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Wry, Joan: "'In Lands I never saw': Emily Dickinson’s Alpine Requirements"

“In Lands I never saw”: Emily Dickinson’s Alpine Requirements

Joan Wry, Saint Michael’s College

Emily Dickinson never saw Europe’s “Immortal Alps,” but she clearly knew of nineteenth century contexts for alpine transcendence and the allure of alpinism, as well as the geography, topography, and cultures of the lands at the feet of the highest mountains in Europe. In three provocative poems, J80, J124, and J914, Dickinson speculates on various “alpine requirements” of the peaks that were known by many as symbols of eternity and emblems of power, and in some measure she seems also to address the Alps in the context of then-popular associations for the analytic of the Sublime. Wordsworth’s account of crossing the Simplon Pass in Book VI of the The Prelude would have been familiar to Dickinson, and perhaps she also knew Shelley’s ponderous “Mont Blanc,” a poem written about a mountain that Shelley also “never saw”—at least at the time the poem was written. And Dickinson would have known of the famous alpinists whose first ascents of various peaks in the Alps were widely publicized in both Europe and America; even in her own Amherst, Edward Tuckerman’s fascination with alpinism was both celebrated on the faculty at Amherst College and acknowledged in the naming of a dramatic ravine in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My paper proposes that Dickinson’s poems about the Alps draw on an evolving analytic of the Sublime that would have been familiar to her, one that began with Edmund Burke’s requisite passion of “astonishment”—the “effect of the sublime in its highest degree,” moved into the primacy of cognitive recognition with Kant’s task of thinking through to the power of human reason, and then was most vividly addressed by the High Romantic Poets, with their foregrounding of the possibilities of nature and the “rich amends” of the power of the Imagination—an understanding that prevailed in Dickinson’s own time as well. Dickinson’s “alpine requirements” are her own, however, and evidenced in these poems in an understanding of the Alps as “siren” and even dangerously compelling; as “intervene[ing]” with oppositional countries and cultures; and as “immortal” with their power to connect celestial “firmament” with the “meek” and mortal in populated “town[s].” In making visible those peaks and lands she never saw, Emily Dickinson asserts “the power of the human mind’s imaginings,” to borrow Shelley’s phrasing in “Mont Blanc,” so that all of us reading her poems through time may rise from the “still” and “cool” to “look farther on”—perhaps even into the “Height[s] so high” of alpine transcendence.