Monday, April 05, 2004

Blossoms on the brain

As a fan of Emily Dickinson, glontoe should enjoy this:
Blossoms on the brain
By Joshua Glenn, Globe Staff, 4/4/2004

THE FIRST EDITION of Emily Dickinson's "Poems," published posthumously in 1890, was adorned with a painting of an Indian pipe, a flower known for growing in hidden places. This was a reference to the Amherst-based author's reputation as both an avid gardener and a virtual recluse, a shrinking violet. No longer regarded primarily as a botanical poet, today Dickinson's verse is mostly hailed for its aphoristic style, cosmopolitan wit, and intellectuality. That's our loss, writes Judith Farr, whose "The Gardens of Emily Dickinson" (Harvard) hits bookstores this month. Not only did the poet's garden serve as refuge and studio, but the key to unlocking Dickinson is often one's knowledge of horticulture.

Dickinson called her poems "blossoms of the brain," and in them, as we know, flowers can symbolize everything from intellectual and artistic accomplishment to sexual experience and humanity's woes. But unless we bone up on the Victorian language of flowers -- set forth in popular gardening manuals of the time -- it can be impossible, Farr argues, to decipher Dickinson's more enigmatic imagery, especially the allusions to people in her life. Lavinia Dickinson, for example, who discovered sister Emily's unpublished poems after the poet's death in 1886, is associated with the cheerful, truthful chrysanthemum; Emily's ambitious sister-in-law Susan, on the other hand, becomes a bold, stately Crown Imperial.

And Dickinson's image of herself? She toyed with the rose, Farr writes, but because it represented romantic love and matrimony, finally rejected it. An 1847 daguerreotype, in which a 17-year-old Emily holds a small bouquet of "heartsease" -- woodland violets -- may provide a better answer. Violets, Farr writes, though appealing and richly colored, grow close to the ground -- and "like the poet who celebrated the superiority of solitary endeavor, they are able . . . to cultivate themselves," struggling to survive in a cold world until it is their season to bloom.


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