American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Of Plucked Flowers

with 2 comments

An addendum to my previous note

Frontispiece for The Voice of Flowers by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney

Frontispiece for The Voice of Flowers by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney

Looking this morning at Lydia Sigourney’s The Voice of Flowers (my copy a sweet miniature with tinted engravings), I found a parallel to these lines from Emerson’s “Blight”:

But these young scholars, who invade our hills,
Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
And travelling often in the cut he makes.
Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
And all their botany is Latin names.

The parallel is right there at the start of Signourney’s book. Here are the title and first stanza of the first poem:

Flowers

Sweet playmates of life’s earliest hours!
They ne’er upbraid the child,
Who, in the wantonness of mirth,
Uproots them on the wild;
And when the botanist, his shaft,
With cruel skill, doth ply,
Reproachless ’neath the fatal wound,
Martyrs to science die.

I will have to do some research to figure out if the parallel is coincidence or trace of influence. Emerson’s “Blight” appeared in his 1847 Poems. The Voice of Flowers bears a copyright date of 1845 (my copy is the fourth edition from two years after). But it may be that Emerson’s poem was written long before, or appeared long before in a journal; and it may be that Sigourney’s poem also appeared or was written long before. So who knows?

But I’m leaning away from coincidence, as I hear yet another echo of Sigourney (I assume it’s Sigourney who came first) in these later lines from Emerson’s poem:

… to our sick eyes,
The stunted trees look sick,…
And life, …
… in its highest noon and wantonness,
Is early frugal, like a beggar’s child

This too could be coincidence — it probably is — but the conjunction of “wantonness” and “child” in consecutive lines strikes me as a meaningful parallel.

Anyway, if casual research turns up anything relevant I’ll add it as a footnote to this post.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

September 30, 2009 at 1:02 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Hey, Ben, I’d lean toward coincidence, too, especially since the age was saturated with images of botany, poems about flowers, flower fables, etc., and the image of the cruel scientist was common (and was often a sexual metaphor, as in the “shaft” above–science deflowering flowers). The Emerson scholar Lee Rust Brown makes an interesting argument that the obsession with natural history and botany was a reaction to the social upheavals of the time–at least the natural world could be named and ordered.

    allison cobb

    October 1, 2009 at 10:26 am

  2. You’re probably right, Allison. I like the idea of Emerson revising Sigourney, but I looked through his journals and saw no signs that he’d read her (and it looks like her poem was indeed in print first), and as you say the elements are common enough for the similarities to be coincidental. Anyway, I like that thought about natural history and botany. Will have to look into it.

    Ben Friedlander

    October 1, 2009 at 9:58 pm


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