Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

IA Book of the Week: The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry

Date posted: Mon, Jun. 01, 2020

As a new month begins, it seems a good time to begin  a new feature on the Fisher Blog: An Internet Archive Book of the Week, which will highlight a book from the 25,000 or so Fisher items that are freely available on the Internet Archive. Our first, researched and written by one of the Fisher's TALInt students, Samantha Summers, looks at a book and a topic that is foremost among our minds this time of year: the beauty and serenity of the garden. Please watch this space weekly when we'll add a new book.

As spring turns to summer, we at the Fisher find ourselves reminded of just how beautiful the flora and fauna of the Greater Toronto Area is. From one colleague who regularly finds foxes in his yard to another who spends hours in the garden, this is a time of year when we find ourselves appreciating nature in all its glory. As so many of us are spending more time indoors than is perhaps usual at this time of year, it seemed only appropriate to turn to the library’s more floral holdings on the Internet Archive.

The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860) brings together poetry, the meanings of certain flowers, botanical information, and gorgeous watercolour plates of some of the flowers featured in the text. Combined, these components give modern readers a fascinating glimpse into the varied meanings and values assigned to flowers and other flora at the time of its publication.

During the Victorian era, floriography was all the rage. Meaning "the language of flowers," this phenomenon allowed people to communicate messages to others without having to speak their messages aloud. In order to achieve this communication, flowers were assigned very specific meanings. Through grouping certain flowers in certain ways and delivering them to somebody else, individuals could send very specific messages. One could use flowers to flirt (yellow day-lillies, page 46, above), that they would remain faithful despite adversity (wallflowers, below), or even that they were suspicious of the recipient (mushrooms, page 218). Different methods of deliveries had specific meanings, too. For example, a bouquet delivered upside down meant that its true message is the opposite of what is communicated by the flowers. An upside-down bouquet of Indian jasmine, which communicated the intention to form a strong attachment, would instead communicate the end of an attachment. 

Of course, for a language this complicated to become universally comprehensible, dictionaries became necessary. The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry is arranged alphabetically by meaning, allowing readers to quickly identify the flowers they ought to send in order to communicate their intending message. For example, a young man wishing to express his friendship with another might send along a bouquet of ivy, having consulted The Poetry of Flowers and found its meaning on page 96. Perhaps a woman, wishing to insult a rival’s latest social event, might send along an upside-down branch of ash. On page 103, it would tell her that ash meant grandeur (see below), and to send it upside-down would mean that this gathering was not grand at all. Flowers could also be combined to send more specific messages. A combination of mandrake (rarity, page 191), myrtle (love, page 142), and pheasant’s-eye (sorrowful remembrances, page 215) could express that the sender is sadly reminiscing about a rare love they once shared with the recipient.

This text is completed by a botanical guide, and then a quick-reference floral dictionary. Here, readers could quickly identify floral meanings at a glance first by the plant, and then by their meaning. This would be of particular use to the recipient of a floral memo who wishes to quickly ascertain its meaning. 

Reading The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry gives us a fascinating glimpse into Victorian knowledge of flora, modes of communications, and popular poetry. There is a great deal to be learned from floriographical guides such as this one, and we are very pleased to offer this one for free online access on the Internet Archive. We encourage you to flip through it, and to try making up your own messages using flowers. Let us know what you’ve come up with, or perhaps send a loved one an extra-meaningful bouquet.

Samantha Summers, Fisher TALInt student