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Who, at the end of the day, can really resist the smarter sort of flirt—other than footmen from Vevey?

November 14, 2009

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype taken at Mount Holyoke in late 1846 or early 1847

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!

N.B.: R.W. Franklin reports that this poem by Emily Dickinson exists in two fair copies, the one reproduced below, and the other as sent with a letter to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson. Dickinson biographer Alfred Habegger points out further that Susan and her husband Austin Dickinson lived in an Italianate villa (called “The Evergreens”) set off behind the Dickinson Homestead. The only variants are these: the exclamation marks appear in the Fascicle, but not in the manuscript sent to Susan Gilbert Dickinson; and in the Fascicle, Dickinson breaks the poem into two stanzas, and substitutes “farther” for “further” in line five.


Dickinson's manuscript, as bound in Fascicle 6 (ca. late 1859)

Habegger considers first, and briefly, the epistolary context: Dickinson wittily re-describes the (actually quite short) distance between her own homestead, which is in the vernacular New England style (though grand in its way), as an Alpine curtain that separates (and “guards”) Switzerland from Italy. But Habegger as quickly points out what is immediately clear to any reader of Dickinson: the poem is not an occasional poem, and is by no means limited in reach by these immediate epistolary and architectural contexts, though, as I will later intimate, these immediate contexts are, in fact, illuminated by the poem—and provocatively so.

But first for the poem taken straight up, as plucked from the Fascicle, not from the envelope that conveyed it to Susan Gilbert Dickinson. How does Italy stand in relation to Switzerland here—or rather to lives led in a “cool” & “still” “Swiss” way, as Dickinson imagines it? Geneva of course was the seat of Calvinism, and Italy the seat of, well, Rome and Roman Catholicism.


"The Siren," by John William Waterhouse (circa 1900)

The Alps that are said to “intervene” and “guard” the border between these two modes of life bear two aspects: “Solemnity” and, if I may put it this way, “Sirenicity.” The solemnity is the face, I suppose they present (in the poem) to Italy: Geneva & Northern Europe lay beyond, with their Calvinism, etc., and all that Calvinism signifies: the “still,” the “cool,” the “stern,” the Fatalism of it all—even unto innate depravity. But seen as separating “Italy” from Northern Protestant Europe & their New England counterparts these Alps take on a second aspect: “The siren Alps.” The Sirens of course are the ones of Greek legend: seductive and dangerous women, sometimes taking the form of mermaids, at others the form of winged women, or as birds with the heads of beautiful women. It is hardly impossible to rule out Dickinson’s having implied, in her letter/poem, that Susan Gilbert was such a woman—a Siren, in short. And the biographical sources, at times, bear this out, particularly in the later years. Dickinson had her intuitions, &, like Emerson, know them to be better than her tuition.

But the salient point of course is simply that the Sirens are seductive, and dangerously so, too. Anyone who ever read Henry James‘s 1878 novella Daisy Miller knows what “Italy,” and more particularly “Rome” signified to the proper Northern European/New England type in mid-19th century America: a place as seductive as it was dangerous (or corrupt)—especially for young women called Daisy, to which flower Dickinson, as if queerly anticipating the theme of the novella, so often likened (or allegorized) herself. The novella, like the poem, by the way, also turns on a contrast between Switzerland and Italy—which is simply to say that this was obviously something of a conventional topic in American writing at the time, and a topic under which we may range Dickinson’s poem. When she turns her gaze toward Italy, beyond those Siren Alps, she sees, there, something enticing, seductive—something, I suppose, the very opposite of the “cool” and the “still,” which would be (what?) the “hot” and the “agitated.” I am suggesting, needless to say, that this poem (like Daisy Miller) has to do, in some sense, with sexuality. (Incidentally, I would include “Our lives are Swiss” amongst a cluster of Dickinson’s poems I like to call “heliotropic.” These include such poems as “The Daisy follows soft the Sun…”; “As if some little Arctic flower / Upon the polar hem – / Went wandering down the Latitudes / Until it puzzled came / To continents of summer – / To firmaments of sun….”; “No Autumn’s intercepting Chill / Appalls this Tropic Breast / But African exuberance….”, among a number of others.)

A few words more. The controversies concerning the nature of Dickinson’s relationship to Susan Gilbert may be relevant here, given the assumptions at times made that the relation was, in part, erotic (at least in thought and feeling), and given that “Our lives are Swiss” was sent to Sue. I rather think that the epistolary context sheds little light on the poem, and that Habegger is correct not to engage in the matter too deeply.

Know-Nothing Banner, ca. mid-1850s

Know-Nothing Banner, ca. mid-1850s

But controversies must be borne in mind. Perhaps of some interest as well is the role that “Italy” and “Roman Catholicism” played in American culture, especially in New England. The 1850s saw the rise and fall of the Know-Nothing Party, which was forthrightly anti-Catholic and “nativist” in character, though their ire was directed not at Italy chiefly, but at the Irish immigrants who were pouring into American harbors at the time, refugees from famine and British persecution. And there was a marked strain of anti-Catholicism in the abolitionist movement, which regarded the institution of the Catholic Church, especially as it existed in Italy, as vestigially “feudal.” One need only read Frederick Douglass‘s account of his visit to Rome (in his 1892 Life and Times) to see what I mean:

For one, however, I was much more interested in the Rome of the past than in the Rome of the present; in the banks of its Tiber with their history than in the images, angles and pictures on the walls of its splendid churches; in the preaching of Paul eighteen hundred years ago than in the preaching of the priests and popes of to-day. The fine silks and costly jewels and vestments of the priests of the present could hardly have been dreamed of by the first great preacher of Christianity at Rome, who lived in his own hired house, and whose hands ministered to his own necessities. It was something to feel ourselves standing where this brave man stood, looking on the place where he lived, and walking on the same Appian Way where he walked, when, having appealed to Cæsar, he was bravely on the way to this same Rome to meet his fate, whether that should be life or death. This was more to me than being shown, as we were, under the dome of St. Peter’s, the head of St. Luke in a casket, a piece of the true cross, a lock of the Virgin Mary’s hair, and the leg-bone of Lazarus; or any of the wonderful things in that line palmed off on a credulous and superstitious people.


Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879, photo by George K. Warren.

In one of these churches we were shown a great doll, covered with silks and jewels and all manner of strange devices, and this wooden baby was solemnly credited with miraculous power in healing the sick and averting many of the evils to which flesh is heir. In the same church we were, with equal solemnity, shown a print of the devil’s cloven foot in the hard stone. I could but ask myself what the devil could a devil be doing in such a holy place. I had some curiosity in seeing devout people going up to the black statue of St. Peter—I was glad to find him black; I have no prejudice against his color—and kissing the old fellow’s big toe, one side of which has been nearly worn away by these devout and tender salutes of which it has been the cold subject. In seeing these, one may well ask himself, What will not men believe? Crowds of men and women going up a stairway on their knees; monks making ornaments of dead men’s bones; others refusing to wash themselves—and all in order to secure the favor of God,—give a degrading idea of man’s relation to the Infinite Author of the universe. But there is no reasoning with faith. It is doubtless a great comfort to these people, after all, to have kissed the great toe of the black image of the Apostle Peter, and to have bruised their knees in substituting them for feet in ascending a stairway, called the Scala Santa. I felt, in looking upon these religious shows in Rome, as the late Benjamin Wade said he felt at a negro camp-meeting, where there were much howling, shouting, and jumping: ‘This is nothing to me, but it surely must be something to them.’

The hallmark in this paragraph is clear: a kind of anti-sensualism, compounded by a suspicion that Rome & its religion were in some sense lush—seductive, but at the same time distressing (as in fact many “seductive” things are: there must be an enticing air of the forbidden about them). All this is simply to say: Dickinson’s poem is implicated in any of a number of possible contexts: that of her (possibly erotic attraction) to her infamously hot-tempered sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson, whom she may be provoking; the discourse involving Americans in their often wary talk about “Italy” and “Roman Catholicism” in the 1850s; and such tendencies within American culture that made possible, and so immediately intelligible,  novellas like Daisy Miller. There may be a whiff of mischievous anti-Catholicism, or “anti-Romanism,” in this poem, though only a whiff (Vivian Pollack takes up the topic in her Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson).

On which note I shall begin to wind things up with another of Dickinson’s poems. It is one of her many flower/bee poems that very obviously deal with sexuality:

The Flower must not blame the Bee –
That seeketh his felicity
Too often at her door –

But teach the Footman from Vevay –
Mistress is “not at home” – to say –
To people – any more!

This is one among many Dickinsonian poems of “renunciation”—renunciation of courtship, of convention, of publication, of some role or other she (irritably) felt herself cast to play. “Vevay” is, of course, a Dickinsonian spelling of “Vevey,” which sits on the shore of Lake Geneva, which—again, with uncanny anticipation—is the very resort town where Daisy Miller first meets the aptly named Winterbourne: so equivocally “Swiss” (though American), so “cool,” so “still,” and yet so distressingly hot for his young Daisy—this dislocated American suitor whose sense of decorum is so upset by his “Daisy” (who follows soft the sun), and who later unsuccessfully makes it his business to “protect” her from the “perils” of Rome and Roman men: to him she is as inscrutable as Dickinson is to many of her readers now, who find themselves, to this day, unable to disentangle the flirtatious from the serious in her writing, and unable to accept that any such disentangling enterprise is utterly misguided—unable to accept that Dickinson is, at times, and in certain moods and modes, quite simply a very queer poet indeed, and all the more engaging for the fact. Who, at the end of the day, can really resist the smarter sort of flirt—other than hired “footmen from Vevey”? Certainly not James’s Winterbourne, whose cogitations James renders as follows:


Cover, Oxford Classics edition.

Poor Winterbourne was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed. He had never yet heard a young girl express herself in just this fashion; never, at least, save in cases where to say such things seemed a kind of demonstrative evidence of a certain laxity of deportment. And yet was he to accuse Miss Daisy Miller of actual or potential inconduite, as they said at Geneva? He felt that he had lived at Geneva so long that he had lost a good deal; he had become dishabituated to the American tone. Never, indeed, since he had grown old enough to appreciate things, had he encountered a young American girl of so pronounced a type as this. Certainly she was very charming, but how deucedly sociable! Was she simply a pretty girl from New York State? Were they all like that, the pretty girls who had a good deal of gentlemen’s society? Or was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person? Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. Miss Daisy Miller looked extremely innocent. Some people had told him that, after all, American girls were exceedingly innocent; and others had told him that, after all, they were not. He was inclined to think Miss Daisy Miller was a flirt—a pretty American flirt. He had never, as yet, had any relations with young ladies of this category. He had known, here in Europe, two or three women—persons older than Miss Daisy Miller, and provided, for respectability’s sake, with husbands—who were great coquettes—dangerous, terrible women, with whom one’s relations were liable to take a serious turn. But this young girl was not a coquette in that sense; she was very unsophisticated; she was only a pretty American flirt. Winterbourne was almost grateful for having found the formula that applied to Miss Daisy Miller. He leaned back in his seat; he remarked to himself that she had the most charming nose he had ever seen; he wondered what were the regular conditions and limitations of one’s intercourse with a pretty American flirt. It presently became apparent that he was on the way to learn.

James had no access to Dickinson’s poetry when he wrote this paragraph; he, as would everyone else, would have to wait until 1890 for that. But he may as well be describing the difficulty, the inability to resist application of categories where none are needed, that afflict and frustrate, let’s say, the lesser readers of Dickinson and other such Daisies. The greater sort of readers of Dickinson have no problem with her “inconduite,” whether lexical, grammatical, syntactical, thematic, or erotic.

N.B.: For a link to the Librivox recording of poems by Dickinson (in their pre-1955 texts), as read aloud by Becky Miller, click here. For the Librivox recording of James’s Daisy Miller, click here. For a link to the Dickinson Electronic Archives—editor in chief, distinguished Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith—click here.

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