Learn how to speak Emily Dickinson’s idiosyncratic language of nature.

Emily Dickinson’s Biological Riddles—and How to Decode Them

Emily Dickinson’s Biological Riddles—and How to Decode Them

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May 17 2016 1:11 PM
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Decoding Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s cryptic biological references have fooled many readers. Here’s how to interpret her poems with a naturalist’s eye.

Digitally restored black and white daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson, c. early 1847.
A digitally restored black and white daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson from circa 1847.

FastilyClone/Wikimedia

In an essay for Slate, I explain what I learned by cataloging every single reference to living creatures in Emily Dickinson’s 1,789 poems. Below are some decryptions of her more oblique and mysterious references to the underappreciated animals, plants, and garden phenomena she studied on a daily basis in Amherst, Massachusetts:

F85 (1859)i
Whose are the little beds—I asked
Which in the valleys lie?
Some shook their heads, and others smiled—
And no one made reply.

Perhaps they did not hear, I said,
I will inquire again—
Whose are the beds—the tiny beds
So thick upon the plain?

’Tis Daisy,ii in the shortest—
A little further on—
Nearest the door—to wake the Ist—
Little Leontodoniii.

’Tis Iris, Sir, and Asteriv
Anemone,v and Bell—
Bartsiavi, in the blanket red—
And chubby Daffodil.

Meanwhile, at many cradles
Her busy foot she plied—
Humming the quaintest lullaby
That ever rocked a child.

Hush! Epigeavii wakens!
The Crocus stirs her lids—
Rhodora’s cheek is crimson,
She’s dreaming of the woods!

Then turning from them reverent—
Their bedtime ’tis, she said—
The Bumble bees will wake them
When April woods are red.

This is one of the most flagrant examples of Dickinson’s botanical knowledge. It’s either late fall or winter—flowers are not out and about—and Dickinson gives the reader a preview of what will eventually bloom in the garden and woods in the coming spring. Here’s where a familiarity with flowering plants, especially those in the Northeast, comes in handy. Starting in the third stanza, Dickinson hits the reader with a battery of Latin names, many of which she likely learned while making her herbarium or studying botany. “Epigea” refers to Epigaea repens, commonly known as trailing arbutus or mayflower: a low-growing shrub that produces clusters of pink flowers. Leontodon, or hawkbit, is a close relative of the more familiar dandelion. Bartsia is a genus of parasitic plants in the broomrape family, members of which display pink, yellow, or maroon flowers. Anemone and Aster are large genuses in their own right, filled with poppy- and daisy-like blooms.

F1193 (1871)
White as an Indian Pipeviii
Red as a Cardinal Flowerix
Fabulous as a Moon at Noon
February Hour—

The Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is an unusual plant with special significance for Dickinson. She vividly remembered the first time she encountered one in the woods as a child: a single stem, white as icing, bent like a cane, its ponderous bell-shaped head lowered as if in mourning. “An unearthly booty,” she called it. Its biology makes it an excellent symbol of winter. Indian pipe is a ghost of a plant: It lacks chlorophyll, so it can’t make its own food with sunlight the way most plants do. Instead, it bonds with a subterranean lattice of fungi that link it to the roots of nearby trees, from which it steals nutrients. Because it does not depend on the sun, it can live in the darkness of the understory, where many other plants would perish. It is a pallid, half-alive, eerily beautiful—much like winter itself. A painting of Indian pipes by Dickinson’s friend Mabel Loomis Todd would eventually adorn the cover of the first collection of Dickinson’s poetry, published posthumously in November 1890.

F1038 (1865)
Bloom—is Result—to meet a Flower
And casually glance
Would scarcely cause one to suspect
The minor Circumstance

Assisting in the Bright Affair
So intricately done
Then offered as a Butterfly
To the Meridian—

To pack the Bud—oppose the Worm—
Obtain its right of Dew—
Adjust the Heat—elude the Wind—
Escape the prowling Beex

Great Nature not to disappoint
Awaiting Her that Day—
To be a Flower, is profound
Responsibility—

Here is Dickinson’s ode to the immense responsibility that a flower bears—a responsibility that is easily missed if we only “casually glance.” In order to achieve its purpose, a flower must stave off worms and disease, acquire water and nutrients, and stand up to the elements. But there’s a puzzling line: Why does the flower have to “escape the prowling Bee,” given that flowers depend on bees for pollination? Dickinson often portrays the relationship between flowers and bees as a seductive but dangerous power struggle, so this could be a metaphor for the threat of someone who feigns love for selfish reasons. But there’s also a biological reality behind the verse: Some common carpenter bee and bumblebee species have evolved to be marauders, chewing or piercing the exterior of flowers, slurping up nectar, and flying off without performing the usual pollinating duties. You can see this behavior if you spend enough time sitting and watching in the garden—and we can be pretty confident that Dickinson did.

F655 (1863)
He parts Himselfxi—like Leavesxii
And then—He closes up—
Then stands upon the Bonnet
Of Any Buttercup—

And then He runs against
And oversets a Rose—
And then does Nothing—
Then away upon a Jib—He goes—

And dangles like a Mote
Suspended in the Noon—
Uncertain—to return Below—
Or settle in the Moon—

What come of Him—at Night—
The privilege to say
Be limited by Ignorance—
What come of Him—That Day—

The Frost—possess the World—
In Cabinetsxiii—be shown—
A Sepulchre of quaintest Flossxiv
An Abbey—a Cocoon—

This is a classic example of Dickinson’s penchant for riddle poems; she never explicitly states the subject. Some scholars, such as David Preest, have interpreted this as a poem about frost’s actions on the world. But the subject is actually a butterfly or moth that parts its leaflike wings (which might in fact resembles leaves as camouflage), flits from flower to flower, and then “hangs” in midair, debating whether to fly as high as space or return to earthly delights. Although we do not know what happens to butterflies at night, we do know that, as winter approaches, many will form a “Sepulchre of quaintest Floss”—a cocoon.

F979 (1865)
His Feetxv are shod with Gauze—
His Helmet, is of Gold,xvi
His Breast, a Single Onyxxvii
With Chrysophrase,xviii inlaid.

His Labor is a Chant—
His Idleness—a Tune—
Oh, for a Bee’s experience
Of Clovers, and of Noon!

It’s easy to assume that Dickinson is referring to the most familiar bee in America, the honey bee (Apis mellifera), or perhaps the bumblebee, yet her precise description suggests otherwise. Instead, she is probably alluding to one of the thousands of native bee species that, due to ongoing habitat destruction, were even more common in her time than our own.

Chrysophras or chrysophrase is a gemstone ranging in color from a golden-green to a deep jade. There is a family of native sweat bees with shiny green thoraxes, but the rest of their anatomy does not match Dickinson’s description. And although carpenter bees and the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) both have conspicuous black dots on their backs surrounded by fuzzy golden hairs—“a single Onyx/ With Chrysophrase, inlaid”—they do not have golden heads (“helmets”). Dickinson is probably depicting a lesser-known native bee species, such as Bombus borealis or Bombus insularis, both of which have noticeable black dots on their backs and fuzzy yellow heads.

---

i. 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.

ii. One of Dickinson’s favorite flowers and a nickname for herself

iii. Leontodon, or hawkbit, is a close relative of the more familiar dandelion.

iv. A genus of daisylike blossoms

v. A genus filled with poppylike flowers

vi. Bartsia is a genus of parasitic plants in the broomrape family, members of which display pink, yellow, or maroon flowers.

vii. Epigaea repens, commonly known as trailing arbutus or mayflower: a low-growing shrub that produces clusters of pink flowers

viii. The Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is an eerie ghost-white parasitic plant that grows in the forest understory and made a lasting impression on Dickinson as a child.

ix. Lobelia cardinalis, a tall swamp plant with a tower of red blossoms that Dickinson gathered and admired

x. In addition to being a metaphor, this might refer to common bee species that steal sweet calorie-rich nectar from flowers without pollinating them in return.

xi. The “He” in this poem is a butterfly or moth.

xii. Many butterfly and moth wings are leaf-thin and leaf-shaped. Some species camouflage themselves with wings colored like dead leaves.

xiii. Referring to museum cabinets and cabinets of wonder displaying cocoons and chrysalises

xiv. In other words, a spun cocoon

[xv] As Dickinson eventually reveals, the subject is a bee, but what kind of bee?

[xvi] Only some bee species have noticeably golden or yellow heads.

[xvii] Some bumblebees and carpenter bees have conspicuous black dots on their backs—hairless patches of thorax.

[xviii] Chrysophras or chrysophrase is a gemstone ranging in color from a golden-green to a deep jade. Dickinson is probably using it as a stand-in for golden hairs.

Ferris Jabr is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and Outside, among other publications. Some of his work has been anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing.