Each morning recently, I seemed to traverse paradise passing through the gardens and grounds of Villa Serbelloni, the site of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy, where I was a resident-writer, to reach my studio room above an ancient chapel overlooking Lake Como. The villa is high on a wooded promontory at the very tip of a headland which juts into the icy blue of Lake Como, and each morning I stopped at a view not only stunning but also heuristic: spread below me and backed by the Alps, Lake Como branches into two arms: Lake Lecco to the East, and the continuation of Como to the West.
I was working on a story which had to do with the dual background of an Italian American character. I could see the split daily, set before me as if Lake Como (the main body and its continuance) were America and the other branch were Italy—they were both joined and separate. This was my story theme.
But the view went further. The bifurcation of Lake Como could stand also for an old literary convention in which the English temperament is contrasted with the Italian one in a fierce duality, as if human nature itself were divided into two distinct branches: the constrained and cautious, rational mode of the North or the emotionally expressive, individualistic bent of the South.
These two sides were very literally embodied in Germaine de Stael’s romantic novel of the early 19th century, Corinne, or Italy. The title could not be more significant—poetic genius and sensibility which is personified by Corinne, and Italy (the actual “hero” of this curious work) are one and the same, while restraint and northern moodiness is the lot both of English Lord Nelvil, Corinne’s lover manque, and Corinne’s counterpart, the Englishwoman Lucile whom he marries.
Finally, and most powerfully, the view over the lake and Alps provided me the exact and exquisite image of this poem by Emily Dickinson:
Our lives are Swiss— So Still—so Cool- Till some odd afternoon The Alps neglect their Curtains and we look farther on!
Italy stands the other side! While like a guard between— The Solemn Alps— The siren Alps Forever intervene!sub1sue (#80)
The poem pushed me into considering Dickinson’s proposition that there is another, guarded side to each everyday, conformist life which, if set free, would fly to what is barely discerned but longed for—a metaphorical freedom called Italy. One would decamp clockwork precision and predictability (“Swissness”) for the seductive exuberance of its opposite (“Italy”).
Standing guard over Emily Dickinson’s curtained and orderly life was the patriarchal Calvinism of her father’s New England house which could effectively bar, like the very Alps, any access (except in fantasy) to the more exotic realm of passionate self-expression in art.
“Our lives are Swiss” was used in my Introduction to The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women (1985) to illustrate the fascination Italy has always exerted over the Anglo-American imagination.”It is interesting,” I wrote, “how many English or American women turned from the Anglo tradition and toward the idea of Italy as a freeing of their human qualities and an enriching of life. The Brownings went off to live in Florence; Margaret Fuller, in her thirty-seventh year, arrived in Italy as the leading American woman writer and intellectual of her time and found love and motherhood there, writing later, “Italy has been glorious to me.” And Emily Dickinson, from Amherst, thought of Italy as the loosening of trammels, some absolute freeing of spirit.”
Indeed Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the editor of The Atlantic to whom Dickinson sent the first copies of some of her poems for his advice and encouragement and with whom she would carry on a lifelong correspondence, was often discomfited by her unlikely, erratic temperament, probably finding in what he called her “very wantonness of overstatement” something more akin to a mercurial Latin strain than New England propriety. Her “nervous force” exhausted him: “I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much,” he said. That nervous impulse of her imagination made it unnecessary for her to travel bodily from Amherst; she was well able to contemplate “Vesuvius at Home”: Volcanoes be in Sicily/And South America/I judge from my Geography—/Volcanoes nearer here/A lava step at any time/Am I inclined to climb—/A crater I may contemplate/ Vesuvius at Home.(#1705)
She is thought to have written “Our lives are Swiss” in 1859, as determined both from handwriting evidence and references to events in her correspondence; she was 29, approaching the early 1860’s when she would be writing most profusely and at the height of her drive.
In the villa library at Bellagio I found the Johnson edition of Emily Dickinson’s complete poems. Attached to the volume was a note from David Porter, a Bellagio resident in December 1985.”Emily never visited Italy,” he wrote, “and misplaced Mt. Etna in Naples, but she was Italian at heart! See poem #80.”
That recall to “Our lives are Swiss” from a noted scholar of Emily Dickinson’s work and professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in her own hometown of Amherst was a welcome reinforcer to my own persuasion. Professor Porter, too, saw the “Italian” side of Emily Dickinson.
She belonged to the same sisterhood of sensibility which had drawn Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Margaret Fuller to Italy, and then so many other 19th-century American women of talent from authors Catherine Maria Sedgwick and Julia Ward Howe, sculptor Harriet Hosmer, actress Charlotte Cushman, to that worthy but little-known tragic figure of American letters, novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, the niece of James Fenimore Cooper and good and great friend of Henry James.(James, another Italophile, discloses in Italian Hours the intense emotion and rich sensuous evocations which Italy, foremost of all countries in Europe, excited in him.)
In 1826, a few years before Emily Dickinson’s birth, her father Edward met Catherine Maria Sedgwick, then the most celebrated female novelist in the country, whose work he had read and admired for some time. In a letter describing the evening party at which he had been in the company of Miss Sedgwick (“the Authoress of Redwood & New England Tale”), Mr. Dickinson remarks on her interesting countenance (“an appearance of much thought, & rather masculine features”) and notes “. . . I feel happy at seeing a female who had done so much to give our works of taste so pure and delicate a character—and a conscious pride that women of our own country. . .are emulating not only the females but the men of England & France & Germany & Italy in works of literature. . . . Tho’ I should be sorry to see another Mme.de Staël—especially if any one wished to make a partner of her for life.”
In lawyer Dickinson’s careful hedging of a woman’s range (an attitude that must, later, have come to bear on his daughter Emily, perhaps providing the inner restraint against her ever seeking book publication) is his verdict: it was one thing for a woman writer to be a sedate Sedgwick, and quite another to be a rebellious, outspoken firebrand like Germaine de Stael. What would he have had made, if he had known, of the emboldened shorthand of the spirit which Emily quitely created in her room, thousands of lines of searing poetry sewn into miniature fascicules and secreted away under his very roof?
A decade after Germaine de Staël’s death in 1817, the sway she had held since the beginning of the 19th-century was still evident through her place in Edward Dickinson’s thoughts an ocean away. Mme de Stael’s legacy of Corinne, the woman of genius, would descend on another New Englander, Margaret Fuller, known as the Yankee Corinna; Kate Chopin would be the Corinne of St. Louis; and Henry James in Portrait of a Lady describes Gilbert Osmond’s mother as a person of distinction, “the American Corinne.”
*Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (1960). This poem, originally published 1896 in Poems, Third Series under the editorship of Mabel Loomis Todd, was then numbered #55 and cloyingly titled “Alpine Glow” as if it were only vapid scenic verse. Mrs. Todd had been given the task of transcribing and preparing Emily Dickinson’s poems for first publication. For the preceding two volumes she had the editorial assistance of Thomas Wentworth Higginson; both arbitrarily “corrected” text and punctuation to make the poems more “acceptable”.
*The reference is from Poem #1146: “When Etna basks and purrs/ Naples is more afraid/Than when she shows her Garnet Tooth—/Security is loud—”
Emily Dickinson was 20 years old in 1850 when a tragic shipwreck off Fire Island took the lives of Margaret Fuller, her husband Giovanni Ossoli, and their child. They drowned almost within sight of New York harbor to which Fuller was returning full of foreboding for the future after the turbulent and joyous experience of those Italian years when she was the first woman correspondent sent abroad for an American paper. Her dispatches on the Rome uprising of 1848en49 were the basis of the book manuscript that went down with her.
Emily grew up in cultivated and literate surroundings where books and ideas were discussed and reading was part of life. The Dickinsons were acquainted with the cream of New England literary figures. The name of Margaret Fuller, author, critic, a founder with Emerson of The Dial magazine and its first editor, was closely associated with the Brook Farm Utopian experiment and the Transcendental movement, and she must have been frequently mentioned in lawyer Dickinson’s household, whether in praise or censure, given her dominant position in the culture of the times. It is known that Emily read the transcendalists, much admiring Thoreau and Emerson, and a girlhood friend of Emily’s remembered their reading Margaret Fuller’s translation from the German of Correspondance of Fräulein Gunderode and Bettina von Arnim not long after it was published in Boston in 1842.Dickinson could have been aware then of Fuller’s reputation as the Yankee embodiment of the renowned cult figure, Corinne.
In reading George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Emily would have come upon references to Corinne; Elizabeth Barrett, whom Emily admired so, had read it three times over by her twenties and was greatly influenced by the central position of the woman of genius, and the dichotomy thus set up between life and art. Not only in her poetry but in her life Elizabeth Barrett Browning held sway in Dickinson’s imagination. It was as much Elizabeth Barrett’s infatuation with Corinne and her ideas about Italy as the place for a woman of genius, as much as health or finances which determined the choice of Italy as residence when she and Robert Browning married.
The mid-19th century air seems full of vibrant women— writers and readers. Certainly, there is an interesting linkage between all these women and how they acted on each other: Dickinson’s adolescent immersion in the impassioned correspondence of author Bettina von Arnim and Karoline von Günderode, canoness of a religious order, prepared her for her own fervid exchanges with many women friends. And Fuller’s choice of not translating von Arnim’s well-known epistolary exchange with Goethe, and choosing, rather, the record of von Arnim’s friendship with another woman is revealing in its endorsement of the one sure freedom women had at that time—letter writing to a same-sex confidante. Nineteenth century women, confined to domesticity and largely excluded from the male world of ideas and action, exercised their intellectual and imaginative powers in intense, self-revelatory, often extravagantly heated epistles. The banked fires of their quiet “womanly” lives lit up as if to sear the letter-paper with all that was, otherwise, pent up and unexpressed.
In her Journal, Margaret Fuller, reflecting on a past overwhelming feeling for a friend, Anna Barker, wrote “It is so true that a woman may be in love with a woman and a man with a man. . . How natural is the love. . .of De Stae’l for De Recamier, mine for ____.”
In Europe, Miss Fuller desired above all to meet George Sand who, when the occasion came, greeted her expansively: “Ah, c’est vous!” And when, in the fall of 1849, Margaret, now Marchesa Ossoli, had retreated to Florence with husband and child from the defeat of the short-lived Roman Republic they had fought for together, she finally met Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a woman who matched her both in erudition and in ardor for the cause of Italian unification. Thomas Higginson, Emily Dickinson’s mentor and first editor of her poetry, and a believer in women’s rights which he defended editorially in The Atlantic Monthly (a publication the Dickinsons received from its first issue in 1857), wrote that both Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Barrett were exceptional in that era of under-educated women because they had been educated as boys were.
In 1859, Emily Dickinson would have read in The Atlantic Higginson’s essay “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet”, an elegant vindication of women’s rights filled with mentions of eminent Italian women as well as references to Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Hosmer, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, all of whom with the exception of Wollstonecraft (who left that experience to her daughter, Mary Shelley), had sojourned in Italy.
Models of self-realized women following their bent as writers were not lacking to Emily. And she could not have failed to make the connection that their lives had with Italy.
Emily Dickinson revered Barrett Browning and was struck most of all by her narrative-poem Aurora Leigh, an immensely popular 19th-century phenomenon that, in turn, evoked that earlier phenomenon, Corinne, or Italy: both Corinne and Aurora are daughters of an Italian mother and English father who, in England, mourn for Italy as their soul’s homeland and seat of their genius.
Mme de Stael located the gifted woman’s paradise in Italy, and that idea, with the “Blue Peninsula” image in Aurora Leigh, is taken over by Emily Dickinson for whom “My Blue Peninsula” signified a state of delight, a fulfillment so great as to perish from.
“My Italy of women. . .” was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s phrase from her celebrated and widely read Aurora Leigh in which a woman poet, caught between her love for her cousin Romney Leigh and her willingness to risk all to realize her gift, becomes the classic case of a woman at war with both sides of her nature. That poem, beloved of Emily Dickinson, was a text so influential in her work that it is said her encounter with it was the Lightening Flash and “waylaying Light” that consecrated her thereafter to a life of poetry much as Paul, felled by light, had his conversion on the road to Damascus. Or, the image could be from Canto 33 of the Paradise where Dante, on entering the Empyrean, speaks of being overcome with sudden lightning (subito lampo) and dazzling light (viva luce). Lines from the Dickinson poem which begins “The farthest thunder that I heard” (#1581) make her vocation clear: “And I would not exchange the Flash/For all the rest of Life—”.
Though some critics, unable perhaps to conceive of women following so strong a call to Art, have taken that Flash of “waylaying Light” for religious dedication, the evidence of Dickinson’s own words and actions belie it being anything less than intuition into her poetic gift and the courage to follow when Lightning struck.
Is it latent misogyny in some male critics to think that Robert Browning had more effect on Dickinson than did Elizabeth Barrett Browning, even though Dickinson’s very poems and letters reveal the exact opposite? Jack L.Capps in Emily Dickinson’s Reading, feels that Dickinson’s interest in the Brontes, like her interest in George Eliot, seems not to have been in their poetry but in their lives, without deducing thereby that it was not the external circumstances of the authors’ lives nor their relationships with men that Emily was fascinated with, but what Barrett Browning referred to as their “heroinism”—their achievements in art.
“Women, now, queens now!” Emily in one of her letters hailed George Sand and Mrs. Browning.(In the same spirit of expectancy for woman’s full potential to be realized, Margaret Fuller’s saying was, “Earth waits for her queen”.) And Lavinia Dickinson described her sister as wearing her hair looped over her ears and knotted in back “because it was the way Elizabeth Barrett Browning did”. It was a framed portrait of Mrs. Browning (one of three in Emily’s possession), not Robert, which hung on the wall of Emily’s bedroomsanctuary. Most compellingly, it was to Mrs. Browning, not long after her death, that this first stanza from Dickinson’s moving dedicatory Poem refers:
I think I was enchanted When first a sombre Girl— I read that Foreign Lady— The Dark—felt beautiful— (#593)
*Poem #405, last stanza: It might be easier/To fail—with land in Sight—/than gain—My Blue Peninsula—/to perish—of Delight—
A resounding plus of the woman’s movement has been the birth of a feminist criticism in which texts are read in a new way, shedding light at new angles on what it was to be a woman writer in a patriarchal world which, Adrienne Rich noted, “works from a male/mainstream perspective”; and how much of what women write has to be reinterpreted “to identify images, codes, metaphors, strategies” that are peculiar to them in their use of language. Rich’s important 1976 essay, “Vesuvius at Home: the Power of Emily Dickinson” began to refute the legend of the timid, eccentric girl-woman recluse of Amherst or the “little home-keeping person” as John Crowe Ransom and too many other biographers and critics had defined her.
What emerges of Dickinson from Rich’s reading and that of other new critics, is an inwardly conflicted but courageous woman, not the passive victim of her deprivations but one who took the pains of her life and worked them to her own uses. She was conscious of her gift and “husbanded” it, if I can use such a weighted term of one who was supposed to have been incomplete because husbandless.
Abstaining from the 19th-century woman’s mete of marriage and family, Dickinson’s loss became her treasure. Her great yearning for love went not into married life but into the expression of the other side of herself, the poet’s side, which, in the persons of Corinne and Aurora Leigh had already became identified for her with “My Blue Peninsula”. If one has been deprived of love as a child, as the case can be made for Dickinson whose father was “busy with his Briefs” and whose mother was largely missing in any meaningful way, one strives as she did a whole life long to fill the void. Emily sought closeness with many men and women as her correspondence testifies—but at a distance. Wary of personal contact, she emptied her emotions into her poetry and her letter writing. If her emotional life were to be solitary, it would not, for that, be impoverished. That was to be her own achievement of heroinism.
In Barrett Browning’s telling of Aurora Leigh, the gifted woman triumphs by not giving in to societal pressures; on the other hand, as a cautionary tale, Corinne (who is de Staël’s projection of herself), the woman of talent torn by her great need for love, betrays herself through her love of Lord Nelvil—his departure results in the loss of her poetic gift and finally her demise. Emily Dickinson seems to have fashioned herself somewhere between Corinne and Aurora Leigh; yearning for love—teasing at it, but keeping free of attachments—she dedicated her life to her gift.
It was not such an either/or matter for Margaret Fuller who lived not as a recluse sheltered in her father’s fine house, but as an independent, wage-earning woman very much immersed in the survival realities of the work world and national revolution. For her it was not a question of choosing between marital love and the joy of a child, or following her talent in a professional career. She was a proud, passionate woman who wanted to live out her nature both ways without settling for a half-life. She wanted what men naturally have: the full life of both love and work.
Emily Dickinson experienced Italy as she did love—from afar. She did not, as so many of her compatriots did, actually get there. Emily Dickinson acted out her nature by staying where she was, putting the passion of her Italian side into her poetry. Though reclusive, Emily Dickinson was not, in Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s phrase, “partially cracked”, or so bereft in her spinsterdom as to be non-functional. Rather, as Adrienne Rich asserts, she guarded herself and her gift from intrusion and was able to garner from that hoarded strength the flowering of her 1775 poems and the considerable collection of her correspondence.
Many piggy-back scholars followed Dickinson’s earliest editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, in the attempt to force a tightjacket of religious orthodoxy on Emily Dickinson. That she did not marry need not be seen as pathological, nor as a reason to get religion. Some women, as some men, choose not to marry. But Ted Hughes who edited an English edition of selected poems by Emily Dickinson considered, in his Forward, that for a woman like Dickinson, “the marriage that had been denied in the real world, went forward in the spiritual.” Dedication to one’s art is never considered.
At the very beginning of their correspondence, when T. W. Higginson asked Dickinson for details of herself and her family, she thus described her mother and father, sister and brother: “They are religious—except me—and address an Eclipse, every morning—whom they call their “Father”“. And her other correspondence and poetry bear out Dickinson’s heretical leaning and distance from dogma. Her religious explorations were not for ritual or theologized laws, but, in the true sense of the term religion, for values of the ideal life, and were in service of her inner knowledge of self and its relationship to the cosmos.
When Dickinson writes about her gift she often uses the language of love or religious devotion because that, in her culture, is what she had to work with. But it was her “slant” originality and the expressing of it that was uppermost; and though this is always recognized in the male artist, it could be seen as perverse in a woman until feminist criticism provided a new lens for viewing. The problem should not be what to make of Dickinson’s celibacy, but how to amend those societal attitudes toward unmarried women that constrain critics to search out cliched explanations for Emily’s singleness.
It is perplexing to read in Albert Gelpi’s Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet that in her moments of rebellion, “Emily Dickinson’s spirit was, in its feminine way, distinctly and passionately Byronic.” Why Byronic? Why not Staëlian? Germaine de Staël was as noted and influential a person as Lord Byron in their day—he, in fact (anticipating a future Norman Mailer) gave her what he thought the supreme compliment when they met saying she thought like a man. The line of influence for Dickinson can be said to begin with the very de Stael her father was so leery of. From the tormented Corinne, the descent is through Barrett Browning’s triumphal Aurora Leigh to Dickinson the hero of selfrealization, and in our day to poets like Adrienne Rich.
What Gelpi says more convincingly is that Emily Dickinson was able to go beyond the limits of Amherst and the society of her time by “retranslating her own unorthodox, subversive, sometimes volcanic propensities into a dialect called metaphor”.
To me this is nowhere more evident than in “Our lives are Swiss”. Yet some critics seem to go out of their way to miss the import of it. Barton Levi St. Armand, in Emily Dickinson and Her Culture, rather tortuously reads that poem in the light of John Ruskin’s pious theorizing on the veiling effect in nature (mists, mirage, cloud effects) as something meant to be kept from man’s knowledge on this earth, and so preordained by the deity who created the world.
Ruskin may have been able to read Turner’s paintings in this technique of reverent veiling, but it is straining unreasonably to apply Turner’s misty visions and God’s plan for an unsearchable universe to what Emily Dickinson wrote. St. Armand wants to believe that Dickinson, swayed by Ruskin, kept to the conservative concept of the necessity of the “veil” in nature, that what she was after in writing of the Alps was a rendering of the mysteriousness of landscape—no more than that. Dickinson, he says, “was tantalized by the” unsearchableness “of natural phenomena. . .” Really?
But she was also, Rich says, “the American poet whose work consisted in exploring states of psychic extremity.” That this was obscured by the conventional interpretations applied to her life and her work is clear in the kinds of selections made from her opus either from timidity or from the misreading of a unique poet who happened to be a woman and who had to be made to fit, willy-nilly, the slot that society allowed for the type. Thus, squeeze poem #80 into the pigeon-hole of a Ruskinesque piety and let the Alps stand for “the type of the world to come, the redeemed and perfected life”, even trying to equate them with the Pisgah mountain ridge of ancient Palestine!
Noted for being in her own phrase a phoebe-bird who lifted material from others to use in her own idiosyncratic way, transforming it completely, Dickinson would almost certainly have been aware of what was written by another contemporary of hers, Rose Terry Cooke, who had been publishing her work since age 18 and was often featured in The Atlantic Monthly, of which Dickinson was an assiduous reader. Perhaps it was Cooke’s poem “Beyond” which Emily Dickinson may have subtly subverted to her own uses. It is an inspirational poem in which Italy is metamorphisized as the soul’s reward, joy, surcease—a promised land after a courageous, Christian battle has helped the soul over “the steeps God set”—”For past the Alpine summits of great pain, /Lieth thine Italy.” (Or, Dickinson may have even remembered Hannibal’s charge to his weary troops—”Beyond the Alps lies Italy!” In all cases, a promised land.)
To ignore the exuberance and frolicsomeness Dickinson displays in her version of getting past the Alps, to read it as a religious message is very distorting. The excitement in “Our lives are Swiss” of those three exclamation points which splotch the verse, the designation of “Siren Alps” who let down their guard to offer the enticement of Italy farther on, is beguiling not meditative.
And there are truer echoes of sources in Emily Dickinson’s own words. In a letter of Jan.4, 1859, Emily wrote to her cousin Loo, “It’s a great thing to be”great”, Loo, and you and I might tug for a life, and never accomplish it, but no one can stop our looking on. . .” This is recast in Poem #80: on some odd afternoon when the mists are gone from the Alps, “And we look farther on!”
Rebecca Patterson was maligned by critics for having in 1951 suggested that Emily Dickinson’s great thwarted love was for a woman friend, Kate Scott Anthon, who may have played a role of some significance in the poet’s career. But Patterson convincingly links Kate’s presence in Emily’s life with “Our lives are Swiss” by quoting a letter of 1860, in which Emily reminded Kate of her past visit to Amherst in February and March of 1859: “It’s but a little past, dear, and yet how far from here it seems, fled with the snow! So through the snow go many loving feet parted by “Alps.” How brief, from vineyards and the sun!” The vineyards and sun, which stand for Italy also stand for the delight of Kate’s visit. Italy was a topic of their conversation, for they took great pleasure in reading Aurora Leigh with its Italian background, not to mention the romantic background of the poem’s author who herself had fled England for Florence. For Kate the fervent dream of Italy became a reality in her several journeys there; for Emily it was transformed into poetry.
An early biographer, Genevieve Taggard, quoted the whole of “Our lives are Swiss” and attributed it simply to Emily’s imaginative following of a foursome of friends from home who were then literally crossing the Alps in their journey through Europe. Taggard rnissed Dickinson’s trope while emphasizing the usual effect on 19th-century tourists face to face with the Alps—but especially American tourists with their baggage of moral superiority and their mandate, almost, to see everything in terms of a moral lesson: “. . .the Alps should be approached with a feeling of reverence and awe. God was doubtless there. . . . The Alps, like nature back home, were eternal reminders of a greater Power, of purity, aspiration, holiness, magnificence, American ideals.” It was the vogue of the times for artists to record the moral beauty of landscapes and Thomas Cole and other Hudson School artists were doing just that for American painting, while Dickinson, outside the official line, was doing something else.
Even the most recent study, Judith Farr’s The Passion of Emily Dickinson (1992) quotes from Poem #80, “The solemn Alps—/The siren Alps”, to the old effect of their “connoting (like all mountains) a summit of feeling”; for Farr, lofty peaks are again meant to be equated with moral uplift. But Emily Dickinson’s range of feelings and how she expressed them went far beyond the commonplaces of her day; she did not treat her mountains like all mountains, nor anything else in her natural world within the guidelines of expectation.
Supposedly Emily Dickinson was a reclusive New England spinster writing of bees, butterflies, death, her soul; actually she shows a defiant, steely willfulness in life as in her poetry and many of her images are daring, sumptuous, baroque. She transcends the supposed image of herself much as Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa in ecstasy at her mystical union with Christ betrays more than the official description would have. I often saw the Bernini sculpture when I lived in Rome not far from the church of S.Maria della Vittoria. St. Theresa’s ecstatic facial expression and lassitude of body clearly show the mark of physical orgasm more than mystical union. As more than one visitor to Bernini’s St. Theresa has thought, if that is divine love, I have known it, too.
And when Emily Dickinson turned that pious commonplace of the Alps upside down, her biographers could not or would not read her clearly—they went back to the sentimental cliches of the Alps as an extension of God and managed to misread Dickinson’s casting them, instead, as a bothersome barrier to the delights beyond.
But that won’t do any longer; no more squeezing women into the apparatus of patriarchal attitudes in order to explain what is unique and complex about their creative works. Let Emily be seen for herself—a strong, impassioned poet of great intensity who invented a language “dense with implication. . .”. Not a perennial child-woman dressed in white, the Myth of Amherst, much less the reductive Belle of Amherst in the dramatized version. Emily Dickinson, reseen by Rich, had “a mind engaged in a lifetime’s musings on essential problems of language, identity, separation, relationship, the integrity of the self; a mind capable of describing psychological states more accurately than any poet except Shakespeare.”
David Porter’s new reading of the poet in Dickinson: The Modern Idiom (Harvard, 1981), opens wider possibilities than his previous book: when Dickinson wrote “Our lives are Swiss,” he states, “she meant to draw on the whole cultural typology of that single term”—to represent it symbolically. Elsewhere he states, “My concern has been to discover and preserve her otherness. Her audacity required an inordinate freedom that needs still to be respected.” She may have not gotten to Italy in person, but in spirit and soul she was there.
As with Corinne, two sides seemed to collide in Emily Dickinson: she desired the Italy symbolized in Barrett Browning’s life and work, and yet she also valued the cool discipline and the austerity that she associated with the North. In #525, “I think the Hemlock likes to stand”, Dickinson unfavorably contrasts the “Satin Races” with the northern hemlock which thrives on cold. This echoes the thought of Emerson’s “Prudence” and Ruskin in Stones of Venice, who believed that a severe climate made better people.
That Margaret Fuller stuck out as an anomaly in Puritan New England not only for her intellect, but for her enthusiasms and free thinking, was what Emerson had in mind when he characterized her as “an exotic. . .a foreigner from some more sultry and expansive climate.”
Yet Emily Dickinson’s poetry is replete with references to the South, to dark people. She characterized herself as a Brave Black Berry (#554) who conceals the pain of a thorn in the side and offers gifts of herself to passerbys. She referred to her dearest friend and future sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, as “The Love South”, or Egypt, Domingo, paralleling Keats’ yearning for a “beaker full of the warm South.” Kate Anthon, like Sue Gilbert (and Mrs Browning, Mme de Staël, George Eliot!) was dark haired and dark eyed. Again, “The Dark— felt beautiful—,” as Dickinson wrote in 1862 a year after the death of Mrs. Browning in homage to the dark “Foreign Lady” who inspired her.
Whether covertly or openly acknowledged, sensuality was the quality most often attributed to Italy. All literate Americans knew that Italy was delicious and decadent while Switzerland was virtuous and dull and while they might more readily (and self-congratulatorily) identify with Switzerland, they were attracted to the alluring South of sensuous freedom.
But fashions change. By mid-20th century, Robert Lowell’s poem “Beyond the Alps” describes the reverse trip—this time north from Rome by train, away from a prosaic, cynical Italy where the Pope shaves with an electric razor and all the old grace and charm by which bella Roma riveted 19thcentury travelers has dissipated. Lowell’s envied “grandparents on their grand tours” were sages who accepted the universe. But no more. The 19th-century myth of Italy is no longer relevant.
Love, Nature, and Death are said to be Emily Dickinson’s great themes—yet ambivalence, the teasing switch of genders in her poetic voice, the split between alternate sides of the same person seem just as cogent. And primary, it seems to me, is the search for meaningfulness in life within the self. She was immersed in outer world and inner, and then the Divine which was represented by her art—the nearest she could come to attaining “Divinity”.
Her poetry is full of volcanoes, and though she never got to see any of them she could “contemplate Vesuvius at Home”. Interestingly, Vesuvius has a prime place in Corinne, or Italy—there on its slopes, as they improbably trudge up to the crater, Lord Nelvil explains to Corinne why he must return to England; it is to find out the reasons his father objected to an earlier secretly arranged match between them. The father’s objection, it turns out, was that Corinne, even as a child, was too charming, too talented. As a woman she would, of course, take any husband away from England because “Only Italy would suit her.”
Why Italy? Because it was synonymous with genius and there one could live more openly, freed for self-expression from convention; there the arts were appreciated, and life, being free from moralizing hypocrisy in a way unknown to more politically and industrially advanced nations, was most suited to women of artistic talent—and, one should add, those to whom, like Corinne, love outside of marriage is no fault. There, as Margaret Fuller was to find, a woman could act out her own nature.
In choice and perfect words, a baker’s dozen, Emily Dickinson rendered the incantation of Italy in the symbol of the perfect flower, the sublime design of Dante’s Paradiso as Candida rosa:
Partake as doth the Bee, Abstemiously. The Rose is an Estate— In Sicily. (#994)
Italy could reside in one’s soul—a quality of independent spirit as much as an actual heritage. Imaginatively, without social stigma, a woman of genius could lead an independent life and develop her talent. In every sense Corinne guided her own life. As did Aurora Leigh. And, in the Italy of her imagined other side, so too did Emily Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts.