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Posted in Inspiring Others
April 18, 2019

Spring with Emily Dickinson

Something strange blankets the city and the soul in the first days of spring. The weary, the rushed, even the dispossessed surrender to a certain nonspecific gladness. They smile at you, you smile at them — under the blessing rays of the vernal sun, we are somehow reminded of what we humans were always meant to be to each other and to this stunning, irreplaceable planet we share with innumerable other creatures. In attending to nature at its best and most buoyant, we suddenly attune to the best of our own nature. This, perhaps, is why the modern environmental conscience was jolted awake by the terrifying notion of a silent spring, bereft of birdsong and bloom.

That vernal exhilaration is what Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), poet laureate of nature, celebrates in a letter to her brother Austin, composed in the spring of her twenty-third year, just as she was falling in love with the love of her life, whom Austin would soon marry. (This beautiful, harrowing tangle of heartstrings occupies a large portion of Figuring.)

Emily Dickinson at seventeen. The only authenticated photograph of the poet. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

On a May Saturday in 1853, Emily writes to Austin:

Today is very beautiful — just as bright, just as blue, just as green and as white, and as crimson, as the cherry trees full in bloom, and the half opening peach blossoms, and the grass just waving, and sky and hill and cloud, can make it, if they try… You thought last Saturday beautiful — yet to this golden day, ’twas but one single gem, to whole handfuls of jewels.

Enraptured by nature, Dickinson spent her days in a sunny bedroom wallpapered with botanical patterns, in a house surrounded by flowerbeds and blooming trees. I wonder if she saw the magnolias the way I do, taken with their bittersweet beauty — for a week or so a year, their blossoms stun with a splendor that vanishes always too soon, as if to remind us that everything we love eventually perishes and yet this perishability is not reason for sorrow but reason to love all the harder.

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.

This eternal dance of love and loss animated Dickinson since the earliest age. Most of the flower specimens in the astonishing herbarium of her girlhood — an elegy for time and the mortality of beauty at the intersection of poetry and science — were collected in the spring, then meticulously pressed and arranged onto the pages of this curious catalogue of imagined immortality and bulwark against impermanence. This inescapable interplay between beauty and perishability, which lends life so much of its sweetness, is at the heart of Dickinson’s vast body of work — nowhere more intensely than in this poem devoted to spring, composed in the autumn of her life:

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period —
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.

It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.

Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay —

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Complement with Dickinson on making sense of loss and her ode to resilience, then revisit Neil Gaiman’s stirring poem paying tribute to the ecological and cultural legacy of Silent Spring.

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