"During her lifetime/' Susan Fraser insists, "Emily Dickinson was actually better known as a gardener than as a poet."
Even the most cursory research reveals that Fraser, the director of the New York Botanical Garden's Mertz Library, is correct. Fewer than a dozen of Emily Dickinson's poems were published before her death in 1886, and these few had been so heavily edited that readers could not have imagined that here was a poetical pioneer who would rival Walt Whitman as the creator of a distinctively American voice. Yet everyone in Amherst, Massachusetts, knew of the extraordinary display of flowers, fruits, and vegetables she cultivated around the family's Homestead. Even after she withdrew from society in her thirties, she continued to communicate with frequent gifts of bouquets to family and friends and neighbors. When her sister discovered Dickinson's secret trove of eighteen hundred meticulously crafted poems after her death, what emerged was that Dickinson had planted as prolifically in her verse as in the landscape: Over a third of her poems rely on images drawn from her garden and the surrounding meadows and woods where she walked with her dog, Carlo, hunting for wildflowers.
You could argue that a true understanding of Dickinson's verse depends on a familiarity with her horticulture - and, indeed, that was the premise of the imaginative multimedia exhibition, "Emily Dickinson's Garden: The Poetry of Flowers," that was on display at the New York Botanical Garden this spring. The exhibition, which included a large conservatory showing, drew on the work of leading Dickinson scholars and new interpretations of the poet's personal life.
This isn't the first time that the public perception of Dickinson has undergone a profound metamorphosis. Yankee born and bred, the poet was shy and often, it seems, deliberately enigmatic, limiting and controlling her contact with the world beyond the fence and hemlock hedge that enclosed the Dickinson home. Though sociable through her youth, Dickinson became increasingly reclusive as an adult, eventually to the point that she refused to leave the Homestead's house and grounds and spoke to those outside her immediate family only from behind doors. The few glimpses that townsfolk had of her in later decades was as a nocturnal, white-clad figure cultivating her garden by lantern light. Presumably, Dickinson chose rtighttime for outdoor activities to avoid encounters with nosy passersby. Even her poems Dickinson fashioned into puzzles, compressing and juxtaposing images and metaphors so that they commonly allude rather than declare, yielding their layered messages only with extended study.
An essential key to unriddling Dickinson's poetry, according to Judith Farr, is familiarity with its unique context. A leading Dickinson scholar and the author with horticulturist Louise Carter of The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, the first in-depth study of this aspect of the poet's life, Farr served as a consultant to the botanical garden in planning the exhibition.
Born in 1830, Dickinson was well educated for her day. In an era when women rarely were allowed to attain much more than basic literacy, she completed the contemporary equivalent of a secondary education at nearby Amherst Academy and a subsequent year of study at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the forerunner of Mount Holyoke College. After this, Dickinson returned to the family home and traveled little during the rest of her life. What she experienced in her garden, then, played an enhanced role not only in her personal life but also in her poetical diction, imagery, and imagination.
This became clear with a trip to the Bronx to explore the New York Botanical Garden's exhibition. In the public gallery attached to the Mertz Library, where a portion of the Dickinson show continues through August 1, there are several works that played a major role in Dickinson's education and daily life. There's a copy of the botany textbook Dickinson used as a student at Amherst Academy, and her herbarium. …