The Victorian Language of Flowers

So this is my first post… But I have been following the blog! Since I have seen several posts about ED and her representation of flowers in poems after Jessica’s suggestion of introducing a Flower Series, I decided to add on to the idea.

In one of the letters we read for class (I marked it, but can’t seem to find it again), the footnotes mention that during ED’s time specific flowers had their own meaning. As we know she refers to many different flowers in her poems and even refers to her own poems as “disobedient flowers” in one of the Master letters. I went and did a little research about this and learned about the Victorian language of flowers and “Florigraphy.” In the 19th century many flowers had well-known meanings attached to them. There were many flower dictionaries published and it is said that flower language could let one say anything to a lover in the hopes that one’s spouse was ignorant of the language (Sue Dickinson?!). Many of the dictionaries and books on flower language did not agree on one meaning so there really is no definite meaning attached to any specific flower, but I just thought it would be interesting to include this Language of Flowers list to refer back to every now and then. It includes the three flowers already mentioned.

Fringed Genetian: Intrinsic Worth, I Look to Heaven, Autumn

Harebell: Humility, Grief

Jasmine (White)*: Amiability

*There were a few options for Jasmine, this is just one

It’s interesting to take these meanings and go back and apply them to the poems we’ve already ready. ED refers to herself as Daisy in some letters which means, “Innocence, Loyal Love, I’ll Never tell, Purity, Beauty.” Who knew flowers could have such strong messages??

Lonely Post-er

Images from a mural on the edge of  the Amherst Cemetery:

"I hide myself within my flower / That wearing on your breast . . "

Vinnie the Cat Lady at right

Follow-up on “I hide myself – within my flower”

The full Poems by Johnson does not actually have definitive info about to whom ED may have sent this poem, though a local Amherst woman thinks it may have come to her mother (no one we know).  BUT, interestingly, there are 3 different “fair copies” of this poem, one loose and two in different fascicles, and they differ.  What we have in our Reading Edition is the last version, probably recorded around 1864,  a little strangely since it is grouped in 1859.

Check out the differences — lots to analyze here:

1. (1859, Fascicle 3)

I hide myself within my flower

That wearing on your breast –

You – unsuspecting, wear me too –

And angels know the rest!


2. (1863, loose on embossed notepaper, as if for sending, pinholes at the top but not folded or addressed)

I hide Myself within my flower,

That fading from your Vase,

You, unsuspecting, feel for me –

Almost a loneliness.


Note: line divisions as written come after Myself (1), from (2), and unsuspecting (3)


3. (1864, Fascicle 40)

I hide myself – within my flower,

That fading from your Vase –

You – unsuspecting – feel for me –

Almost – a loneliness –


Note: line divisions as written come after within (1), your (2), and for (3)

“My Departing Blossoms:” Gentian

While reading the first group of assigned poems, I couldn’t help but notice that Dickinson frequently references specific flowers.  Some of these are obvious (like Rose and Daisy); others were a little more obscure.  Last year in Gynomod, Sarah Lawless did a great compilation album on Flicker of flowers that HD mentions in HERmione. I found it incredibly helpful, and would like to do something similar for this class (so thank you, Sarah!).  Because we’re going to be reading Dickinson for longer than the week and a half we spent on HER, I decided that it might be helpful to start a series on the blog (or at least I hope that it could become a series?) that catalogs and categorizes ED’s floral references.  This is its first installment.

So, in a “My Departing Blossoms” post, I think it would be best if the post included the reference to the flower (either part of the poem or letter, or all of it — if it’s not too long), a picture, some information on the flower, and an explanation of how a better understanding of that flower helped your understanding of the poem.

Here goes:

In poem 21, Dickinson writes

 “The Gentian weaves her fringes –

The Maple’s loom is red –

My departing blossoms

     Obviate parade.”

I’ve been able to figure out (mainly from Wikipedia and the Gentian Research Network) that a Gentian is not a specific flower, but a genus of flowers, called Gentiana.  There are many different kinds of Gentians within this genus but they are always trumpet-shaped flowers, and most of them, especially the ones in North America, are dark blue.  These flowers can come in other colors like pink, yellow and red (but, Dickinson, based on her location, was probably most accustomed to seeing Gentians that were blue).  Because of their trumpet shape, these flowers are pollinated by butterflies and hummingbirds, as well as bees and bats.  The flowers in this family can be either annuals or perennials. Quite appropriate to Dickinson’s native Massachusetts, these plants are considered very “hardy” –  like the inhabitants of the region – and are known for growing in mountainous areas like the Alps and the Balkans or even deserts.  In fact, they are often grown in rock gardens.

In this poem, Dickinson seems to be referring to a flower with “fringes” and, as luck would have it – or, more likely, since Dickinson knows what she’s talking about – there is a Fringed Gentian:

Fringed Gentian

To help give you a sense of the range of this genus of flower, here are a few more images.  Keep in mind, all of these are different species of flowers, but all could function as the “Gentian” in another poem.

When I read the poem the first time, I’d never heard of a Gentian before.  Dickinson’s use of “her” let me assume, for all of 30 seconds, that a “Gentian” was a person.  Not for long.  My little bit of research colors my reading of the poem.  Instead of “pretty flower waves fringes,” I can now have a much more specific mental image.  ED’s Gentian is most likely weaving her blue fringes into the red loom of the Maple.  I wonder if Dickinson purposefully leaves the color of the Gentian blank, if she is assuming that her reader (or letter-receiver) knows that Gentian’s or blue.  Further, why does she call the Maple’s loom “red”? Is this to maintain a slant-rhyme with “parade” or to call attention to the blank color of the Gentian?  Does it matter at all if the Gentian is supposed to be blue?

 Because I was so quickly proven wrong (thank you, internet), I read this poem as ED writing about one of the reasons why she was consistently wondering about how Heaven could be that much more beautiful and wonderful than earth:  “if God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I have seen – I guess that He would think His Paradise superfluous” (#185, Selected Letters 136).  This could be her record of a gorgeous moment she wanted to remember.  So there you have it: the Gentian.