About 9 years ago while obtaining my minor in English, I wrote an essay about this remarkable woman and her depiction of nature & spirit within her work. In honor of her birthday, I thought I'd share it.
Emily Dickinson is most often described as a mysterious eccentric recluse dressed in white having physically withdrawn from society to her parents 14 acre estate (Farr 2) between the ages of 23 (Jalic) and 44 (Virtual Emily) with many sources noting somewhere in between. Often they agree she spent her time, writing poetry & letters, baking, and tending to the family conservatory as well as likely caring for her ailing parents with her sister Lavina. (Virtual Emily) She did not publish any poems with her name attached to them in her lifetime of work which included up to 2000 poems, sources vary on exact numbers. It is likely she or family and friends had published 7-12 poems while she was alive anonymously. (Begibing 405) (Myers) It is evident she continually maintained communication with family and friends through letters. (Virtual Emily) She left over 1000 letters behind a likely small percentage of those she sent. (Hurrelbrinck) Some may have been destroyed by her sister Lavina (“Vinnie” Farr 339) after her death, if so, it was likely at Emily’s request. (Mondragon) Adding to her mystery is that only rare depictions of her exist, all of which are included on this cover, the last of which is newly discovered. (Gura)
As an artist she expresses confusion, despair and an undying quest for love and answers to the most compelling philosophical questions of all, including God and Jesus. (Hurrelbrinck) She is quoted as saying “In a life that had stopped guessing, you and I should not feel at home.” (Hurrelbrinck) And “It is true that the unknown is the largest need of the intellect, though for it, no one thinks to thank God.” (Hurrelbrinck)
There is too much to Dickinson’s life, works and ideals or sorrows than can be encapsulated here in any of the honor or respect she so completely deserves. However, within her work and letters there is a small glimpse that will be recognized here and that is her spiritual connection to God and nature symbolism. As well, a connection will be illustrated between her self-representation as a daisy to God or Jesus and the “Master” letters. I believe she is His daisy in a world she symbolizes entirely through nature.
I find it hard to believe others have not come to that specific conclusion before me, in fact, I find it impossible, and yet, to my knowledge I have not found a specific source of confirmation in my research for this paper. Under no circumstances do I deem that I stand alone in these understandings, nor that by any stretch am I the first to see them within her work.
Many theories and speculations surround Emily in a quest to understand her. Evidently insinuating she was romantically involved with women (Farr 58) or married men by sources too numerous to list, labeling her neurotic, (Mondragon) or having an anxiety disorder. (Mondragon) They’ve even said she hid her face from the neighborhood children as she passed baskets of cookies she baked for them from her second floor window, (Mondragon) but she is quoted as having said once to the children as she raided the pantry with them and hid from the maid, Maggie, “You know, dears, if the butcher boy should come now, I would jump in the flour barrel”. (Virtual Emily) It is also said she joined in the children’s games and we should note, she was an Aunt to at least some of the neighborhood children. (Virtual Emily) Sources often contradict one another in the life of Emily.
Clearly though, she had some eccentric tendencies, likely emotional trauma, heartbreak and pivotal turning points. She was easily misunderstood and often even so deep in feeling and thinking processes, she is exhausting yet, she is simple in her quest. She, herself, appears as an intriguing and fascinating paradox of emotions mostly because she wrote down in poetry and letters what some just think and hide. Her journey is not known and I do not to pretend to know what led her down the path of pain, but somehow, I almost understand that she is just misunderstood, exaggerated and documented sometimes totally incorrectly. I find I see her more through her own quote from “What Mystery Pervades a Well”
To pity those who know her not
Is helped by the regret,
That those who know her, know her less,
The nearer her they get (Begibing 412)
She often wrote in riddles (Mondragon) or almost in code to those who knew her either to send secret messages or to perhaps initiate their thinking, so it is no surprise she would like the symbolism of flowers and nature during the era in which she lived or that speculations of her intent, sanity and romances would be made, but it is important to remember she lived in a time of Victorian religious perceptions, romanticism, idealism and symbolism.
She was a woman who loved nature as a whole and especially the flowers and scents that radiated from them. (Farr 109) Therefore she combined her work in one small aspect with the Victorian era of flowers and symbolism, possibly speaking her heart through them as Thomas Hood has written “Sweet flowers alone can say, what passion fears revealing,” (Visioneer) but it is likely she used them in other writings, not related to romance at all.
The language of flowers, Florigraphy, predates Victorian times, but in 1818 Mme. Charlotte de la Tour in Paris wrote the Original Dictionary. ”It was an overnight sensation.” (Hoppe) Many dictionaries would follow in the 1800’s. (Farr 69; Hoppe) Women and men alike became fond of expressing with flowers what they could not say with words. (Hoppe) Sentiments could easily be expressed by flowers and combinations often changed the meaning entirely. (Hoppe) Flowers became Dickinson’s messengers in her life. (Farr 3) She would very often present or send flowers to people with a verse or letter to express her care for them. (Farr 3) These flowers which she grew in her conservatory were one of the largest parts of her life. (Farr 3) She would also repeatedly connect certain people with particular flowers; she did not exclude herself. (Farr 13-74)
Dickinson appears to directly symbolize certain flowers with the people most cherished in her life including Jasmine (amiability) (Victorian Bazaar) with Samuel Bowles, (Farr 42-49) Crown Imperial (conceit) with Susan Dickinson(Farr 50-52), heliotrope (devotion) with Judge Otis Lord (Farr 59-60) and apple blossoms (preference & good fortune) or chrysanthemums (cheerfulness) with her sister Lavina. (Farr 50) She often refers to herself openly with friends and family as a Day Lily, (coquetry), meaning very flirtatious. (Farr 69-70) Many reasons and letters explain her connections, either in gifts she gave or received or some more of a personal nature, the list appears endless. In addition, meanings could vary between botanical resources and dictionaries. (Hoppe) (Farr 69)
None of the connections made by Farr are as compelling as Dickinson’s comparison of herself to God as a Daisy, in my opinion. I believe she also refers to other individuals to Him as daisies and it is displayed in her poems, “So A Daisy Has Vanished” and “The Daisy Follows The Soft Sun”.
Much speculation has surrounded her 3, perhaps 4, letters addressed to “Master” or Unknown. Is it Wadsworth, Bowles, Higginson, Lord or even Susan her sister-in-law? (Farr 58) Many wonder. It seems so obvious; it is to Jesus that she speaks most of all. Perhaps adding to this speculation of love by others is the childhood ritual of “He loves me, he loves me not” (Language and Symbolism of Flowers) in connection with a daisy, but to this I say it fits perfect with her religious doubt that will be explored shortly. I can’t help but think how shallow is our human mind to assume it is a mortal man or woman to find. I, myself nearly fell in the pit of it, but it just doesn’t fit.
Hidden in her symbolism and romanticism is faith and honesty, not an endless line of men or a woman. She did probably love a few in her lifetime and she never married, but not because she was not asked. Otis Lord asked her to marry him after the death of his wife and she declined “You ask the crust, but that would doom the bread.” (Williams) and in Farr’s words
“Dickinson wrote her ardent lover tellingly that in asking for her “crust”, he doomed the “bread”: that is, by inviting her to surrender her social self to him by
moving to Salem and taking up a wife’s duties, he was requiring her to sacrifice
her inner, artist’s self, the self that was her staff of life, the self that wrote poems.” (Farr 59)
To which I completely agree. Men were not her reason for existence. In her letters and her poetry, she finds strength in spiritually, not religion or romance. That, for her time was commendable.
A large part of her life was her religious doubt contradicted only by her spiritual substance. Her desire to believe and her love of life and nature, was greatly conflicted by guilt for feeling doubtful and often angry with God as she displays in her poem “The Master” (Melani) or more commonly referred to as “He Fumbles With your Spirit”. Her honesty with herself would almost appear to wreak havoc on her mind, yet she may have found a bit of peace in “No part of the mind is permanent. This startles the happy, but assists the sad” (Hurrelbrinck)
It is said in an article that I searched for to support my inclinations “to understand Emily Dickinson, it is necessary to be familiar with the spiritual Calvinist tradition of belief in a psychological crisis of conversion” (Williams) Emily was raised by her father and mother as an Orthodox Calvinist. (Jalic) For Emily and the Orthodox Calvinist, this conversion is often represented as wilderness or woods and one must walk through this or the madness of it if they are chosen to be saved. (Williams) In William’s words:
“Emily Dickinson was in rebellion, not against her ancestral religion,
not against Calvinism, but against the sterile and superficial faith of her
more immediate culture. If she revolted against the church, it was in the
name, not of Emerson, but of Christ. And her doing so put her in the
mainstream of the true Calvinist wilderness tradition.”
“Evidence indicates that she refused to conform not because she did
not believe, but because she believed too well. According to the one
good account of this incident, she did not reject Christ; she simply refused
to lie and claim a sincere desire for Christ when she knew the mystic
promise had not yet been made hers.” (Williams)
The story goes that when she was a student at Mt Holyoke,
“Miss Lyon, during a time of religious interest in the school, asked all
those who wanted to be Christians to rise. The wording of the
request was not such as Emily could accede to and she remained
seated-the only one who did not rise. In relating the incident to me,
she said, “They thought it queer I didn’t rise”-adding with a
twinkle in her eye, “I thought a lie would be queerer.” (qtd in Williams)
In addition to her Calvinist symbolism, she also referred to biblical symbolism regarding Peter and faith especially as in her letter to an unknown in Linscott’s book attached at the end of this piece. She often compares the “sea” to life and the “shore” to heaven or salvation as she is quoted using it in this excerpt from a letter to her childhood friend:
“The shore is safer, Abiah, but I love to buffet the sea-I can count the bitter
wrecks here in these pleasant waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh,
I love the danger! You are learning control and firmness. Christ Jesus will
love you more. I’m afraid he don’t love me any!” (qtd in Williams)
Her faith, which she openly doubted, but came to grasp tightly, her well known love of flowers and symbolism which she captured in her art, became the center in which she found solace and acceptance of herself, her life and her salvation. She would come to or perhaps always did, view the world and nature as God’s connection to her soul. When one looks at some of her poetry and letters with that light, it is clear she intertwines all of it. She sees, feels and writes through God’s world of nature. For Dickinson each part of nature is a form of and connection with, The Master. In many cases she expresses in her work a symbolic sentiment in which she desires to align with Him and yet on the other hand she also expresses her anger and doubt. Of which she feels guilty, as if she is the only one to have such feelings. Closely tied together are her religious doubts and spiritual convictions, a paradox that would come to trouble her deeply. She loved life and yet, sometimes she hated it, as she displays in her poem “A Pit with Heaven Over It”.( ) Perhaps though she is one of the rare few willing to admit this to Him and others as well, especially during the religious time that she lived. She was remarkably strong, exhilarating, honest, courageous and pure.
In the following poems and letters I will attempt to illustrate my points. For instance, in the poem, “I Tend My Flowers For Thee”, botanical symbolism and God is solidly represented. I tend my flowers for thee -
My Fuchsia’s Coral Seams Rip – while the Sower – dreams –
“Thee” is classically God and He is not physically present. Fuchsia means confiding love (Victorian Bazaar) or humble love (Victorian Rituals), which she has for Him. She is admitting that she is also torn in that, but somehow she still grows seeds of dreams, likely being accepted by Him in Heaven.Geraniums – tint – and spot - Low Daisies – dot - My Cactus – splits her beard To show her throat –
Geraniums meant true friend, stupidity or folly, daisies – innocence, and cactus – endurance. (Victorian Bazaar) She is saying she is sometimes stupid, yet we are all small innocents to Him and even though her endurance waivers and leaves her open to pain, she hopes He understands.Carnations – tip their spice - And Bees – pick up -
A Hyacinth – I hid - Puts out a Ruffled Head -
And odors fall
From flasks – so small -
You marvel how they held –
Carnations represent pure and deep love (Victorian Bazaar) which she has and lifts up to Him. Yet she admits she lacks constancy, and then hides it, which is represented by the blue Hyacinth or perhaps she is sorry as in the purple Hyacinth. (The Floral Garden) Its “ruffled head” typically displayed on that flower, is quite possibly in reference to her boggled mind. Although, she thinks even He must marvel at her ability to be sane. In short, she is saying this flower has a ruffled head, like me, yet its scent is wonderful even if the bloom is small...”please, look at me like that.” As a side note, I’m wondering if bees are men, but I have not ventured into that.Globe Roses – break their satin flake - Upon my Garden floor -
Yet – thou – not there -
I had as life they bore
No Crimson – more –
Globe Roses from what I can find are probably Amaranth, (Globe Amaranth) which symbolizes immortality and unfading love, which was closely associated with Heaven at the time. (The Language of Flowers) She is saying many have died around her and gone to Heaven. She feels like He was not there for her and she’s glad He is not physically present. She’s ticked off and sulking that they bloom no more and to Him she was just a mere leaf they had. Thy flower – be gay -
Her Lord – away!
It ill becometh me -
I’ll dwell in Calyx – Gray -
How modestly – alway -
Thy Daisy - Draped for thee!
She is saying she is happy that He is “away”. This also could quite possibly refer to a time when she had a breakdown of sorts and possibly saw Jesus who came and saved her from complete insanity (Williams) in which she experienced a conversion of faith often depicted as wildness as in the poem My Life Had Stood. (Williams) So theoretically, she could be referring to Him being with her…and went back to heaven.
“Calyx - gray” means she will just be the dead useless outer leaves on the flower (calyx) if He prefers, but still she is His Daisy, draped for Him…in white? I wonder…. One can’t help but smile at bit at her dramatic comparisons.
The next poem “He Fumbles at Your Spirit” has occasionally been titled as “The Master” (Melani) by some sources and displays the anger referred to earlier. Indisputably, she speaks about God. Who on earth has not felt this way at one time or another? Alas though, I am unable to determine who has entitled it “The Master”.
The remaining comparisons are in reference to her Master letters published in Johnson’s and Linscott’s books. In letter numbered 187, by Johnson, I suspect she believes she hears Jesus voice in her head and he has told her that He is ill from the lack of faith and honesty that plagues her world and hides under guises of Him. She then she goes on to say, “I would that all I love, should be weak no more. The violets are by my side”. Violets most often mean faithfulness or sincerity. (Farr 83)
She then refers to the world as “God’s house”. Because this is not in direct reference to the recipient, as in “Your house”, it leads me to believe she is talking to Jesus and views Him as separate from God. In regard to the question He asks of her, perhaps she doubts her own responses to Him and worries he is ill with her as she is with her flowers.
“Each Sabbath on the Sea” “Till we meet on shore” She repeatedly refers to the “sea” appearing as “life” in her work, much like the Bible and the “shore” to be Heaven as noted in the letter to Abiah mentioned previously. She then closes with “How strong when weak to recollect, and easy, quite, to love.” And I believe she is saying if when we are weak, we remember Him, it makes life and love, quite easy and faith is restored.
In my opinion, this letter is the weakest link and the hardest to grasp, but it is before her supposed breakdown and meeting with Him, and right about the time she begins to decline for a short time mentally. (Williams) I don’t really find it that surprising that this is the case and still firmly believe she is speaking to Jesus. The allusion that these letters may have never been mailed adds to that. (Johnson 187)
In this second letter dated about 1861, and numbered 233, it would appear as though she had her “break” in between these letters, approximately fall 1861, (Williams) and she had wished to die, but He would not let her. (Williams) If this letter is added to the former noted poem entitled “My Life Had Stood”, it is a clear connection between them. I suspect she may have tried to commit suicide, but probably not as dramatic as with a gun referenced in the poem. She goes on to refer to “Chillon” which is coldness, possibly, a cold heart. Note she refers to Him as not coming in white as she expected asking what He would do if she came in white? She then asks him to visit, perhaps she means take her to heaven.
All in all, the letters are a fascinating when read with the research contained in this paper. I shall spare further interpretations of my own and hope that reading the attached copies of all 4 letters and the poems will give some solid credence.
It is my belief that with the consideration of well documented botanical, natural, biblical symbolism which she clearly made reference to in her letters and poems; it is undisputable that Master is Jesus and that she referred to herself as a daisy to Him and only Him.
A few months before Emily died she sent a short note to her cousins which stated only “Called Back” (Virtual Emily) Ms. Dickinson died on May 15, 1886. (Virtual Emily) Emily had not desired a traditional funeral service and many of those attending described it as a beautiful spring day. Emily had a Lily upon the breast of her white dress and her sister pinned a small bouquet of violets on her collar. (Virtual Emily) It is also said that Vinny gave her some purple heliotrope to hold in her hands in which to give Judge Otis Lord upon her arrival. (Farr 60)
I venture to say, she dressed in white, as if as daisy, for the day that He would call her home to Heaven, lest He forget her humble innocence upon her landing at the shore from the turbulent sea, we know as the world. Works Cited
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