by Kate Smith, Emily Dickinson Museum 2023 Summer Intern
The Marathon takes place in the Dickinson landscape, where Emily, an avid gardener, drew poetic inspiration from her garden and the plants she tended. Along with her sister and mother, she planted lilacs, sweet williams, daisies, poppies, foxglove, roses, peonies, nasturtiums, zinnias, and more. Unlike most New Englanders, she could garden year-round, thanks to her father’s addition of the conservatory to the Homestead in 1855. In the conservatory, Emily grew plants like jasmine and cactus that would not survive the harsh New England winters, and forced bulbs like hyacinths and crocuses.
Dickinson’s poems evidence both her gardening experience and scientific knowledge. She studied botany in her youth at Amherst Academy. She references the scientific names of flower anatomy in “The Lilac is an ancient Shrub” (Fr1261), as learned from her textbooks and teachers. In her time at the Academy, Dickinson also compiled an herbarium, where she pressed clippings of her plants and labeled them with their scientific names.
One of the textbooks Dickinson read, Almira Lincoln’s Familiar Lectures on Botany, also included information about the language of flowers, a popular tool for communication through gifts of flora. Another popular flower dictionary of the era, which she might have read, is Flora’s Lexicon (1837) by Catharine Harbeson Waterman. Many plants that Emily cultivated, sent as gifts, and included in her poems are mentioned in these dictionaries.
Compare the floral definition with the Dickinson poem. Do you think she had the popular meaning in mind?
Selected Flowers and Their Popular Meanings
|Disdain, pride||Familiar Lectures|
- “Tis customary as we part” (Fr628)
|Traveller’s joy||Flora’s Lexicon|
|Mental excellence||Familiar Lectures|
|“I cannot give thee up” (purple)
“Hope and fear alternately prevail” (red)
- “Absent place an April day” (Fr958)
- “She dwelleth in the ground” (Fr744)
- “Where ships of Purple – gently toss” (Fr296)
- “Whose are the little beds – I asked” (Fr85)
- “I dreaded that first robin so” (Fr347)
|Chivalry||Flora’s Lexicon, Familiar Lectures|
- “So has a daisy vanished” (Fr19)
- “The daisy follows soft the sun” (Fr161)
- “Here where the daisies fit my head” (Fr985)
- “The Himmaleh was known” (Fr460)
- “I tend my flowers for thee”
|Unconscious Beauty||Familiar Lectures|
“Thou art changed” (fish)
“Give me one look to cheer my absence” (oak)
“Many are lovely, but you exceed all” (rose)
|“Love is full of jealousy”||Familiar Lectures|
- “Opon a lilac sea” (Fr1368)
- “The lilac is an ancient shrub” (Fr1261)
- “His little Hearse like figure” (Fr1547)
- “It will be summer eventually” (Fr374)
|First emotions of love||Flora’s Lexicon|
|First love||Familiar Lectures|
- “Through the dark sod as education” (Fr559)
- “How the waters closed above him” (Fr941)
- “A science – so the savans say” (Fr147)
- “A lady red amid the hill” (Fr137)
|Modesty and purity||Flora’s Lexicon|
|Purity, “with looks too pure for Earth” (white)
False, light as air (yellow)
- “The morns are meeker than they were” (Fr32)
- “What shall I do when the summer troubles” (Fr915)
- “As imperceptibly as Grief” (Fr935)
|Reserve, retirement||Flora’s Lexicon|
Almira Lincoln, Familiar Lectures on Botany (New York: Huntington and Savage, 1846) 206-209.
Catherine Harbeson Waterman, Flora’s Lexicon, An Interpretation of the Language and Sentiment of Flowers: with an Outline of Botany, and a Poetical Introduction (Hooker and Claxton, 1839).
- Search the digitized herbarium to see if Dickinson collected a specimen of a mentioned plant.
- Use Familiar Lectures on Botany andFlora’s Lexicon to look up the popular meaning of a plant.
- Take a virtual tour of the Dickinsons’ grounds with the Landscape Audio Tour.