The Garden Within

The little garden within, though tiny, is triumphant. There are scarlet carnations, with a witching suggestion, and hyacinths covered with promises which I know they will keep.” (Letters 969, Emily Dickinson).

Funny, how one thing leads to another. The more you explore, the more you find–because it seems, everything is connected.

For my birthday I received an Orchid: (I assume Phalaenopsis–correct me if wrong)


This would be of the inside type that Emily could have grown in her Conservatory. However, after researching the flower as it relates to Dickinson, it turns out, she did not grow Orchids, but loved the wild Orchis.

The extraordinary popularity of orchids in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth centry and the ‘grand scale’ cultivation of orchids in England after 1818 and in Boston after the 1830s (coinciding with the ability to regulate temperature in greenhouses and with William Cattley’s experiements with the Catteya labiata or catteya orchid, named for him) give rise to an interesting question: Why did Emily Dickinson, who so loved the wild orchis, not grow its hot-house equivalent in her conservatory? Orchids were worn as lapel flowers, appeared in bouquets and on dining tables, and were celebrated in still lifes during her lifetime. John Bateman’s Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala (1837-1843), a volume weighing thirty-eight pounds that included fine lithographic plates, had stimulated production in the United States along of a great number of art books–many wirtten by women–devoted to tropical flowers, especially the orchid. Yether there is no record whatever of Emily’s conservatory housing any of the orchids available for growing in nineteenth-century New England.

Indeed, the orchis or wild orchid was not among those wildflowers such as the anemone or crocus that Emily chose to grow herself in the Dickinson garden. Still, it was one of only three examples of natural presences dear to her in the third letter she sent to T.W. Higginson: ‘I know the Butterfly-and the Lizard-and the Orchis-Are not these your Countrymen?‘ (L 268)” (Farr, 106)

In researching this in Farr’s book, I found a reference to a book by a poet named Frances Sargent Osgood–a paramour of Edgar Allen Poe and friend of the Transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller. Here is her picture:


It turns out, she edited and contributed to a book published in 1841 called The Poetry of Flowers, a beautiful, but out-of-print book that catalogs flowers with pictures, poetry and symbology. (You can own it for free from Google books–just click on this link and download it to your computer. The Poetry of Flowers.)

I looked for this book and found two priced at around 400 and the other at 250. However, on eBay, I found one with a raggity cover for $25.00. I ordered it. Here are some pictures:


Osgood does assign meaning to the Orchid and many other flowers. The Orchid is “The Belle” or Beautiful Woman.

In that era, with more travel and technology, people were discovering all kinds of new Edens with beautiful and exotic flora–it became associated with the mysterious. I was thinking today of how the Orchid reminds me of my Magnolia–and then I read in Farr’s book about the artist Martin Johnson Heade who traveled to Brazil, the country that some people believed really was the original Eden, to paint flowers. He painted two that I found interesting–one of Orchids and the other of Magnolia.

8361magnolias-on-gold-velvet-cloth-posters Martin Johnson Heade Magnolias on a Brown Cloth. Notice that he has them laying out, like a woman might pose on a settee?


Heade’s, Orchids and Hummingbird–he had to go to Brazil to capture this one.

So, you see how one thing leads to another in our journey. Seemingly unrelated things become related and meaningful. Birthday–Orchid Present–Emily Dickinson–Frances Osgood–Transcendentalism–New book about gardening symbolism and poetry I’d never heard of-introduction to beautiful art of the 19th century–Margaret Fuller–Hawthorne’s, The Blithedale Romance, which often compares the lead character, Zenobia, to hot-house flowers–like Orchids.

I’m really starting to see how much symbolism is assocated with flowers, and I’m amazed that I didn’t know any of this before. Each one is FULL of extra meaning–or at least is full of extra meaning to those who know. And it makes planting and tending flowers, both inside and outside of the house, a much more powerful experience. It’s like watching football, but not knowing anything about the players and teams–as opposed to watching people you know and care about.

Maybe it’s a lost art–this poetry of flowers. My daughter said today that one of her teachers told her that poetry is, essentially, dead. I disagree of course, because poetry is alive and well in music–it’s just not as popular on the written page. However, maybe he means that a certain kind of poetry is dead or dying–grand analogies lost because of our detachment from history, literature and the natural world.

What do you think?

4 responses to “The Garden Within

  1. Yesterday, I wrote a little thing about the flowers of my past, which I will post tomorrow. When I was growing up, flowers and their color had meaning. I was raised in the home of my Victorian grandmother, so she always held with the traditions of her past. Lucky for me, that I could experience some of her era before she passed away.

  2. I forgot to mention how much I LOVE the book you ordered!! What a treasure.

  3. emilydickinsonsgarden

    Oh, I’ll look forward to it. Interesting, that you lived in that world as it met this one. I got to thinking, after I wrote this, that there are still poets who inhabit the language of the natural world–Pattiann Rogers for one. Her collection, “Song of the World Becoming” is superb. Louise Gluck is another–Wild Iris. I’ve pulled them out to reread them. We have some awesome modern poets!!

  4. it’s unfortunate that a teacher would say that poetry is dead. You are right about the music- and what about those who find and read and love all the old poetry that is out there- your blog is a perfect example of the fact that poetry isn’t dead. I don’t think that poetry could ever be ‘dead’.

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