Emily’s Flowers

When Roses Cease to Bloom, Dear

Emily Dickinson

WHEN roses cease to bloom, dear,
And violets are done,
When bumble-bees in solemn flight
Have passed beyond the sun,

The hand that paused to gather
Upon this summer’s day
Will idle lie, in Auburn,—
Then take my flower, pray!

As a teenager, the poet Emily Dickinson, as many girls did in the mid-19th century, made an herbarium, a popular pastime for young women of a certain class. By the time she was done, she had pressed and arranged several hundred botanical specimens into her book.

I included the poem that begins this post because I think it describes the ability of art to take what is transient and make it immortal, to press images permanently into a book (or score, or canvas).

When rose bushes lose their blooms and violets are withered, neither continue to be part of the cycle of life. Since they offer no pollen for necessary food, bees mourn the flowers’ passing in “solemn flight.” Inevitably, with a primary food source gone, the bees will soon share the same fate, “passing beyond the sun” into death. Since it is earth’s constantly changing relationship to the sun that determines the yearly cycle of birth (spring) and death (winter), to be beyond the sun is to quite literally no longer be a player in this cycle.

The artist’s “hand” captures (gathers) the beauty of the the once thriving roses and violets through words or images. The artist, being human, is part of this cycle of life, and will too wither and die (“Will idle lie, in Auburn“). But while the actual roses or violets are no longer available to us, the artist’s “flower”–which could be a poem, a painting, or a song–is still very much in bloom and will always be so. The artist, although mortal, gives immortality to things that have long passed away.

And you thought art had no purpose, right?

In Emily Dickinson’s case, she has preserved the flowers of her summer figuratively through her words. But she also preserved them much more literally through her books of pressed flowers, some of the pages of which are here.







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