 spec­i­mens arranged on 66 leaves and del­i­cate­ly attached with small strips of paper. The spec­i­mens are either native plants, plants nat­u­ral­ized to West­ern Mass­a­chu­setts, where Dick­in­son lived, or house­plants. Every page is accom­pa­nied by a tran­scrip­tion of Dickinson’s neat hand­writ­ten labels, which iden­ti­fies each plant by its sci­en­tif­ic name.

The book is thought to have been fin­ished by the time she was 14 years old. Long part of Harvard’s Houghton Library col­lec­tion, it has also long been treat­ed as too frag­ile for any­one to view. The only access has come in the form of grainy, black and white pho­tographs. For the past few years, how­ev­er, schol­ars and lovers of Dickinson’s work have been able to see the herbar­i­um in these stun­ning repro­duc­tions.

The pages are so for­mal­ly com­posed they look like paint­ings from a dis­tance. Though most­ly unknown as a poet in her life, Dick­in­son was local­ly renowned in Amherst as a gar­den­er and “expert plant iden­ti­fi­er,” notes Sara C. Ditsworth. The herbar­i­um may or may not offer a win­dow of insight into Dickinson’s lit­er­ary mind. Houghton Library cura­tor Leslie A. Mor­ris, who wrote the for­ward to the fac­sim­i­le edi­tion, seems skep­ti­cal. “I think that you could read a lot into the herbar­i­um if you want­ed to,” she says, “but you have no way of know­ing.”

And yet we do. It may be impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate Dick­in­son the gar­den­er and botanist from Dick­in­son the poet and writer. As Ditsworth points out, “accord­ing to Judith Farr, author of The Gar­dens of Emi­ly Dick­in­son, one-third of Dickinson’s poems and half of her let­ters men­tion flow­ers. She refers to plants almost 600 times,” includ­ing 350 ref­er­ences to flow­ers. Both her herbar­i­um and her poet­ry can be sit­u­at­ed with­in the 19th cen­tu­ry “lan­guage of flow­ers,” a sen­ti­men­tal genre that Dick­in­son made her own, with her ellip­ti­cal entwin­ing of pas­sion and secre­cy.

The first two spec­i­mens in Dickinson’s herbar­i­um are the jas­mine and the priv­et: “You have jas­mine for poet­ry and pas­sion” in the lan­guage of flow­ers, Mor­ris points out, “and priv­et,” a hedge plant, “for pri­va­cy.” There is no need to see this arrange­ment as a pre­dic­tion of the future from the teenage botanist Dick­in­son. Did she plan from ado­les­cence to become a recluse poet in lat­er life? Per­haps not. But we can cer­tain­ly “read into” the lan­guage of her herbar­i­um some of the same great themes that recur over and over in her work, car­ried across by images of plants and flow­ers. See Dickinson’s com­plete herbar­i­um at Har­vard Library’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tions here, or pur­chase a (very expen­sive) fac­sim­i­le edi­tion of the book here.

Note: Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2019.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sur­pris­ing Map of Plants: A New Ani­ma­tion Shows How All the Dif­fer­ent Plants Relate to Each Oth­er

His­toric Man­u­script Filled with Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Cuban Flow­ers & Plants Is Now Online (1826)

How Emi­ly Dick­in­son Writes A Poem: A Short Video Intro­duc­tion

The Sec­ond Known Pho­to of Emi­ly Dick­in­son Emerges

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.