The Rosenbach’s garden is filled with beautiful flowers and native plants that were specially selected to connect with works of literature in our collection. Below you’ll find interpretive guides to explore our garden with books of faith and philosophy, the works of William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Lewis Carroll, and Marianne Moore.
The Rosenbach’s garden opens to the public on September 17, 2020. You can learn more and register for your visit here.
Interpretive Guides to the Garden
Here are just a few examples of references to plants which appear in the Rosenbach’s collection of books from Jewish and Christian faith traditions.
“[She said] I am only a little rose or autumn crocus of the plain of Sharon, or a [humble] lily of the valley . . .” Song of Songs 2:1
“I will put the cedar in the wilderness. The acacia and the myrtle, and the olive tree. I will place the juniper in the desert together with the box-wood and the cypress.” Isaiah 41:19
“And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil, nor do they spin.” Matthew 6:28
“And thus I saw the horses in the vision: those who sat on them had breastplates of fiery red, hyacinth blue, and sulphur yellow; and the heads of the horses were like the heads of lions; and out of their mouths came fire, smoke, and brimstone.”Revelations 9:17
Another book of faith in the Rosenbach’s collection is the I Ching, or “Book of Changes,” seen in the picture above, which was used in conjunction with Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. In the I Ching, yarrow stalks are used throughout to activate the unconscious to understand the nature of a situation. They are the divining stalks that hide cosmic influences, and—as vegetables—hold the sources of life.
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight”
-- Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The lush description of the flowers by the fairy king Oberon bring to life a rich world for the readers or playgoers of Midsummer Night’s Dream. We can envision a landscape populated by so many flowers and plants in all their color and fullness, a world where it would it be quite natural to spy a fairy lounging on a bank.
‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.’
-- Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
As expected, the rose is mentioned more than any other flower in Shakespeare (95 instances), and the most famous occurrence is Juliet’s use of it as defense of her love for Romeo. Just as the scent of a rose would not change if the flower were given another name, her perfect love for Romeo is unaltered even though he bears the name of Montague, her family’s sworn enemy.
"There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember.
And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts ...
There’s fennel for you, and columbines.
There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.
We may call it “herb of grace” o' Sundays.
- Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.
There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets,
But they withered all when my father died."
-- Ophelia in Hamlet
Overwhelmed with grief for the death of her father, Ophelia gives flowers and herbs to the King of Queen of Elsinore. Although she seems to be going mad in the scene, the flowers and plants she has chosen are perfect representations of her emotional state:
- Ophelia links rosemary with remembrance, and the herb was often used in funeral wreaths.
- Columbine was originally an English wildflower and came to be emblematic of ingratitude in some poems.
- Daisies are the flower for innocence and violets for faithfulness.
“When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o' the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter's pale.
The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
With heigh! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!”
-- Autolycus in A Winter’s Tale
"Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue's sweet air
More tuneable than lark to shepherd's ear,
When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear."
-- Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream
“There is a man haunts the forest that abuses our young plants with carving “Rosalind” on their barks, hangs odes upon hawthorns and elegies on brambles, all, forsooth, deifying the name of Rosalind.”
-- Rosalind in As You Like It
"Through the sharp Hawthorn blows the cold wind."
-- Edgar in King Lear
The hawthorn tree shows up several times in Shakespeare’s plays, sometimes to help a character describe another’s beauty, as Helena does about Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the budding of the hawthorns are like heralds for Hermia’s springtime beauty. But the tree can also be used to set the scene for an audience, who can imagine the kind of tree surrounding the sighing lovers in As You Like It or the shivering, outcast Edgar in Lear.
“So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!”
-- Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The fairy queen Titania invokes the movement and embrace of ivy as a metaphor for her mad love of the transformed Bottom the Weaver.
“Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.
“ Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.”
--Amiens in As You Like It
And finally, see how Shakespeare invokes the life-affirming green of the merry holly bush, a symbol of life amidst the barren winter months that can inspire frivolity even with the cold wind blowing.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is often portrayed as having lived a cloistered existence. But many of her poems are actually inspired by the outside world. Emily loved flowers. She cultivated them in her conservatory and large outdoor garden and often shared bouquets and pressed flowers with friends. The Rosenbach has letters from Emily Dickinson to friends and family in its collection. Several of those letters are marked with the residue of the dried flower they once contained.
Here are a few of Emily’s poems inspired by the natural world:
Where is the Bee—
Where is the Blush—
Where is the Hay?
Ah, said July—
Where is the Seed—
Where is the Bud—
Where is the May—
Nay—said the May—
Show me the Snow—
Show me the Bells—
Show me the Jay!
Quibbled the Jay—
Where be the Maize—
Where be the Haze—
Where be the Bur?
Here—said the Year—
The Rosenbach and its partner institutions have wonderful collections representing Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875 – 1935) and Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906), two of the most influential African American authors of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Briefly united by marriage, the pair helped set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance. The Rosenbach owns a first edition of Dunbar’s Oak and Ivy first published in 1893 and The Free Library of Philadelphia, The Rosenbach’s affiliate institution, owns a copy of Dunbar-Nelson’s The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories. The Rosenbach’s Fall, 2020 online exhibition, “I Am an American!”: The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a partnership with the University of Delaware Library, will examine Dunbar-Nelson’s work as an author and civic figure.
Flowers, gardens, and the natural world occupy a prominent place in Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s writing. Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s first book was titled Violets and Other Tales. The book’s title story, “Violets,” begins with a reflection on the 19th-century language of flowers:
There was a letter lying on the table, it read: “Dear, I send you this little bunch of flowers as my Easter token. Perhaps you may not be able to read their meanings, so I’ll tell you. Violets, you know, are my favorite flowers. Dear, little, human-faced things! They seem always as if about to whisper a love-word; and then they signify that thought which passes always between you and me. The orange blossoms — you know their meaning; the little pinks are the flowers you love; the evergreen leaf is the symbol of the endurance of our affection; the tube-roses I put in, because once when you kissed and pressed me close in your arms, I had a bunch of tube-roses on my bosom, and the heavy fragrance of their crushed loveliness has always lived in my memory. The violets and pinks are from a bunch I wore to-day, and when kneeling at the altar, during communion, did I sin, dear, when I thought of you? The tube-roses and orange-blossoms I wore Friday night; you always wished for a lock of my hair, so I’ll tie these flowers with them — but there, it is not stable enough; let me wrap them with a bit of ribbon, pale blue, from that little dress I wore last winter to the dance, when we had such a long, sweet talk in that forgotten nook. You always loved that dress, it fell in such soft ruffles away from the throat and blossoms, — you called me your little forget-me-not, that night. I laid the flowers away for awhile in our favorite book, — Byron — just at the poem we loved best, and now I send them to you. Keep them always in remembrance of me, and if ought should occur to separate us, press these flowers to your lips, and I will be with you in spirit, permeating your heart with unutterable love and happiness.”
A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, Dunbar-Nelson’s short stories set in that city redound with the sights, sounds, and smells of urban gardens. In “The Goodness of St. Rocque,” Manuela, the “tall and slender and graceful” Creole main character whose “lithe form could ever be mistaken,” journeys into and out of lush gardens. “With a final summoning of a desperate courage she dived through a small wicket gate into a garden of weed-choked flowers” at one point in the story, later finding herself in a more serene garden space: “They strolled out of the dancing-room into the cool, quaint garden, where jessamines [another name for jasmine] gave out an overpowering perfume and a caged mocking-bird complained melodiously to the full moon in the sky.””
In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work, flowers and plants provide metaphors for human life. In “The Seedling,” the journey of a plant from seed to beautiful flower offers guidance for the reader in meeting life’s challenges. “Little folks, be like the seedling, / Always do the best you can; / Every child must share life’s labor / Just as well as every man.”
In “Love’s Pictures,” Dunbar declares: “Like the blush upon the rose / When the wooing south wind speaks, / Kissing soft its petals, / Are thy cheeks.” Though their romantic relationship was undermined by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s substance abuse and the intimate partner violence to which he subjected Alice, many of the early works of the two writers underscore the uplifting world they sought to create in their writing.
Nearly all of Lewis Carroll’s (1832-1898) published works are here at the Rosenbach. The museum also has an extensive collection of letters as well as almost sixty illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass.
Gardens feature prominently in both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Alice first glimpses the garden in chapter one of Alice’s Adventures:
“Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head though the doorway.”
But when she finally reaches the garden in chapter eight, she finds it just as maddening as the rest of Wonderland with strange rules and bizarre characters.
“A large rose-tree stood near the entrance of the garden: the roses growing on it were white, but there were three gardeners at it, busily painting them red. Alice thought this a very curious thing, and she went nearer to watch them, and just as she came up to them she heard one of them say, `Look out now, Five! Don't go splashing paint over me like that!' `I couldn't help it,' said Five, in a sulky tone; `Seven jogged my elbow.' On which Seven looked up and said, `That's right, Five! Always lay the blame on others!'”
In chapter two of Through the Looking Glass, Alice also seeks out a garden.
For more information on the Rosenbach’s Lewis Carroll holdings, click here.
“This time she came upon a large flower-bed, with a border of daisies, and a willow-tree growing in the middle. 'O Tiger-lily,' said Alice, addressing herself to one that was waving gracefully about in the wind, 'I wish you could talk!' 'We can talk,' said the Tiger-lily: 'when there's anybody worth talking to." Alice was so astonished that she could not speak for a minute: it quite seemed to take her breath away. At length, as the Tiger-lily only went on waving about, she spoke again, in a timid voice — almost in a whisper. 'And can all the flowers talk?' 'As well as you can,' said the Tiger-lily. 'And a great deal louder.' 'It isn't manners for us to begin, you know,' said the Rose, 'and I really was wondering when you'd speak! Said I to myself, "Her face has got some sense in it, thought it's not a clever one!" Still, you're the right colour, and that goes a long way.' 'I don't care about the colour,' the Tiger-lily remarked. 'If only her petals curled up a little more, she'd be all right.' Alice didn't like being criticised, so she began asking questions. 'Aren't you sometimes frightened at being planted out here, with nobody to take care of you?' 'There's the tree in the middle,' said the Rose: 'what else is it good for?' 'But what could it do, if any danger came?' Alice asked. 'It says "Bough-wough!" cried a Daisy: 'that's why its branches are called boughs!' 'Didn't you know that?' cried another Daisy, and here they all began shouting together, till the air seemed quite full of little shrill voices. 'Silence, every one of you!' cried the Tiger-lily, waving itself passionately from side to side, and trembling with excitement. 'They know I can't get at them!' it panted, bending its quivering head towards Alice, 'or they wouldn't dare to do it!' 'Never mind!' Alice said in a soothing tone, and stooping down to the daisies, who were just beginning again, she whispered, 'If you don't hold your tongues, I'll pick you!'
There was silence in a moment, and several of the pink daisies turned white.
'That's right!' said the Tiger-lily. 'The daisies are worst of all. When one speaks, they all begin together, and it's enough to make one wither to hear the way they go on!'
'How is it you can all talk so nicely?' Alice said, hoping to get it into a better temper by a compliment.
'I've been in many gardens before, but none of the flowers could talk.'
'Put your hand down, and feel the ground,' said the Tiger-lily. 'Then you'll know why.
Alice did so. 'It's very hard,' she said, 'but I don't see what that has to do with it.'
'In most gardens,' the Tiger-lily said, 'they make the beds too soft — so that the flowers are always asleep.' This sounded a very good reason, and Alice was quite pleased to know it.
The Rosenbach has almost all of the manuscripts and papers of Modernist poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972), as well as her personal library, thousands of photographs, and the contents of her Greenwich village living room, which is permanently installed on the third ﬂoor of the historic Rosenbach house. It may surprise you to learn that the poet Marianne Moore majored in Biology in college. But once you start to delve into her poetry, one quickly realizes that she did not abandon the natural world when she became a professional poet. She continues to be fascinated by plants and animals and they find their way into many of her poems. Just as you are ambling through a pocket of nature in the middle of the city, Moore wandered endlessly in New York City parks to gather inspiration for her poems.
Here are some excerpts from her poetry which feature plants in this garden
From Spenser’s Ireland
If in Ireland
they play the harp backward at need,
and gather at midday the seed
of the fern, eluding
their "giants all covered with iron," might
there be fern seed for unlearn-
ing obduracy and for reinstating
seldom have mothers
in Irish stories, but they all have grandmothers.
From Withered Daffodil
I too until I saw that French brocade
Blaze green as though some lizard in the shade
set off by replicas of violet--
like Sidney, leaning in his striped jacket
against a lime--
a work of art. And I too seemed to be
an insouciant rester by a tree--
From Virginia Britannia
Narrow herring-bone-laid bricks,
a dusty pink beside the dwarf boxborderde
pansies, share the ivy-arbor shade
with cemetery lace settees, one at each side