August 7, 2015
A few years ago, the New York Botanical Garden hosted a beautiful event dedicated to Emily Dickinson. They created a facade of her house and gardens in an attempt to demonstrate a living portrait of the Dickinson world. Many students of literature may be surprised to know that Dickinson was an amazing gardener. In fact, a better understanding of horticulture absolutely enlivens her poetry. As Dickinson became more and more reclusive, she enjoyed many hours in her garden. She doted on books of botany and even claimed to have been raised in a garden.
Emily Dickinson was social, charming and educated. However, as she grew older, she became more reserved and hermitic. Nature played an increasingly important role in her life. She understood human nature in such a unique way, having been confronted by life’s brutal struggles at a very young age. She wrote with passion and eloquence on such topics as life and death, love, nature and time. At her death, only seven of Emily Dickinson’s poems had been published. However, after Emily’s death, her sister Lavinia discovered over 1700 poems stashed away. The majority of poems, therefore, were published posthumously. Much debate ensued over the organization of Dickinson’s poetry.
Emily Dickinson kept most of her poems privately boxed in her room with few clues as to the order as she saw it. Dickinson did not separate by date and rarely titled a poem, but she may have grouped them thematically. Most of the untitled poems were loose, however some she hand stitched into fascicles, a leaflet bound by thread. She also jotted poems onto envelopes and some existed only in letters to friends. The various formats of her poems and the many people who have attempted an organization of her poems resulted in a chaotic restructuring of the Dickinson poems. Due to her enigmatic character, and the controversy of the poems themselves, her poems have been collected and recollected, revisited and published in many different ways.
Recently, Marta Werner and Jen Bervin published The Gorgeous Nothings, a book of Dickinson’s thoughts as scratched on envelopes. There are many beautiful, original photographs, adding to the lustre of Dickinson’s life and our obsession with her eccentricity. The envelopes are full of beautiful script, which hints at intimacy and draws an avid audience. The New York Times review claims: “Her chosen paper already carried words, familiar names and addresses. It was stained with life, with postmarked dates and the dust of distant places.” Dickinson lived a social life through letters and an internal life through foliage. From these arenas, she discussed many of the major questions that plague humanity. And really, we have no more answers now than we did then. In addition to publishing The Gorgeous Nothings, Bervin also conducted a study of the notation marks used in Dickinson’s fascicles. At the very least, this experimental artist book, The Dickinson Composites, and The Gorgeous Nothings prove how little we know and understand Dickinson’s mind.
However, the obvious things remain: passion and truth. Dickinson dedicated her verses to large, difficult questions that plague humanity. As summer turns to fall with bees aplenty and roses blooming, now is the perfect season to read Dickinson. One thing is certain, she would appreciate a walk through the garden this time of year. Couple your stroll with her poems, fascicles, Bervin’s projects or a single stanza:
Nobody knows this little Rose —
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Each season renews the rose that lifts toward us and we are enamored.
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