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
– 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.
“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.