The Gardens of Emily Dickinsonby Judith Farr, Louise Carter
In this first substantial study of Emily Dickinson's devotion to flowers and gardening, Judith Farr seeks to join both poet and gardener in one creative personality. She casts new light on Dickinson's temperament, her aesthetic sensibility, and her vision of the relationship between art and nature, revealing that the successful gardener's intimate understanding of horticulture helped shape the poet's choice of metaphors for every experience: love and hate, wickedness and virtue, death and immortality. Gardening, Farr demonstrates, was Dickinson's other vocation, more public than the making of poems but analogous and closely related to it. Over a third of Dickinson's poems and nearly half of her letters allude with passionate intensity to her favorite wildflowers, to traditional blooms like the daisy or gentian, and to the exotic gardenias and jasmines of her conservatory. Each flower was assigned specific connotations by the nineteenth-century floral dictionaries she knew; thus, Dickinson's association of various flowers with friends, family, and lovers, like the tropes and scenarios presented in her poems, establishes her participation in the literary and painterly culture of her day. A chapter by Louise Carter, "Gardening with Emily Dickinson," cites family letters and memoirs to conjecture the kinds of flowers contained in the poet's indoor and outdoor gardens. Carter hypothesizes Dickinson's methods of gardening, explaining how one might grow her flowers today. Beautifully illustrated and written with verve, The Gardens of Emily Dickinson will provide pleasure and insight to a wide audience of scholars, admirers of Dickinson's poetry, and garden lovers everywhere.
The reclusive poet's garden, conservatory and the nearby woods were intimate theaters, entwined with her identity, requisite to her survival and her primary inspiration. Plants and flowers had souls and spoke to her; their lives and deaths were mystical events. In them, she found metaphors for beauty, truth, heaven and earth, and she wove them into poems she called 'blossoms of the Brain.' Dickinson scholar Judith Farr unravels the symbolism in Dickinson's spare sensuous poetry and explores the influences of family, friends and Victorian culture on her work. The final chapter, by horticulturalist Louise Carter, describes plants surely and most likely grown by Dickinson, along with their care. (She loved heavily scented flowers and described herself as a 'Lunatic on Bulbs.') An engrossing read, illustrated with paintings, photographs and other images from the era.
If you want poetry and gardening of equal merit, turn to Emily Dickinson, whose gardenspoetic and herbaceousare the subject of an attractive new book, The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, by Judith Farr. It includes a chapter on 'Gardening with Emily Dickinson' by Louise Carter. This book catches a constant tension in Dickinson's life. An interesting, skillful gardener, she had a strong literal regard for the immediate world in which she gardened. And yet the garden in her poems is never just her garden. Nature serves her visionary passion. A dandelion demonstrates how 'Winter instantly becomes/An infinite Alas.' I suspect that as she passed among her flowers in Amherst they evaporated into the symbolic ether behind her. And yet, as Farr notes, Emily Dickinson had strong gardener's hands.
Farr...shows that Dickinson's use of flower imagery drew on first-hand experience in the garden and conservatory. She was a passionate gardener, 'able to envision every season and flower at will,' Farr writes, her gardening, like her poetry, 'the manifestation of profound and even occasionally rebellious desire.'...For bringing us so close to Emily Dickinsonone can almost hear her breathingThe Gardens of Emily Dickinson deserves wide readership.
Farr claims Dickinson was better known in her lifetime as a skilled gardener than as a poet. She grew native plants and more exotic imports, and she botanised in the woodlands and pastures surrounding her home. This is, of course, no news to Dickinson scholars, but the point cannot be stressed too often. Farr makes it emphatically by bringing together a wealth of material about Dickinson's engagement with flowers. Her book, which is full of close readings, is likely to become the standard work on the subject. As Farr shows, Dickinson's gardening and writing were intertwined enterprises, which both required a great deal of care.
For the serious Dickinson lover, get The Gardens of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr, an engrossing and serious biography with deep analysis of the floral themes in the poems.
- Harvard University Press
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- 6.16(w) x 8.44(h) x 0.97(d)
Meet the Author
Judith Farr is Professor Emerita of English & American Literature at Georgetown University.
Louise Carter is a professional landscape gardener and horticulturalist.
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Emily Dickinson continues to fascinate the literary world, not only because of her unique, eerily beautiful poetry, but also because of the delicious mystery that cocoons her life well over one hundred years after her death. Some have painted her as a loony eccentric, some as a recluse shrouded in sexual ecstasy: she has been seen on theatre stages throughout the world as the Belle of Amherst, and her works have been incorporated into songs and symphonies - the most poignant being John Adams' 'Harmonium'. Yet few investigators have the quaint, informed pique as the highly admired Dickinson scholar, Judith Farr. This book THE GARDENS OF EMILY DICKINSON maintains the level of biographic study that began with her THE PASSION OF EMILY DICKINSON in 1994 and continued with the elegant, aptly eccentric epistolary novel I NEVER CAME TO YOU IN WHITE in 1996. Like the previous books, Farr does not confine her writing to academia (though she obviously has consumed every bit of available information on her subject and footnoted these books extensively): Farr prefers to open doors and windows of imagination to make the factual data supplied have a semblance to the radiance of Dickinson's gifts to posterity. During Emily Dickinson's lifetime (1830 - 1886) the poet was better know for her commitment to the oh-so-proper Victorian art of gardening. Books on Botany from that period held dominion over reading tables and bookshelves and Dickinson was as astute a garden scholar as the best of them. Flowers are frequently referenced in her poetry, her letters, her life, and Farr has used this other half of Dickinson's life as a means to explore the meanings of her poems. 'Flowers - Well - if anybody/Can extasy define -/Half a transport - half a trouble -/With which flowers humble men:...' She divides her writings into chapters 'Gardening in Eden' (the more spiritual aspect of the garden), 'The Woodland Garden' (the exploration of her natural garden on the grounds of the Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts), 'The Enclosed Garden' (the conservatory where exotic looms were coddled), and 'The Garden in the Brain'. In each of these chapters Farr takes almost every reference to flowers in Dickinson's poems and discusses their significance both herbally and philosophically and passionately. The characters that played significant roles in Dickinson's odd life are all addressed (Susan Dickinson, Bowles, Higginson, etc) by referencing letters to and poems about each, and each bit of evidence breathes floral dimensions. Almost as an intermission to this theatrical diversion, Farr has placed a chapter by Louise Carter 'Gardening with Emily Dickinson' which is well written and serves to ground the ongoing growing tales of the Belle of Amherst with a sophisticated diversion on the techniques of the Victorian Gardener - a chapter which could easily find its way into all Garden books! And aptly, in a manner that would no doubt find Dickinson¿s approval, Farr ends her book with an Epilogue which indeed places all of her information in perspective and is enlightening to both the scholar and the occasional reader of the Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Judith Farr is a solid scholar, a fine writer, and if at times she cannot resist the tendency to 'personalize' her data, then that is merely her style and for this reader is only additive. The preface page of her book quotes the words of Thomas Wentworth Higginson: 'There is no conceivable/beauty of blossom/so beautiful as words -/none so graceful,/none so perfumed.' This lovely thought is a fitting introduction to the writing of Judith Farr, too. I wonder which aspect of Emily Dickinson she will explore next....