A few months ago, I began making my way through the complete set of Emily Dickinson’s 1,789 poems. Right from the start, I was struck by how often commonplace plants and animals—robins, bumblebees, dandelions—featured in her poetry. She devoted entire poems to such ubiquitous backyard creatures, describing them in ecstatic, even spiritual language. Whenever she needed a metaphor or a simile, she turned to the garden. When she required a symbol for herself, she chose the wren, clover, or spider. And she seemed to be deeply familiar with the biology of such species. Dickinson has long been classified as one of the great nature poets, but as I explored her work I started to see her as every bit the naturalist.
(…) What I learned is that Dickinson’s single biggest source of inspiration was not “Nature,” that grand abstracted entity supposedly external to human society, but quite simply—and quite literally—her backyard. (…)
In her 1,789 poems she refers to animals nearly 700 times, to plants almost 600 times, and to fungi four times. In her more than 350 references to flowers, the rose is most common (51 mentions) followed by daisies, clover, daffodils, and buttercups. She refers to birds 317 times, favoring the robin (47 mentions), followed by the bobolink, oriole, sparrow, blue jay, and blue bird. Although a few foreign species pop up now and then—the leopard, elephant, rhinoceros—the most frequently referenced creatures by far are the same ones she observed in her backyard every day—the bee, butterfly, and squirrel. But Dickinson’s descriptions of these creatures are entirely unexpected and linguistically innovative, urging the reader to look at the world anew: a hummingbird as a “Route of Evanescence / With a revolving Wheel”; a daffodil “untying her yellow bonnet”; an unseen choir of crickets ceaselessly eking out a “spectral canticle” from the grass.
In fact, an intimate knowledge of gardening and local wildlife is so integral to Dickinson’s work that the subjects and meanings of her poems can be rather opaque to readers who do not draw on similar expertise. / Ferris Jabr, Slate