Emily Dickinson: "Poem 80"

Here is a poem by Emily Dickinson, no. 80 in the standard edition. It is short and sharp, like so many of her poems. In fact, you might like to see what other “typical” features you notice. Make groups of three, and huddle round a computer screen, or take a print-out and huddle round a table. Work through the questions, and be ready to make a “Report on a Poem” to the class.

It can be interesting to compare different groups’ conclusions. 


Poem 80

Our lives are Swiss –
So still – so Cool –
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their Curtains
And we look further on

Italy stands the other side!
While like a guard between –
The solemn Alps –
The siren Alps
Forever intervene!



  1. What qualities do you associate with Switzerland?
  2. And what qualities do you associate with Italy?
  3. Note that Dickinson italicised the word Italy. Why, do you think? (In some editions of the poem italics are not used.)
  4. What do curtains do? When “The Alps neglect their curtains” (line 4) what is going on?
  5. The Alps are compared to curtains, but also to something else. What?
  6. So what is this poem all about? What is its theme? (To answer this, you should make up your mind who “we” are in line 5, and what is meant by “Our lives” in line 1.)
  7. How “modern” or “traditional” do you find the poem? Explain your answer.

Swiss alps