Campus & Community

HU Press publishes poet Emily Dickinson’s childhood herbarium

5 min read

By the time poet Emily Dickinson was 14 years old, she had undertaken the compilation of an herbarium, a book of pressed flowers and plants, a hobby among the girls of her time. The herbarium has long been a part of the Emily Dickinson Collection at Houghton Library, but due to its fragility the original had been in a vault for years – the last significant Dickinson Collection item completely off-limits. Now Dickinson devotees can finally examine what lies inside with a full-size, full-color reproduction of the album published in September: “Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Facsimile Edition” (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press).

Dickinson, the reclusive poet whose extensive work was discovered and published in its entirety only after her death in 1886, was better known in her lifetime for her expert gardening skills than her poetry. She helped her mother in the garden from a young age and later tended plants in her own conservatory. As Dickinson admirers know, her love of the natural world comes through in her poems, which are full of flower references and themes – making scholars particularly interested in what they might glean from her herbarium.

“The herbarium was really the last big Dickinson item that no one was allowed to look at, so everyone was convinced that if they could look at the original they would make some new discovery,” says Leslie A. Morris, curator of modern books and manuscripts at Houghton Library, who provided the foreword for the facsimile.

The plant specimens, however, were so brittle – they were picked and pressed in the early 1840s – that pieces crumbled off with every page turned. For years, researchers visiting Houghton had to make do with a set of reduced-size, black-and-white photos of the herbarium. “Occasionally we’d let someone look at the cover, but we wouldn’t open it,” says Morris.

Assembled in a patterned green album bought from the Springfield stationer G. & C. Merriam, the herbarium contains 424 specimens arranged on 66 leaves and delicately attached with small strips of paper. The specimens are either native plants, plants naturalized to Western Massachusetts, where Dickinson lived, or houseplants. Every page is accompanied by a transcription of Dickinson’s neat handwritten labels, which identifies each plant by its scientific name.

“We believe she had completed it by the time she was 14 years old,” says Morris. “An analysis of the handwriting indicates it’s pretty much all from the same period, and it is a finished book. The advice given to young women who were doing herbaria was to gather all your specimens together, decide how you were going to lay it out, and then go through and do it – so there are no spaces to fill in later.”

According to Morris, there doesn’t seem to be any real organizing principle at work. A few species, like narcissus, viola, and buttercup, have an entire page devoted to their different varieties, but on other pages Dickinson mixed native plants with non-native garden plants. That said, each page is carefully and attractively laid out, perhaps revealing something about the young Dickinson’s artistic side. Then there’s the larger question: Is there a connection between the herbarium and Dickinson’s poetry?

“I think that you could read a lot into the herbarium if you wanted to,” says Morris carefully, pointing out that the first specimen on the first page is jasmine, a plant Dickinson was fond of. “Jasmine has as one of its nicknames ‘poet’s jessamine’; it can also mean ‘passion’ in the language of flowers. Did she choose that specimen because it represented poetry to her?”

The second specimen is privet, best known as a hedge plant. “You have jasmine for poetry and passion, and privet for privacy – and Dickinson became a recluse later in life. So if you want to read something into that, you can, but you have no way of knowing,” cautions Morris.

Biographical, literary, and botanical context for the book is provided by Morris’ foreword, along with essays and a complete botanical catalog and index by the late Richard B. Sewall, a professor of English at Yale University; Judith Farr, professor of English emerita at Georgetown University; and Ray Angelo, associate of the Harvard University Herbaria and curator of vascular plants for the New England Botanical Club.

The facsimile, made possible by the advent of color digital photography, solves a curator’s dilemma. “There’s a constant tension between the responsibility of the curator to protect the survival of the original object and the obligation to the scholarly community to provide access to it,” says Morris. “How do you balance those two? The facsimile made a very simple answer.”

Houghton Library is in the process of photographing all Emily Dickinson Collection objects – including items like jewelry, furniture, and silver – and is collaborating with the Harvard University Press to create full-color digital publications of Dickinson’s letters and poems. The goal is to make all this material digitally available through the HOLLIS and OASIS (Online Archival Search Information System) online catalogs – so that these unique materials will be accessible to the world.