WC73 Review of Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium

73rvu_dickinsonBook Reviews
Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium:
A Facsimile Edition

The Belknap Press, Harvard University
Cambridge, MA and London, 2006

  • $125.00 ISBN 13: 978-0-674-02302-4 / ISBN 10: 0-674-02302-1

Reviewed by Kim Roberts

The Herbarium was the first book Dickinson ever made. She began it around age 13, while a student at Amherst Academy, and enamored of her classes in Botany. Ironic then, that this should be the last of her books to become available to the public. But the Herbarium is so fragile that it has been displayed to the public only once. It is only now, with improvements in high-resolution digital color imagery, that such a facsimile edition as this was possible.

And it is gorgeous: the large format reproductions almost give us the sense of holding the actual book, each page captured lushly, the specimens affixed to the pages and carefully labeled with the flowers’ scientific name, and a set of numbers identifying the class and genus according to the old Linnean system of classification (which became outmoded even during Dickinson’s life). The Herbarium contains 424 specimens in 66 pages, almost all identified by the poet, and most of her identifications are correct. She artistically arranged between two and eleven specimens to a page, combining native species from around Amherst, Massachusetts with specimens of garden and house plants.

Dickinson studied Botany beginning at age nine, and kept both her Herbarium and her Botany textbook throughout her life. That early text, by Almira Hart Lincoln, touted the study of Botany as the science most suited for female students since "the objects of its investigation are beautiful and delicate; its pursuits, leading to exercise in the open air, are conducive to health and cheerfulness."

Dickinson began this project in a fashionable spirit; she wrote to her friend Abiah Root at age 14: "Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you; ‘most all the girls are making one." Dickinson included in that letter a geranium leaf for Abiah to press.

From this point on, Dickinson enclosed flowers in a number of letters, entering into a female tradition of gift exchange. Probably some specimens in her Herbarium were prepared by friends, and had personal associations for the poet at which we can only guess. Dickinson’s practice, later in life, of enclosing poems in letters (many of which were on the subject of flowers) can be seen as a continuation of this exchange; the poems are blossoms transformed, carrying their own symbolic weight.

The language of flowers, now largely lost to contemporary readers, was a common woman’s idiom in Dickinson’s time. Different species were thought to convey particular moods or situations. Giving flowers was thus also sending messages—of devotion, mourning, gratitude, or purity, for example. In the only daguerreotype of the poet, she holds a sprig of flowers in her hands; I have always wondered what kind, but the photo is not detailed enough to reveal its secrets.

We know that Dickinson was an avid collector; tramping alone through the woods surrounding Amherst, or in the company of her sister Lavinia, she wandered freely. The Herbarium represents, then, Dickinson’s formative years, when she was learning to look closely at nature, before she chose for herself a more restricted adulthood.  She referred to this earlier time as her "boyhood." (In her poem, "A narrow fellow in the grass," her poem about encountering a snake, she wrote: "Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot—/I more than once at Noon//Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash/Unbraiding in the Sun.")

Though the flowers have faded, the Herbarium retains its beauty. I can’t help but marvel: here is the evening primrose, whose petals are nearly transparent; the musk mallow whose bloom turns coyly to one side, as if shy; the large iris that retains a hint of its original blue; the thick-stemmed pitcher plant; the beautiful S-curve of the trout lily’s stem, preserved; the flowers of the arrowhead placed by Dickinson atop the broad chevron of its leaf; the surprising inclusion of both tobacco and marijuana.

Here also: the blooms of the foxglove, arrayed along the line of its stem, faded from pink to pale sepia; the sweet-scented water lily haloed by the thick circle of its leaf, so it looks like it is wearing a ruff; the tulip, its petals split apart to show off its stamen; the dogwood, with the intricate lace of lines in each petal; the amorphous blob of delicate green shoots from the smoketree; the berries still clinging to the eastern red cedar; the five-pointed star of the toad cactus flower.

Some specimens cannot help but remind me of poems Dickinson would later write: the arbutus, which she would immortalize in her poem "Pink — small — and punctual"; the two oxeye daisies, their stems carefully crossed on the book’s pages, which bring to mind her own identification with this flower ("How modestly — always — /Thy Daisy— /Draped for thee!"); or the lilac, all its purple now leached away ("The Lilac is an ancient shrub"). She included a full page of violets: palmate, downy yellow, birdfoot, round-leafed, and sweet white. This flower would later appear in poems too ("The Love of Thee–a Prism be—/Excelling Violet—").

The Indian Pipe has been damaged: the black stem remains, but the ghostly white flower is gone. Is this some unintended metaphor? Mabel Todd Loomis (who would posthumously edit Dickinson’s work) mailed her a small painting of this plant, which Dickinson called "the preferred flower of life" and "an unearthly booty." Loomis later reprinted the painting on the title page of Dickinson’s first edition of poems.

Dickinson’s Herbarium also includes some rare species, such as the strawberry blite and the gentian. The latter would appear in several poems, and must have seemed particularly evocative to the poet, not only for its rarity but because it bloomed so late in the season. The fringed gentian inspired one of my personal favorites of Dickinson’s poems:

God made a little Gentian—
It tried — to be a Rose—
And failed— and all the Summer laughed—
But just before the Snows
There rose a Purple Creature —
That ravished all the Hill —
And Summer hid her Forehead —
And Mockery — was still —
The Frosts were her condition—
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North — invoke it —
Creator — Shall I — bloom?

But as sweet as the rare specimens are, I was pleased to find as well the most ordinary and mundane flowers in the Herbarium. She collected wood sorrel ("The Clover’s simple Fame/Remembered of the Cow— ") as well as the common dandelion, signal of Spring:

The Dandelion’s pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas—
The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower,–
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o’er.

The Herbarium must be seen as the poet’s birth — looking at these pages, we cannot help but make the connection. Dickinson would later translate the collecting of flower specimens into bouquets of poems, bound together in hand-sewn small books.

Richard B. Sewall’s excellent prefatory essay places the Herbarium in this context. He writes that this first book "foreshadowed much of what was to come…in the care she took in the herbarium, in the precise botanical knowledge it displays, in the fine composition of every page, the bent of her nature is clear: she was a ‘maker’ from the beginning." The facsimile edition also contains a Forward and Preface, and Ray Angelo’s extremely useful "Catalog of Plant Specimens."

This is just an excerpt from this issue of White Crane.   We are a reader-supported journal and need you to subscribe to keep this conversation going.  So to read more from this wonderful issue SUBSCRIBE to White Crane. Thanks!

Kim Roberts is a poet and community activist living in Washington, DC.  Her most recent book of poems, The Kimnama was released by VRZHU Press this Spring.

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