Emily Dickinson's Herbarium: Botany and Poetry in the Victorian Era

Emily Dickinson's Herbarium: Botany and Poetry in the Victorian Era

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When she was only 14 years old, the American poet Emily Dickinson began exploring nearby forests and meadows to collect flowers that she later pressed, going so far as to create a herbarium where she collected and classified more than 400 specimens.

In this way, she acceded to science in a sinuous way, as the women of the time had to, putting art at the service of botany to overcome the obstacles of Victorian morality.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is considered one of the most important and influential poets of the 20th century. His life has been the subject of biographies, books and even television series and films, such as the one released in 2016,Story of a passion.

He spent his entire life in the family home in Amherst, a town in Hampshire County, Massachusetts. Those who know his biography, know that he did not like to leave home, nor did he socialize, in fact, most of his friendships were by correspondence. In the last years of his life he did not even leave his room. Although he wrote poems throughout his life, these were not published until after his death, so his fame came much later.

Botany and poetry

More than two-thirds of Dickinson's lyrical letters to family and friends, and one-third of his poems have flowers - wild or ornamental - as their theme. In addition, the letters were often hidden in bouquets of flowers collected from his garden, or contained pressed flowers. And, before beginning to write poems, he had already masterfully developed his skills in the world of botany (at the age of nine he began to study botany) and gardening (at the age of twelve he was already helping his mother in the garden).

When he was 14 years old, his interest in collecting and identifying plants, something very common in girls and women of the time, led him to create an extraordinary herbarium that is now preserved in one of the Harvard University libraries.

Emily Dickinson's Herbarium

It seems that everything comes when, as a teenager, Emily Dickinson started attending Mount Holyoke, a private liberal arts college for women located in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Its founder, Mary Lyon, was a passionate botanist who encouraged all of her students to collect, study and preserve the local flowers of the Amherst region in herbaria.

Among all of them, Dickinson's herbarium stands out, of great poetic force, and with unusual precision and scientific rigor, even more so considering his age (he was 14 years old when he began to create it).
The work of collecting, pressing and sorting that he carried out between 1839 and 1846 had resulted in a herbarium containing 424 flowers, which he collected in nearby forests and meadows, arranged in 66 pages collected in a leather-bound album.

The thin paper labels identify the specimens with the names of the plants, sometimes they are common names, but in 164 of the 400 specimens of the herbarium the genus and the species are indicated according to the Linnaean classification system. In any case, always with his elegant calligraphy.

The original herbarium is kept in the Emily Dickinson Room of Harvard's Houghton Rare Book Library, but its condition is so delicate that even scholars are prohibited from accessing it for examination. The good news is that Harvard University has digitized Emily Dickinson's herbarium in its entirety and all 66 pages of the herbarium can now be viewed on the library's website (accessed by clicking here).

Thanks to the zoom, you can perceive tiny details where the delicacy of Dickinson's work can be appreciated.


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