T.S. Eliot described April as “the cruelest month,” and although I realize that his meaning is more complex than the following comment might imply, I was inclined to agree with him with each “cold snap” that followed a few warm days last month. I felt that April was mercilessly teasing me with moments of sunshine only to send more cold rain and wind to follow. I, for one, am happy that April has “sighed and stepped aside,” and I welcome “pretty little May.”
Most of us read a mandatory poem or two by Emily Dickinson somewhere along the line, but I was in graduate school before the genius of her poetry struck me. Dickinson was a brilliant woman before women were allowed to show exceptional intelligence. It wasn’t until I started teaching Dickinson that I recognized her uncanny ability to find words that make the abstract concrete and the concrete abstract, words that describe psychological states in such a way that the reader experiences the actual emotion of them. Ironically, Dickinson was better known in her lifetime as a gardener than as a poet.
At nine years of age, she had already started studying botany. By the time she was twelve, she was helping her mother garden. When she attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in her late teens, she began serious and more formal botany studies. Apparently, the founder of Mt. Holyoke who encouraged all girls at the school to assemble an herbarium, a collection of preserved local flowers, described Dickinson’s as a “masterpiece of uncommon poetic beauty.” Her collection of over 400 flower specimens, which Dickinson called the “beautiful children of spring,” was arranged over 66 pages in a leather-bound album with identification labels written in Dickinson’s graceful handwriting.
Dickinson’ original herbarium lives now in the Emily Dickinson Room at Harvard’s Houghton Rare Book Library. Unfortunately, visitors to the library are prohibited from examining it due to its fragility. The good news is that Harvard has digitized the entire herbarium for the public to enjoy. It can be seen at the Harvard Libraries website.
As Dickinson became more and more reclusive, her poems (only six of which were published in her lifetime) and her flowers became her emissaries to friends, her connection to life outside her room.
After a long winter of enjoying my own reclusiveness, reading Dickinson and others, I am ready to emerge from my room and grow things.
Marian Carcache welcomes
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