Emily Dickinson, Flowers, and the Foreign

4184485 copyThis piece by Shelley Nituama on the EDSITEment! page at the NEH about using Emily Dickinson’s relationship to flowers to teach her poetry points out how sending and giving flowers were forms of communication for Dickinson and her peers. I have been interested in this connection formed through nature for Dickinson for a while and have specifically explored how for Dickinson elements of nature are conduits to explore foreign places.

One of my favorite examples of this idea that a piece of nature can act as a way to imagine a foreign place that one has not personally traveled is from a letter Dickinson wrote to Elizabeth Holland. Dickinson described the feeling of being in a faraway place that she achieved through the flowers she cultivated. In this letter Dickinson wrote about the foreign flowers she had in her conservatory. Dickinson wrote, “My flowers are near and foreign, and I have but to cross the floor to stand in the Spice Isles” (L315). She was suggesting that having access to these flowers erased the distance between her location in her Amherst home and the Spice Isles. Dickinson did not write that she felt as if or thought that she was in the Spice Isles; she was “in” the Isles.  The flowers were her main connection to this other place; she used the flowers to transcend her local environment and experience a place she could not have contact with otherwise.

Dickinson’s poem, “Between My Country—and the Others—” illustrates quite explicitly how Dickinson uses nature to imagine moving from one place to another. The poem reads in full:

Between My Country – and the Others –
There is a Sea –
But Flowers – negotiate between us –
As Ministry. (Fr 829)

The short poem moves very quickly between two disparate places—“My Country” and “the Others” (364). The sea acts as the barrier between the two places. The speaker will not be moving from “my country” to access other places. The barrier is set; however, the speaker has the advantage that the flowers will communicate between the two places for the speaker. And the flowers will not just be the receptacles of messages. They will minister; they will aid the speaker in communicating with people in the other countries. Communication from these places cannot take place without flowers to act as a channel for the stationary speaker. The speaker wants access to all of these places but will never visit them, and therefore needs to have a messenger to act as a communicator.

A further illustration of nature traveling around the world for a speaker is “As if some little Artic flower,” which shows that interpretative power provided to the poet and her speakers through nature. This poem imagines a flower from the Artic traveling around the globe:

As if some little Arctic flower
Upon the polar hem –
Went wandering down the Latitudes
Until it puzzled came
To continents of summer –
To firmaments of sun –
To strange, bright crowds of flowers –
And birds, of foreign tongue!
I say, As if this little flower
To Eden, wandered in –
What then? Why nothing,
Only, your inference therefrom! (Fr 177)

The poem asks an important question: “What then?” about the results of the traveling flower’s journey. To describe the flower’s journey, the poem uses the conditional “if” to highlight the fact that the Artic flower cannot really travel around the world. The journey being real or not is not of consequence in face of the larger question about what it means to imagine this kind of journey. The turn at the end of the poem makes the point that the interpretation of the journey can take place regardless of if this journey could, would, or did occur.  The last two lines of the poem conclude about the imagined journey: “What then? Why nothing,/Only, your inference therefrom!” (Fr177).  The conclusion drawn from the question, “What then?,” about the significance of the flower’s travels is that the “inference therefrom” is the most important part of the flower’s journey.  In fact, without the “inference therefrom” the answer to the question of “What then?” is “nothing.” Without a person there to imagine, make sense of, and interpret the flower’s journey, the journey has no consequence. But it is not only that the person addressed has the power to interpret the flower’s journey, it is also that regardless of whether this journey is real or not it can be interpreted and that the act itself—a piece of nature traveling around the world—opens up the possibility of interpretation.

As Nituama points out nature is a great way to get students to find avenues into Dickinson. Dickinson’s use of flowers and other forms of nature also provide a means of interpreting how Dickinson thinks through her access to foreign places. The speakers in her poems do not need to take literal trips in order to explore the world. That sentiment is a powerful one for understanding Dickinson and, on a larger scale, for thinking about the interconnectedness of  places and spaces across the world.

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