Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
~ Emily Dickinson
Around 1813, Emily Dickinson’s grandparents, Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, built what may have been the first brick home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Fowler Dickinson, an attorney who participated in the founding of Amherst College, soon had company in the house other than his wife. In 1830, the Dickinsons’ son Edward, also an attorney, moved with his wife and young son into the western half of the Homestead. It was there, on December 20 of the same year, that Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born. In 1833, her sister Lavinia was born: also at the Homestead.
As often happens, time and circumstance changed the Dickinsons’ living arrangements, and the Homestead gained a new owner. But in 1855, Edward Dickinson re-purchased his father’s house and moved his family there. His daughters Emily and Lavinia, who never married, would live out the remainder of their lives in the home.
Even as I studied Emily Dickinson’s most familiar poems in school, the poet herself seemed somehow out of reach: ethereal; other-worldly; floating through life in her signature white dress. Nothing could have been further from the truth. “I was always attached to mud,” she wrote to Mrs. J.G. Holland, in 1877, and it was this affinity for the realities of the natural world that helped to ground her poetry.
In 2010, during the New York Botanical Garden’s exhibition titled Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers, Gregory Long, its president and CEO, recalled that Dickinson used to include poems with bouquets of flowers she gave to her neighbors. They served as expressions of her attachment to the world, as well as being tokens of affection for those around her.
The people of Amherst who were the friends of Emily Dickinson and her family often received these poems… short poems with presents of flowers or food. They knew her as a poet because of these. Because nothing was really published in her life, or very, very little. So they found the poems, of course, very eccentric.
In fact, Dickinson was better known as a gardener than as a poet. Long adds:
She knew a great deal about plants, and she grew them very well… her poems are not sentimental valentines to flowers. They’re serious poems, but they’re tied to her great passion for plants and nature. So we decided we should introduce people to Emily Dickinson not only as a poet, but as a gardener.
In the exhibition, Dickinson’s own garden was recreated. Todd Forrest designed the space, filling it with an abundance of flowers Dickinson might have planted: foxgloves, daffodils, zinnias, and hydrangeas. Forrest made sure the mix of flowers included dandelions: a decision that required close monitoring of staff who kept wanting to uproot the cheerful, yellow “weeds.” As Forrest explained:
I know for a fact that this is the first time we’ve grown dandelions for a flower show. But dandelions were very important to her. In fact, she referred to herself more as a dandelion. She felt more comfortable and more natural in the fields with the dandelions than she would in the drawing rooms with the fancy folks around Amherst.
It was in the fields, of course, that Dickinson met and enjoyed the other creatures who populated her poetry: the birds, the butterflies, and the bees. A close observer of their lives, she was capable of a certain wry humor, as in these lines from “A Bird Came Down the Walk”:
A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—
She had her routines, and apparently a strong sense of obligation to her garden. Still, I like to imagine her pausing in the course of deadheading or weeding — her white cotton dress shimmering in the sunlight, the poem-in-process she always carried secure in its pocket — as she listens to “the tune without the words, that never stops at all” and smiles.
I don’t think she’d mind if we smiled, too.