Emily Dickinson's work is full of references to flowers; about a third of her poems - and a higher proportion of her letters - refer to blooms of various kinds. At a first glance, however, it is easy to take the flowers in her poetry as abstractions, mere symbols that bear little relation to actual flowers. Real flowers do not fit neatly with the often-held image of Dickinson as an unpractical eccentric recluse who hid herself away indoors.
Judith Farr offers us an earthy corrective to this view. She demonstrates that Dickinson's flowers were very real indeed, carefully cultivated throughout her life in her garden and conservatory at the Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts.
In fact, Farr claims, Dickinson was better known in her lifetime as a skilled gardener than as a poet. She grew native plants and more exotic imports, and she botanised in the woodlands and pastures surrounding her home. This is, of course, no news to Dickinson scholars, but the point cannot be stressed too often. Farr makes it emphatically by bringing together a wealth of material about Dickinson's engagement with flowers.
Her book, which is full of close readings, is likely to become the standard work on the subject. As Farr shows, Dickinson's gardening and writing were intertwined enterprises, which both required a great deal of care.
"Dickinson's desire in composing poems resembled that of a scrupulous gardener cultivating plants: she wanted them to be vital, symmetrical, well-established, and likely to survive," Farr writes.
Flowers were a crucial source of inspiration for Dickinson. She was deeply affected by the process of life and death she saw unfolding in her garden, and she often wrote in her conservatory, surrounded even in winter by her favourite jasmines and other rare plants. Some of her gardening practices were certainly eccentric - in later life she became sensitive to light because of an eye condition, so she worked in the garden at night.
Gardening not only kept her in touch with the earth, it linked her to society. She associated people in her circle of friends with certain flowers, sent flowers as gifts and gave them out as introductions when visitors called. In a culture that placed a great emphasis on the language of flowers, set out in works such as Catherine Harbeson Waterman's Flora's Lexicon and Mrs Thayer's Flora's Gems , such floral self-portraits were potentially loaded acts that could reveal a lot about personality.
Farr is particularly interesting on how Dickinson's flower garden was her quintessential experience of beauty, as well as a "manifestation of profound and even occasionally rebellious desire". Farr writes:
"Domesticating the jasmine in the cold climate of New England, writing sensuous lyrics about forbidden love in spare meters, Dickinson followed a paradoxical pattern that related poet to gardener in one adventurous pursuit." Dickinson's floral tastes were eclectic, as demonstrated in the list of the flowers she is thought to have grown. She was attracted to assertive tropical blooms but also to common wild flowers such as dandelion and buttercup.
This handsomely illustrated book has one unexpected feature: a chapter by Louise Carter, a landscape gardener, that provides practical advice on how to grow these plants today. It is a nice touch, but the fit is awkward. It is good to have the facts about Dickinson's Amherst garden set straight - Carter does this very well - but the advice on planting and care for each species seems superfluous.
One could also quibble with Farr's staunchly traditional stance. She gives short shrift to modern theory and "eschews any but the most traditional and classic theoretical terminology". The one time she engages at length with other scholarship, she takes issue with an essay by Domhnall Mitchell that claims that Dickinson's privileged background enabled her gardening. She also goes out of her way to play down any suggestions of homosexual inclinations, arguing that "the Master" of some of Dickinson's love letters should be identified as Samuel Bowles rather than Susan Dickinson. Farr's favoured close reading is often rewarding, but it is a shame that she feels the need to put down other approaches so emphatically.
The Gardens of Emily Dickinson is at its most poignant when Farr writes about the link between flowers and death. "The deaths of her plants always mirrored human death to Dickinson; they were always mystical events to her," she writes - a statement borne out by the poet's preoccupation with withering in her work. Her garden sat next to a cemetery, after all, and amid its teeming life there were innumerable small deaths. These days, a few narcissi remain of the original flowers that once graced it - a testimony, if one is needed, that some plants can survive just as well as the most vital of poems.
Madeleine Minson is a translator and reviewer, formerly at University College London.
The Gardens of Emily Dickinson
Author - Judith Farr with Louise Carter
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 368
Price - £17.95
ISBN - 0 674 01293 3