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12 November 2011

Our lives are Swiss –

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!
                                        – F 129 (1860) 80

The land of Italy with its warm sun, abundant grapes, joi de vivre, and reputation for passion is not only on a distant continent from Massachusetts, but must have seemed diametrically opposed to the culture in which Dickinson was raised. The mighty Alps stand between the coolness of the Swiss, with whom the poet identifies here, and the land of sun and love.
           I think, though, that Dickinson is not speaking so much of one culture glimpsing another one deemed temptingly sensuous, but of her own internal conflicts. Later poems will deal with the turmoil and extent of her passions (in fact Judith Farr wrote a book called The Passion of Emily Dickinson – which is quite good!), and this one hints at it. The cool white snow of the Alps towering into the clouds serves both as a guard, solemn in its duties and watchfulness, and as an irresistible siren. Dickinson would be referring to Homer’s sirens who sang to sailors causing them to abandon their duties and drown in the wreck of their ships. Just so, the poet is wary of letting down her guard, lest “some odd afternoon” when least expected, her personal Italy might manifest itself.
          “Italy” gets an extra wallop because while the rest of the poem is in stately and proper iambs, Italy is dactylic and almost bursts out of its stanza. But while it may be longed for, it is out of reach. The contrast to the Paradise that Dickinson writes longingly of in other poems is the polar opposite of this Italy.
            In the first stanza the Alps are feminized – they “neglect their Curtains” as some negligent housewife might and let outsiders peep in. And what a sight! Italy! The exclamation marks denote excitement, yet just like walls, the Alps, now  masculinized as guards, “Forever intervene!” That’s no doubt supposed to be read as frustration.
            The tone of the poem, however, is less frustrated and more playful. The poet is tempted to let her Italian, earthy side show – imagine what it would be like, she suggests – but reluctantly is resigned to the cool passionless life that is hers in Amherst. 


  1. You should check out Helen Vendler's interpretation in which the Alps symbolize the Decalogue - although you both say the same thing.

    1. Thanks -- I always enjoy Vendler, on Dickinson and... anything! In fact, re-reading her commentary on this poem, I see I was probably very influenced by her reading (although I think she is more helter-skelter about this poem than others).

  2. You should check out Helen Vendler's interpretation in which the Alps symbolize the Decalogue - although you both say the same thing.

  3. New England’s mid-19th century concept of proper behavior versus Italy’s warm sun, joi de vivre, and passion could be the topic of this poem, But ED hates politics and trite generalizations. Rather, ‘Our lives are Swiss’ describes interpersonal conflict: what life at Homestead and Evergreens is, what it could be, and the barrier between the two. ED begins with a stereotype of Germanic culture and personal affect: “Our lives are Swiss – / So still –so Cool –”. How could she say it more directly?

    Only rarely does the barrier drop its guard, neglect its curtain, give glimpses of what their lives could be: warm, passionate, and full of love; Italy, not Switzerland. Is the barrier solemn Austin or siren Susan? Whoever it is, the wall forever intervenes.

  4. You could see it as Nietzsche did, as the human condition being characterized by a dichotomy between the logical, lucid Appolonian and the devilish, revelry of the Dionysion. The Swiss Alps are of course our coldly calculating lives, full of holes, standing solemn yet always calling us back from the brink of our tempestuous, heady passions. The tension is between us wanting to let go but being unable to completely do so, be it because of commitment, duty, responsibilities etc.