“The gentian is a greedy flower,” Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend in the autumn of 1859, “and overtakes us all. Indeed, this world is short, and I wish, until I tremble, to touch the ones I love before the hills are red—are gray—are white—are ‘born again’!”
Flowers lace the landscape of Dickinson’s poetry. Botany was one of the rare scientific outlets for women in the 19th century, and Dickinson was versed in the scientific as well as the romantic language of flowers. She created an herbarium while she was still in school (circa 1839-1846), which is now housed at Harvard, from where our images come.
There are more than four hundred references to flowers in her oeuvre, according to the Gardens of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr, and “although her allusions to lilies are the most loving and sensuous, the rose appears most often in her poems and letters.”
Roses are of course the flowers most often associated with love, but in the 19th-century language of flowers much depended on color, and red alone spoke of love. In the popular 1857 Flora’s Lexicon, the pink cabbage rose (Rosa centifolia) symbolizes grace while yellow indicates infidelity: “The yellow rose also seems to appertain to the unfaithful in love or friendship.” And then there is the scent of the wild rose or dog rose, the emblem of simplicity, and thus, it’s “one of the principal flowers in the rustic’s bouquet.”
Though Dickinson cultivated the difficult and exotic gardenias and jasmine, she did not disparage the more humble wild flowers such as dandelions and gentian. Gentianopsis crinite, or fringed gentian is native to the eastern United States. Its blue flowers open on sunny days, but generally remain closed on cloudy days, according to Wikipedia. And individual plants live for only one or two years, which is perhaps why Dickinson associates them with the short lives of friends.
“While floral symbology had figured in literature for millennia,” writes Brainpickings’ Maria Popova in Figuring, “it wasn’t until the Linnaean revolution of botany in the mid-eighteenth century that flowers came to be properly understood as sexual organisms. Amid Puritan proprieties, their pretty sensuality became a safe analogue for exploring questions of human sexuality. When Charles Darwin’s grandfather, the Lunar Man Erasmus Darwin, harvested this nascent interest in the reproduction of plants in his inventive 1791 marriage of science and poetry, The Botanic Garden, he was planting the seed for what would become a widespread symbolic language of botanical erotica—nowhere more delicately yet fervently suggestive than in the verses and letters of Emily Dickinson.”
There were thus, so many poems to choose from, I simply picked two flowers that appear together and yet seem quite different to me. Gentian also refers to a related genus (Gentiana), and the roots of several species provide flavor for many bitters, aperitifs and digestifs. And rose—particularly the damask and the cabbage rose—provide the lush sweetness to countless perfumes. We who love flowers each create our own trails of associations—our own personal language of flowers that resonates with and is electrified by the poems of Emily Dickinson.
God Made a Little Gentian
God made a little Gentian —
It tried — to be a Rose —
And failed — and all the Summer laughed —
But just before the Snows
There rose a Purple Creature —
That ravished all the Hill —
And Summer hid her Forehead —
And Mockery — was still —
The Frosts were her condition —
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North — invoke it —
Creator — Shall I — bloom?
It will be Summer — eventually
It will be Summer — eventually.
Ladies — with parasols —
Sauntering Gentlemen — with Canes —
And little Girls — with Dolls —
Will tint the pallid landscape —
As ’twere a bright Boquet —
Tho’ drifted deep, in Parian —
The Village lies — today —
The Lilacs — bending many a year —
Will sway with purple load —
The Bees — will not despise the tune —
Their Forefathers — have hummed —
The Wild Rose — redden in the Bog —
The Aster — on the Hill
Her everlasting fashion — set —
And Covenant Gentians — frill —
Till Summer folds her miracle —
As Women — do — their Gown —
Or Priests — adjust the Symbols —
When Sacrament — is done —