“If we love flowers, are we not born again every day . . .” (Emily Dickinson to Mrs. George S. Dickerman, 1886)
Happy Good Friday and Happy Passover!
We are celebrating this rejuvenating season of renewal, reflection and rebirth with our dear friend Emily Dickinson.
Ever since Spring donned her yellow bonnet and tiptoed into our woods, I’ve been immersed in Emily’s words. Rereading her poems fills me with the same wonder and elation as seeing those first daffodils pop up or the dogwoods proudly showing off their white blossoms.
Her inimitable voice remains fresh, clever, startling, a little subversive. For someone who once wondered if her verse was “alive,” she could never have imagined that it has remained so to millions for over a century.
A little Madness in the Spring Is wholesome even for the King, But God be with the Clown - Who ponders this tremendous scene - This whole Experiment of Green - As if it were his own!
Although she normally shies away from company, the Belle of Amherst couldn’t resist Mr Cornelius’s invitation to stop by (he has a way with 19th century poetic geniuses). She agreed to share a few of her poems if we provided tea and treats.
We were happy to oblige, quite anxious to try several recipes from the new Emily Dickinson Cookbook: Recipes from Emily’s Table Alongside the Poems That Inspire Them (Harvard Common Press, 2022). Arlyn Osborne’s charming compendium contains 50+ recipes – several Emily recorded, dishes she and her family enjoyed, plus others typical of the New England of her time – all adapted for the modern home cook.
Our three cups of tea represent the triad of Emily’s existence: Garden, Writing, Home and Family. We have selected YOU as our society, so put on a clean white dress or shirt, place a crown of dandelions in your hair, and ring when you’re ready for your first cup of verse and victuals.
💐 Garden of Plentea 🌺
“Every bird that sings, and every bud that blooms, does but remind me more of that garden unseen, awaiting the hand that tills it.” (E.D. to Susan Gilbert, 1852)
With her abiding passion for gardening, Emily was able to create her own little Eden. At least a third of her poems and nearly half of her letters allude to flowers. She called her poems “Blossoms of the Brain,” and associated people she held in high esteem with select blooms. She often included pressed flowers in her letters, or gifted friends with handpicked nosegays, into which she’d tuck winsome verses.
The most poignant of these floral connections involves a white jasmine vine she’d received as a Christmas gift in 1864 from inamorato Samuel Bowles. She lovingly tended it for decades.
Come slowly - Eden! Lips unused to Thee - Bashful - sip thy Jessamines - As the fainting Bee - Reaching late his flower, Round her chamber hums - Counts his nectars - Enters - and is lost in Balms.
In the Victorian language of flowers, jasmine symbolized either passion or separation. Both aptly defined Dickinson’s relationship with Bowles, the married owner/editor of the Springfield Republican, and a frequent visitor to her brother Austin’s home next door.
When you give someone jasmine, it’s like saying, “you are the soul of my soul,” and indeed Emily had said as much in one of her love letters to him. Since he traveled often, these separations only intensified her longing.
Was his gift a profession of romantic love, or a gesture of brotherly friendship? Both knew that jasmine’s nickname was “poet’s jessamine,” so perhaps he was acknowledging her literary as well as horticultural skills. We’ll never know since many of their letters were destroyed by his family.
We do know the cherished jasmine was given a place of prominence in Emily’s conservatory, that it was not an easy plant to cultivate, and six years after Bowles’s death, Emily – still grieving – presented Bowles’s son with a blossom from the original plant.
As a young girl, Dickinson had described Heaven to one of her friends as “a garden we have not seen.” But as a mature poet, she used Eden to symbolize a paradise of spiritual bliss and/or romantic ecstasy. Slow seduction, as a bee approaches the flower, takes his time to prolong and intensify pleasure. Since she associated “jessamines” with Samuel – well, we can draw our own conclusions. 🙂
Bit of prescience: the first page of Emily’s herbarium (a book of pressed flowers she completed in her teens), showcased jasmine (for “poetry and passion”) and privet (for “privacy”). Doubtful that a teenage Emily could have predicted the future, but these same themes would recur in her work over and over.
Osborne paired “Come Slowly – Eden!” with Jasmine Tea Biscuits. It’s a simple shortbread recipe, but I suggest going easy with the jasmine leaves. The recipe calls for a full tablespoon, which I found overpowering. I would have preferred just a hint of jasmine. Like the poem says, best to take it slowly. 🙂
Jasmine Tea Biscuits
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tablespoon jasmine tea leaves, finely chopped
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- In a large bowl, beat the butter, powdered sugar, and jasmine tea with an electric hand mixer until fluffy. Add the flour and salt and beat on low speed just until combined.
- Lay a sheet of plastic wrap on your work surface and place the cookie dough in the center. Shape the dough into a 9-inch log and roll up securely in the plastic. Refrigerate for a minimum of 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
- Cut the dough into 1/4 inch rounds and arrange on the prepared cookie sheet. Bake for 13 minutes or until the cookies are lightly golden around the edges. Allow to cool for 5 minutes on the cookie sheet. Remove the cookies to a wire rack and cool completely.
💌 Wellspring of Creativitea 🖋
“This is my letter to the World/That never wrote to Me -” (ca. 1862)
On April 15, 1862, precisely 160 years ago today, a 31-year-old Emily Dickinson sent a letter and four poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in response to an essay he had written for the Atlantic Monthly.
In “Letter to a Young Contributor,” Higginson offered encouragement and advice to the young writers of America. He was struck by Emily’s earnest missive:
Mr. Higginson, – Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?
The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask.
Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude . . .
I inclose my name, asking you, if you please, sir, to tell me what is true?
She did not sign the letter, but enclosed a card with “Emily Dickinson” penciled on it tucked into a smaller envelope. Along with “Safe in their alabaster chambers,” “We play at paste,” and “The nearest dream recedes unrealized,” Higginson found this poem:
I'll tell you how the Sun rose - A Ribbon at a time - The Steeples swam in Amethyst - The news, like Squirrels, ran - The Hills untied their Bonnets - The Bobolinks - begun - Then I said softly to myself - "That must have been the Sun"! But how he set - I know not - There seemed a purple stile That little Yellow boys and girls Were climbing all the while - Till when they reached the other side - A Dominie in Gray - Put gently up the evening Bars - And led the flock away -
An ordained Unitarian minister, prolific writer, soldier, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, Higginson felt he had just encountered “a wholly new and original poetic genius.”
Through a remarkable, mutually beneficial correspondence spanning almost 25 years, Higginson became Dickinson’s literary mentor and “preceptor.” Also a poet, he didn’t quite know what to make of Dickinson’s odd, unconventional style and advised her to delay seeking publication. How do you counsel genius? How to fit her work into prevailing rules and standards?
Still, theirs was an intimate, provocative relationship. In their carefully circumscribed world of letters, these two friends could speak mind to mind, soul to soul. Emily said, “A Letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone.”
Sometime muse and a valuable sounding board, Higginson also appreciated Emily’s assessment of his work. She wrote hundreds of poems during the first two years of their acquaintanceship, often signing her letters as “Your Scholar.” She would send him about 100 poems; only her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson received more.
They did meet in person twice, at Emily’s invitation. Higginson’s description of the “shy little person” with reddish chestnut hair and eyes “like the sherry the guest leaves in the glass” is one of the best we have of the reclusive poet.
His initial impression was of a quaint, childlike person – from the sound of her faint pattering footsteps, to the way she introduced herself with two daylilies at their first meeting, to how she asked for forgiveness since she never saw strangers and didn’t know what to say.
But Wentworth wasn’t exactly a stranger; in no time she began to speak of many things and wouldn’t stop. In essence, she fairly drained him. He would continue to hold her in his affections, although he was never able to fully understand her. After Emily died, Higginson collaborated with Austin’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd in publishing three volumes of Emily’s poetry.
To go with Emily’s poem, Mr Cornelius suggested Mrs. Dickinson’s Custard Pie. It’s yellow like the Sun and reminds him of the yellow ochre of the Homestead’s exterior and the Dickinson kitchen, painted yellow and green. Don’t you love the childlike persona who describes sunrise in such charming terms?
Though Emily didn’t have a close relationship with her mother, she and her sister Lavinia did learn the fundamentals of cooking and baking from her. Mrs. Dickinson was well known for her excellent table, custards being one of her specialties.
Osborne’s recipe calls for a store-bought graham cracker crust, but of course you could easily whip up your own. The filling, made with egg yolks, fresh lemon juice and sweetened condensed milk, is creamy yumminess. Next time I will double the filling recipe to better top off a 9” store-bought crust.
Mrs. Dickinson's Custard Pie
- 3 egg yolks
- One 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk
- Zest and juice of 2 lemons
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 store-bought graham cracker crust
- Whipped cream, for serving
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks. Whisk in the sweetened condensed milk, lemon juice and zest, and vanilla.
- Place the crust on a rimmed baking sheet and pour the filling into the crust. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the filling is set. Allow to cool at room temperature.
- Refrigerate for a minimum of 3 hours, or until chilled. Serve with whipped cream.
🌳 Peace and Serenitea 🍒
“Home is the definition of God.” ~ E.D.
When Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “The Soul selects her own Society – /Then – shuts the Door – ,” one cannot help but consider these words a bold assertion of her independence. As the only member of her family who chose not to join the church, Emily followed her conscience when it came to matters of spirituality.
She was religious, yes, but she would not be coerced – quite brave to declare oneself a dissenter in a community steeped in Calvinism. Emily experienced God’s largesse through Nature and made Home her sanctuary.
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church - I keep it, staying at Home - With a Bobolink for a Chorister - And an Orchard, for a Dome - Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice - I, just wear my Wings - And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church, Our little Sexton - sings. God preaches, a noted Clergyman - And the sermon is never long, So instead of getting to Heaven, at last - I'm going, all along.
The Dickinsons were a close-knit family, and Home is where Emily thrived as daughter, sister, gardener, baker, and writer. The orchard of which she speaks contained a variety of fruit trees – apple, pear, plum, and cherry. When her brother Austin was away from home, she sent him long, loving letters detailing the beauty of blooming trees and the sumptuousness of all the homegrown fruit.
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. . . I wish you could have some cherries – if there was any way we would send you a basket of them – they are very large and delicious, and are just ripening now. Little Austin Grout comes every day to pick them, and mother takes great comfort in calling him by name, from vague associations with her departed boy . . . I am on my way to put the tea-kettle boiling – writing and taking tea cannot sympathize.
Decades later, Emily’s niece Mattie, who inherited the Homestead after Lavinia died, recalled the first fruit trees on the property:
There were three tall cherry trees in a line, just bordering the flagstone walk at the east side of the house, and all the way down to the garden plums and pear trees, very white and garlandy in spring.
With all this talk of large ripe cherries and putting the tea-kettle boiling, Mr Cornelius insisted we make Cherry Scones. Osborne’s recipe is delicious; it’s actually pretty close to Susan Branch’s Best Biscuits with vanilla added. Heavy cream + butter makes for a rich, tender crumb. So good!
But – instead of 1 cup of cream as Osborne specified, I added another 1/2 cup to help the dough coalesce (I imagine the amount of liquid needed would depend on how dry the air is in your kitchen). Susan’s recipe does call for 1-1/2 cups heavy cream, and it’s never failed me yet.
I like imagining Emily in her yellow kitchen, pitting ripe cherries to bake into bread, scones or pies (do you think she made cherry jam?). Of course while her goodies were in the oven, she’d scribble out a verse or two. Feed the body, heed the muse.
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup cold heavy cream
- 1/2 cup dried cherries
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
- In large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender.
- Stir in the heavy cream, dried cherries, and vanilla just until combined.
- Turn out the dough onto a floured work surface and shape into a 9-inch circle. Cut the dough into 8 wedges. Arrange the wedges on the prepared baking sheet.
- Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden. Serve warm.
🍏 One Last Bite 🍇
I love how Dickinson continues to keep us guessing. Did she or didn’t she have secret lovers? Was Susan Dickinson one of them? When did she decide that sending her poems to people she trusted was more important than trying to publish them? And what was up with that white dress?
Writing well into the night at that tiny work table up in her bedroom, she explored the big questions of love, the primacy of the self & identity, immortality, the wonders of nature, God, and more. Who could have imagined that seclusion could be so liberating?
She didn’t have to be out in the world to know what was going on in the minds and hearts of humankind. Quietly, unobtrusively, she committed herself to poetry body and soul, and was able to touch eternity.
I reckon - when I count at all - First - Poets - Then the Sun - Then Summer - Then the Heaven of God - And then - the List is done - But, looking back - the First so seems - To Comprehend the whole - The others look a needless show - So I write - Poets - All -
🐤 Have a beautiful Easter and Passover! 🌹
Matt Forrest Esenwine is hosting the Roundup at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme. Wander over there to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up around the blogosphere this week. Hope the Easter Bunny brings you lots of treats.
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