My nosegays are for Captives
Dim – long expectant eyes –
Fingers denied the plucking,
Patient till Paradise –
To such, if they sh'd whisper
Of morning and the moor –
They bear no other errand,
And I, no other prayer.
I remember once telling a friend who was getting a PhD in English literature that Emily Dickinson was my favorite poet. She literally sniffed. It was the first time I realized that not everyone thought as highly of the belle of Amherst as I did, and that claiming her as a favorite apparently marked me as a bit provincial and unenlightened.
Provincial or not, all 1,789 of her poems will be read chronologically as part of The New York Botanical Garden's new Exhibit, “Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers". The NYBG are not the first to think of the close connections between Emily's poetry and the garden; she was better known in her own community as a gardener/botanist than as a poet, and there are at least a couple of books that have previously explored the same ideas (see Emily Dickinson's Gardens: A Celebration of a Poet and Gardener by Marta McDowell, and The Gardens of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr).
The exhibit, which includes a recreation of Emily's garden (or a least the sort of garden she might have had, since firm historical information isn't available), as well as pairings of flowering plants with the poems that give them mention, will also include Emily's herbarium of over 400 plants, now in the collection of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
If you can't get to New York you can turn online the pages of the book Emily started at age fourteen, when she wrote to her friend Abiah Root (I want a friend named Abiah Root!) that "...most all the girls are making one. If you do, perhaps I can make some additions to it from flowers growing around here."
It's the most beautiful herbarium I've ever seen; meticulous, beautifully arranged, carefully notated in a small intense hand. I chose one of her early poems--in spite of its imperfect rhyme--to accompany this post because so many of the pressings are arranged as nosegays rather than as botanical specimens; perhaps like those Emily was wont to send along with poems to friends. Artfully placed stems and stalks seem destined to occupy a buttonhole rather than butcher's paper.
Of particular poignancy are the botanical specimens forwarded by friends to this woman who lived in virtual seclusion for much of her life: a leaf from Heidelburg castle, a fern from the Elysian fields in Greece, a stalk from the Garden of Gethsemane.
They are generally one to a page, unlike Emily's own collections, which lie at close quarters nearly--but not quite--claustrophobic, with a compression of detail that leaves one breathless but not quite faint, which is just the feeling I always get from her poetry . A sun-faded copy still sits on my bedside table, ignoring sniffs from those who know better.