Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Say it with Posies

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies. that's for thoughts...
There's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue
for you; and here's some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o' Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
a difference. There's a daisy: I would give you
some violets, but they withered all when my father
died: they say he made a good end,--
For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.

Ophelia, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5, Wm. Shakespeare
If I were to give you flowers which would they be?

It's not just an idle thought. It's prompted by my visit to the Emily Dickinson's Garden: The Poetry of Flowers exhibit at the New York Botanic Garden. A theme played up in various aspects of the show is the idea that flowers held metaphoric meanings that were common knowledge in Victorian day.

I went about the slightly surreal (if one knows anything about gardening) recreated Dickinson border. Daffodils bloomed with hydrangeas - which simply doesn't occur in nature. Smiling, heavily made-up damsels in pastel period costumes milled about charmingly. They were to be, as I soon gathered, stars of the afternoon's ballet performances. The recreated floral borders and mock facade of Emily Dickinson's house lay within the enclosed walls of the giant conservatory. Truly I felt like a creature under glass myself!

Another instance of Alice-in-Wonderland-like perspective shifting occurred for me upon entering the crystal-palace conservatory. There, in its large central space lies an enormous still pool. The surface of the water is smooth and black and it's gorgeously interplanted from below the mirror surface of water up to domed sky with a jungle of foliage and flowers. I stood and regarded it, and it reminded me of my own houseplants arranged on a tiered stand and on the floor in a corner beneath a small fountain hung on the wall, in what we grandly refer to as the solarium. Standing in the truly grand-scaled conservatory I simultaneously imagined that I was standing at greatly reduced size on the ledge of my wall fountain amidst my collection of tropical plants.

But I digress. Signage along the lovely mixed garden border identified not only the names and types of plants, but also interpretive signage as to what each type of flower signified "in Dickinson's day." On display at the NYBG gallery were copies of several nineteenth century books devoted to the meanings and language of flowers. In the beautiful and informative souvenir catalogue to the exhibition, Judith Farr writes, "Most Victorians knew 'the language of flowers,'" that is the metaphoric significance of each floral species.

And what I started to reflect about is that I myself don't know the "language of flowers," and I daresay that most people in our era don't (save, perhaps, professional floral designers).

Naturally enough the garden exhibit emphasized the meanings of flowers "in Dickinson's day." I'm not certain when flowers began to take on specific allusions (in very ancient times) but I am certain that throughout a very long course of human history people collectively understood meanings that came to be associated with them. And now -- and when did it start to occur? -- those common associations have been lost. I would have to write down that the columbine means ______, and the dandelion ____________. And I didn't take notes from or photograph the signage I glimpsed so now I've forgotten (though I have since found an index to flower meanings in Dickinson's day on the NYBG blog). The flowers were symbols. In our day they don't seem as symbolic. Something's been lost.

I gather that in Victorian day the giving and receiving of nosegays reached a sophisticated level, the delightful game of working out a floral puzzle. It would be hard for me to put together a bouquet in which I select a particular flower or flowers to convey a nuanced message, and that my recipient could be expected to decipher, unless I included an explanatory card.

It might be nice to bring back that charming tradition. Or perhaps it became too rarified and sentimentalized.

In the souvenir catalogue Judith Farr writes that Emily Dickinson "preferred scented flowers and compared poetry itself to their perfume. When she made artistically arranged bouquets for those who were ill or grieving or missed by her tender heart, she would tuck a sprightly lyric into the center of the arrangement. Thus, she emphasized the sensitive connection between her 'posies' (often a Victorian synonym for 'poems') and her verse."

I am not certain if Emily Dickinson herself used commonly understood associations in her poems. I think that perhaps often she didn't. She was original and invested species with associations of her own. But still, she was aware of the floral lingua franca - and took off from there.


  1. Hi, Belle. I am headed to NYC and can't wait to check out this show.

    You might be interested in checking out my new novel, FORGET-HER-NOTS, which is about the language of flowers come magically to life. It's a young adult novel published by HarperCollins, but I'm getting fan mail from flower lovers of all ages!

    Happy Spring,

    Amy Brecount White


  2. Amy, I checked out your website - your novel sounds so inventive and a lot of fun. Congratulations on being a published author! Enjoy the ED garden show when you're in NYC, and thanks for stopping by. Belle