A few months ago, I began making my way through the complete set of Emily Dickinson's 1,789 poems. Right from the start, I was struck by how often commonplace plants and animals—robins, bumblebees, dandelions—featured in her poetry. She devoted entire poems to such ubiquitous backyard creatures, describing them in ecstatic, even spiritual language. Whenever she needed a metaphor or a simile, she turned to the garden. When she required a symbol for herself, she chose the wren, clover, or spider. And she seemed to be deeply familiar with the biology of such species. Dickinson has long been classified as one of the great nature poets, but as I explored her work I started to see her as every bit the naturalist.
As someone who has loved gardening and natural history since childhood—and who now makes a living writing about nature and science—I began to feel an almost embarrassing kinship with Dickinson. Here was a writer who unabashedly proclaimed her rapture for the mere “bumble of a bee” and scent of a new blossom, who described herself as a “debauchee” routinely getting drunk off nature—a poet who filled her verse with the Latin names of flowers and the habits of tiny, oft-overlooked creatures. I thought back to all the blissful hours I’d spent tending flowers and vegetables, or simply watching birds and bugs in the green spaces I had known. I remembered poring through encyclopedias of plants and animals just for the thrill of learning their names and appearances, filing away mnemonic snapshots in the menagerie of my brain.
To me, Dickinson’s work suggested that she shared similar joys. I became tantalized by the idea of a genius poet whose talent was nourished not by extensive travel, nor by formal literary training, but rather by an intimacy with the kinds of creatures Americans routinely encounter and rarely appreciate. But who was I to presume? What did I really know of Emily Dickinson’s life, of her relationship with the natural world?
So I decided to record every single reference to a living creature of any kind in Dickinson’s poetry, to research the details of her day-to-day life, and to look for links between the two. What I learned is that Dickinson’s single biggest source of inspiration was not “Nature,” that grand abstracted entity supposedly external to human society, but quite simply—and quite literally—her backyard. From childhood until death Dickinson cultivated an intense passion for gardening and observing local wildlife. And those obsessions are integral to understanding her life and work.
“I was reared in the garden you know,” Dickinson once wrote to a cousin. She grew up among gardeners and nature-lovers in 19th-century Amherst, Massachusetts, a patchwork of forest, pastureland, and residential areas where it was common for families to own orchards and small working farms. Her mother was renowned in town for her “delicious ripe” figs; her brother and father added fruit trees and handsome conifers to the family property; and both Emily and her sister tended large vegetable and flower beds packed with beets, corn, scarlet runner beans, asparagus, peonies, hyacinths, lilies, and marigolds. The Dickinson estate, known as the Homestead, also included a barn, several acres of meadow, and a small greenhouse that became Emily’s Eden—a garden in a glass cocoon that continued to flourish even in winter. She filled the conservatory with buttercups, ferns, wood sorrel, heliotropes, and jasmine, which she quenched with a “tiny watering-pot with a long, slender spout like the antennae of insects,” recalled her niece Martha Bianchi.
As a child, Dickinson routinely wandered the woods, returning with handfuls of wildflowers: anemones, larkspur, fringed gentian, pink lady’s slipper. At Amherst Academy, which she attended from ages 9 to 16, she studied botany and began assembling an herbarium of dried and pressed plants that eventually included 424 diverse specimens, such as wild cucumber, passion flower, pigweed, pennyroyal, turtle head, and Grass of Parnassus. Even when she was away from home, she made sure to check on her backyard: “How do the plants look now & are they flourishing as before I went away? I wish much to see them,” she wrote to her brother while at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which she attended for only 10 months around age 17. And in young adulthood she roamed the meadows and woods of Amherst with her giant Newfoundland dog Carlo, a present from her father at age 19.
Although Dickinson lived in a culture that often glorified the exotic and far-flung—in increasingly popular travel narratives and dispatches from scientific expeditions to jungles and tropical isles—she chose to remain at home following her brief education. By her late 30s, she wrote that she would “not cross my father’s ground to any house or town.” Dickinson is often portrayed as some white gossamer recluse, completely divorced from the world outside her bedroom—but that is not really true. The physical circumference of her adult life was small, but its psychological terrain was boundless. She was, as she put it, a “Balboa of house and garden.” For Dickinson, her gardens and conservatory provided just as much sensual delight and novelty as Indonesia or the Congo: “My flowers are near and foreign and I have but to cross the floor to stand in the Spice Isles,” she wrote in one letter.
Dickinson also engaged in an extensive epistolary correspondence with friends, mentors, and possible love interests, drawing on the resources of her backyard to express herself: She sometimes mailed poems about living creatures along with the creature itself—a plucked blossom, or a dead cricket or bee, slipped into the envelope. She frequently bound flowers into small bouquets and sent them to residents of Amherst, hiding quatrains among the petals, or tying snippets of verse to the stems. And she deliberately surrounded herself with a diverse and diverting nonhuman society: the creatures in her garden and nearby woods, which she called “Nature’s people.” For Dickinson, the full range of human behavior was mirrored in the blooming and buzzing of plants and animals right there in her backyard. She even empathized with common household pests, finding beauty and dignity in the spider, rat, and fly.
The more time I spent immersed in Dickinson’s poetry and biographies, the more convinced I became that her skills as a poet, gardener, and naturalist matured in tandem, feeding off of each other. The astute observation of minutiae that Dickinson refined as a gardener and student of natural history is the same talent she depended on as a poet: Most of her poems are short and intense studies of an emotion, concept, or—most frequently—a living thing. In her 1,789 poems she refers to animals nearly 700 times, to plants almost 600 times, and to fungi four times. In her more than 350 references to flowers, the rose is most common (51 mentions) followed by daisies, clover, daffodils, and buttercups. She refers to birds 317 times, favoring the robin (47 mentions), followed by the bobolink, oriole, sparrow, blue jay, and blue bird. Although a few foreign species pop up now and then—the leopard, elephant, rhinoceros—the most frequently referenced creatures by far are the same ones she observed in her backyard every day—the bee, butterfly, and squirrel. But Dickinson’s descriptions of these creatures are entirely unexpected and linguistically innovative, urging the reader to look at the world anew: a hummingbird as a “Route of Evanescence / With a revolving Wheel”; a daffodil “untying her yellow bonnet”; an unseen choir of crickets ceaselessly eking out a “spectral canticle” from the grass.
In fact, an intimate knowledge of gardening and local wildlife is so integral to Dickinson’s work that the subjects and meanings of her poems can be rather opaque to readers who do not draw on similar expertise. Dickinson loved to write riddle poems about living things and natural phenomena in which she never explicitly names the subject; on more than one occasion, she has fooled critics.
A Visitor in Marlii—
Who influences Flowers—
Till they are orderly as Bustsiii—
And Elegant—as Glass—
Who visits in the Night—
And just before the Sun—
Concludes his glistening interviewiv—
Caresses—and is gone—
But whom his fingers touched—
And where his feet have run—
And whatsoever Mouth be kissed—
Is as it had not beenv —
As literary scholar Judith Farr points out in “The Gardens of Emily Dickinson,” several critics have mistakenly identified the subject of this poem as dew, which Dickinson has written about in other poems. But the true subject is frost: the unwelcome visitor “in marl”—marble—who turns flowers into icy sculptures of themselves. In fact, Dickinson is deliberately drawing a contrast between dew and frost, which are superficially similar: They are both forms of water that leave glistening residue on those they visit. But, as she wrote in another poem, “one – rejoices – Flowers / And one – the Flowers – abhor.” As a gardener, Dickinson was very much attuned to this crucial distinction.
Pigmy seraphs — gone astray —
Velvet people from Vevay —
Belles from some lost summer day —
Bees exclusive Coterie —
Paris could not lay the fold
Belted down with emeraldvi —
Venicevii could not show a cheek
Of a tint so lustrous meek —
Never such an ambuscade
As of briar and leafviii displayed
For my little damask maidix —
I had rather wear her grace
Than an Earl's distinguished face —
I had rather dwell like her
Than be "Duke of Exeter" —
Royalty enough for me
To subdue the Bumblebee.
In this poem, Dickinson exhibits an audacity typical of her work, comparing the everyday phenomenon of bees visiting flowers to the divine, royal, and opulent: angels, dukes, fine Parisian fashion, portraits by the master painters of Venice. The relationship between a flower and bumblebee, she proclaims, is more beautiful and more appealing than all that human pageantry. But what sort of flower is she talking about? She gives us several clues: The flower has an “ambuscade” of “briar and leaf”—in other words a tangle of thorny branches—and a lustrous cheek “belted” by green sepals. And she calls the flower “my little damask maid.” To solve the riddle, you need to know the name of a flower Dickinson grew in her own garden: the Damask rose, an ancient and intensely fragrant variety that has long been harvested to make perfumes and rose oil. She can’t resist playing on the fact that its name fits perfectly with the imagery of the poem. In the end, nature’s humble “maid” triumphs over the regal and extravagant.
Another riddle poem. Literary scholar David Preest guesses that the winged spark is an atmospheric phenomenon, “literally some light which flashes across the sky and is so vivid that it can be mistaken for lightning.” But there’s a simpler solution. It’s a firefly!
* * *
As I continued to explore Dickinson’s oeuvre, moving hungrily from poem to poem like a bee in a sea of hyssop, I became increasingly attuned to her well-known obsession with death, which easily rivals her passion for blossoms and butterflies. She repeatedly wrote of funerals, cemeteries, and what might happen to the soul after the body expires. Yet these two chief concerns seemed to be entwined in her mind. In one poem, for example, the usual signs of spring—chirping birds and ripening flowers—become “unthinking drums” that signal the inevitability of autumnal decay, of mortality itself. I think all those hours spent in the woods and her backyard forced Dickinson to confront the ephemerality of nature’s beauty, as well the universe’s shocking indifference to its sentient inhabitants. In one telling poem, frost blithely decapitates an innocent flower in a meaningless show of its power; the flower does not react, because there is nothing unusual or objectionable about this tragedy.
More than a wellspring of poetic inspiration, Dickinson’s backyard was also the seat of her personal faith, as she explicitly declared: “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – I keep it, staying at Home – With a Bobolink for a Chorister – And an Orchard, for a Dome.” Dickinson repeatedly cast birds and insects as mythological or religious figures, even as stand-ins for heaven and God. And she transformed prosaic encounters with small creatures into transcendent experiences: the “plashless” flee of a robin “too silver” for sound or seam; the lance-lunged notice of a garter snake in the grass, which leaves one not just chilled, but as vulnerable as a skeleton (“zero at the bone”).
In her poetry Dickinson wavered between affirmation of an afterlife and staunch rejection of some cottony Elysium in favor of the kind of earthbound ecstasies she found in her garden. Before she died, she made a few requests regarding her funeral: She asked for her coffin to be carried around her flower garden, in and out of the family’s barn, and through fields of buttercups to the nearby town cemetery, as though she could not face the prospect of a new paradise without a final tour of the one she had known all along.
For additional reading, see:
Slate Plus subscribers can read some additional poems, with annotations and analysis by Jabr, here.
i: Note: Dickinson did not title her poems. The letter F followed by numbers refers to the order of the poems in "The Poems of Emily Dickinson," Edited by R.W. Franklin, which is the most complete collection to date. The number in parentheses is the year the poem was written. (Return)
ii: A calcium-rich clay or mud, but also a contraction of "marble" (Return)
iii: The references to busts and glass suggest something solid, like ice, not liquid dew (Return)
iv: Both dew and frost are glistening, but one is beneficial to flowers, the other destructive (Return)
v: Frost is the Midas of ice; whatever it touches freezes to death (Return)
vi: Referring to the green sepals of a rose. (Return)
vii: i.e. the painters of Venice (Return)
viii: a tangle of branches, thorns, and leaves (Return)
ix: An allusion to the Damask rose, an especially pungent variety Dickinson grew in her garden (Return)
x: A perfect description of a firefly in Dickinson's characteristic conciseness and precision (Return)
xi: Fireflies belong to summer (Return)
xii: Fireflies blink as they flit about (Return)
xiii: Another nod to the firefly's power to entrance, despite its tiny size (Return)