Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium

The poet Emily Dickinson lived from 1830 to 1886. As a teenager she put together a herbarium when studying at Amherst Academy, Massachusetts. Such herbals were a custom at the time among girls of a certain class and hers looks rather professional to my amateur eye. It is a folio of 66 pages and contains over 400 plants, all carefully pressed and preserved to show the samples at their best.eds-herbarium2

Each is labelled by Emily with its scientific name in neat (mature looking) writing. Most of the plants are in flower which means they would have been collected throughout the year and probably over several years, pressing them as she went along.

Although it looks very well preserved, for instance some pigments still survive, it is apparently incredibly fragile and has not been available to researchers for some time. However in 2008 it was photographed and digital images are now available on-line.

I am writing about this because I have been trying to write a poem on this subject (specifically the herbarium becoming available on-line) for a little while and so it is on my mind.

I like to imagine academics rushing to study the herbarium in minute detail and searching for any clues to Emily’s life and poetry. Presumably, she would have been aware of the language of flowers and might have been thinking of this as she carefully laid out her specimens. It certainly looks as though a great deal of thought went into the aesthetics of the herbarium and it doesn’t seem to follow any botanical ordering. So is there any significance to the lay out?

Knowing how carefully poets choose each word, I can imagine even a young Emily dedicating a significant amount of time to deciding how to approach her personal herbarium. I would love to think that there is some hidden significance to the fact that two iris flowers appear either side of Dutchman’s breeches!

I am reminded of poem 903 below and wonder which flower she is hidden in.

I hide myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest

15 days of Nano Poblano Complete! – I have made it half way – It feels longer!



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