Flowers do not only grow in gardens and in nature. They also blossom in writers’ minds. Quite often writers combine impossible varieties, ignoring the botanical calendar and opting only for evocative names. Occasionally poets really know what they are describing and greatly increase the pleasure of their gardening readers. One of the best informed was the American poet Emily Dickinson, until her death, aged 55, in 1886. Her love of flowers is essential to the understanding of so many of her cryptic little poems, which have become exalted as triumphs of US female writing. Until June 13 Emily Dickinson, her poetry and her flowers are the subjects of an unmissable exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, which is putting on the event with the Poetry Society of America, backed by the well-judged sponsorship of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is an essential destination for gardeners who are caught in downtown Manhattan as the weather starts to warm.
Some of the most famous such gardeners have just been to the grand opening. Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor, was in evidence in a crowd of more than 600 of the garden’s most distinguished supporters. The high point of the evening was a reading by the starrily elegant Sigourney Weaver. Befitting the uncertainties of stardom, she touched her audience by reading Dickinson’s poem “I’m nobody! Who are you?”
The New York Botanical Garden is the unsurpassed stager of such shows and I only wish that the entire contents could be lent briefly to this month’s Chelsea Flower Show in London to give a new, upmarket tone to its floral pavilions. The magnificent Enid Haupt glass conservatory has been restyled to show spring plantings of flowers that Emily Dickinson’s poems celebrate. Peonies, columbines, daisies and roses are among the 19th-century flowers in the carefully planned walk. Roses recur in some of the most admired poems and the columbine, or aquilegia, is the subject of famous lines in praise of its distinctive beauty.
I am glad to see daisies in this exalted company. Emily Dickinson was actually called “Daisy” by her beloved Samuel Bowles, a married man. In 1863 she even sent a pencil across the lawn to Bowles, who was visiting her brother and sister-in-law, and asked him to draw a daisy for her “Most as big as I was – When it [or some read “you”] plucked me”. Emily was famously reclusive but a prize-winning study of her gardens by Judith Farr, The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, considers the lines and their context “sexually bold”. Farr even suggests that a “sexual awakening resulted in the increased poetic activity of 1858-9” and that “being attracted to Bowles is compared to picking a rose”.
Psychoanalysing Dickinson across more than a century is notoriously dangerous, especially as her use of language seems odder to us than perhaps to her and her family. Recently she was claimed to have been “epileptic” and I am sure a case could be made for Asperger’s syndrome with equally superficial plausibility. Even by the standards of puritan New England in the 1850s to 1880s, there was something strange going on. Often she gardened at night and apparently wore white clothes for choice in later life. She was extraordinarily shy and she never married.
In extracts, especially from her letters, she sounds highly appealing. “I have long been a lunatic on Bulbs,” she writes, “though screened by my friends, as Lunacy on any theme is better undivulged.” I am thinking of her poems on beloved tulips while our tulips in Britain are starting to fade and I have just finished planting a crazy quantity of gladioli. She also loved her big dog, Carlo, about whose canine logic she wrote a poem which I do not wholly understand. Even when grown up, she once wrote, admirably, “I was always attached to Mud.”
On first meeting her, an important visitor in her life, the Christian minister Thomas Higginson, wrote in a letter to his wife about Emily’s reddish hair, plain face and white clean clothes, worn under a blue shawl. “She came to me with two day lilies which she put into my hand and said, ‘These are my introduction.’” It sounds lovely, until you realise she was in her 40th year. He remarked that “I never was with anyone who drained my nerve-power so much.”
I have to confess to a similar difficulty. I cannot fully understand most of the poems she wrote and, even worse, I have started to blame her, not me. Most of them have had a private history, so much so that nobody ever read many of them in her lifetime and she remained largely ignored by modern taste until the 1950s. She has a maddening way of inserting dots, dashes and punctuation, across which, to my mind, one has to read in order to follow the sense. She has a typically American problem with spelling but what throws me is her dire grammar and her violent abuse of prepositions, verbs and apparently hanging subjects. Poems start fairly smoothly and then collapse into areas where I use red pencil on pupils’ modern essays. “Crisis is a Hair/ Toward which the forces creep/ Past which forces retrograde/ If it come in sleep”. Does she think “retrograde” is a verb or what? Who really understands this tangle? I can multiply hundreds of such assaults on my sense of plain English.
Of course, great experts are of quite the opposite opinion but I am not giving up. She often cannot use language and I am not going to be as shy as she was and deny it while blaming myself. If she could visit New York’s big exhibition she would hate the public experience but she might actually learn from it. To help us understand her, a series of placards guides visitors round a trail of the garden’s best outdoor flowers of the moment and links them to quotations from Dickinson poems. Poets will be reading and discussing her work throughout the remaining month of the show and there is an interactive link to her own “herbarium album”. It is so important because she lived on the edge of flowery meadows, as so few of us do nowadays, and collected, studied and pressed wild flowers with minute attention. The accompanying gallery exhibit is showing portraits, drawings and contemporary relics of Emily’s world, including an amazing survivor, one of her own white dresses.
This sort of intelligent linking of literature and gardens in an exhibition is much too rare in Britain. In Dickinson’s case it is extremely important because flowers or an accompanying bouquet of flowers are often missing clues to her poems. I am not recanting. I give her a D grade for use of English and will continue to watch professors of English literature doing their valiant best for her. But I am delighted to learn so much about this lady’s deep love of flowers, mud and gardens. It sustained her curious genius in a private world.