Emily Dickinson’s 180th birthday was celebrated in Florence by a fine series of lectures, musical events, and, of course, poetry readings – Emily Dickinson: “Ho sentito la vita con entrambe le mani” (Emily Dickinson: “I felt my life with both of my hands”).
The program – the brainchild of Domenico De Martino of Accademia della Crusca and poet Elisa Biagini– used, among other venues, the Casa Guidi, home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her husband Robert Browning, and their son Pen.
The connection between Barrett Browning, a homebound consumptive, and Dickinson, a sickly agoraphobic, proves that even in the mid-1800s, the world of ideas and poetry was a small place.
Dickinson did not publish much before her death in 1886, so it is unclear if Barrett Browning ever knew of her existence. Dickinson, however, had three portraits (postcard drawing, photograph or daguerreotype) of Barrett Browning – one of which was framed and hung on the wall of her bedroom-sanctuary.
Dickinson also reportedly wore her hair looped over her ears and knotted in back “because it was the way Elizabeth Barrett Browning did” (quote attributed to Dickinson’s sister Lavinia). There are few pictures of Dickenson. In the one or two widely known, she was certainly less flamboyant in her coiffure than Barrett Browning.
Dickinson also borrowed from Barrett Browning in the poems Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord and The Soul selects her own Society. In the year following Barrett Browning’s death (1861), Dickinson wrote a poem about her:
I think I was enchanted
When first a sombre Girl —
I read that Foreign Lady —
The Dark — felt beautiful —
And whether it was noon at night —
Or only Heaven — at Noon —
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell –
Poem 593 (1862)
A picture of Barrett Browning’s tomb in the English Cemetery of Florence – perhaps a postcard or cut from Harper’s Magazine -was among Dickinson’s possessions.
I try to imagine afternoon tea shared these Victorian women of prodigious talent– Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – a true meeting of the minds.