Rome or the countryside? – A letter from the World of late Antiquity

LIVING THE BUSY city life or moving to the quiet life on the countryside? That’s the question.  Even during the late Antiquity people pondered over this. Let’s take a look on a letter from the well-known Jerome (347-420) who lived in Rome while busy spreading Christianity through teaching and writings on Christian morality. He also liked to befriend Roman ladies from the Aristocracy who had promised to remain virgins for the rest of their lives. He eventuelly became a Saint and is regared as a Father of the Church.

I. Context

This letter is adressed to Marcella (325-410), a Christian widow. As wikipedia comments on her life: “After her husband’s early death, Marcella decided to devote the rest of her life to charity, prayer, and mortification of the flesh and was convinced that God was directing her to a life of poverty and service. She left behind her fashionable dresses for a coarse brown garment and abandoned her usual extravagant hair styling and makeup. Along with other women, Marcella formed a community known as the brown dress society, spending their time praying, singing, reading the Bible, and serving the needy. Her palatial home was now a refuge for weary pilgrims and for the poor.” I will not quote the entire letter, but simply point out a few sentences. 

From: Jerome

To: Marcella

Date: Rome, 385 A.D.

II. The Letter

“Wherefore, seeing that we have journeyed for much of our life through a troubled sea, and that our vessel has been in turn shaken by raging blasts and shattered upon treacherous reefs, let us, as soon as may be, make for the haven of rural quietude. There such country dainties as milk and household bread, and greens watered by our own hands, will supply us with coarse but harmless fare. So living, sleep will not call us away from prayer, nor satiety from reading. In summer the shade of a tree will afford us privacy. In autumn the quality of the air and the leaves strewn under foot will invite us to stop and rest. In springtime the fields will be bright with flowers, and our psalms will sound the sweeter for the twittering of the birds. When winter comes with its frost and snow, I shall not have to buy fuel, and, whether I sleep or keep vigil, shall be warmer than in town. At least, so far as I know, I shall keep off the cold at less expense. Let Rome keep to itself its noise and bustle, let the cruel shows of the arena go on, let the crowd rave at the circus, let the playgoers revel in the theatres and— for I must not altogether pass over our Christian friends— let the House of Ladies hold its daily sittings.”

Sources

Butler, Alban. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. 12 vols. Ed. David Hugh Farmer and Paul Burns. New full ed., Tunbridge Wells, UK: Burns & Oates and Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1995–2000.

Select Letters of St. Jerome. Jerome, Saint. F.A. Wright. William Heinemann Ltd.; Harvard University Press. London; Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1933.

Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.)

wikipedia.org (various entries)

Jerome making notes.

‘Open me Carefully’ Emily Dickinson’s intimate letters to Susan Huntington (1998) – Some thoughts

This volume of compiled and selected letters written by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. It contains the letters written by Emily to her friend and sister-in-law, Susan Huntington (1830-1913). Unlike her famous friend Susan H. was a very social and outgoing woman. She also travelled a lot, wrote a lot and edited a lot. She read and commented on Emily’s poetry. The letters are important since they spur a continuous 36-years correspondence between Emily and Susan who ended up living as neighbours at Amherst. The letters who not only depict family matters give us somewhat new information on how the women worked on Emily’s poetry and how the friendship developed between the over the years. If the ladies were more than friends cannot be estimated from the letters only. We simply don’t know if it ever was any physical love relation; though the introduction to this book indicates Emily’s feelings for Susan were sexual. As an unmarried woman living in an early 19th century Calvinist society it’s also very likely Emily Dickinson never had much of sexual experience at all. Our society today with access to various post-modern theories and psychoanalysis interpret freely upon the lives and texts of past authors; but interpretation and speculation is what remains when we have no definite answers.

There’s a poetic touch to each letter Emily wrote to Susan. As pointed out in the commentary section attached to each letter there is for an example a comment on Emily’s letter writing style on February 1852: “Throughout Emily’s letters to Susan, she combines a language of courtly love with terms of spiritual devotion. In 1915, Susan’s daughter Martha Dickinson Bianchi described her Aunt Emily in the Atlantic Monthly, saying ‘Her devotion to those she loved was that of a knight for his lady.” (Hart & Smith 1998, p. 13) That’s an interesting point of view from someone who once met with ms. Dickinson and her circle of family and friends. Research on Dickinson’s sexuality has been done since professor Rebecca Patterson published her ground breaking work The Riddle of Emily Dickinson (1951). Pattersson argued Emily’s muse and inspiration was another friend, Kate Anthon. Her published research was not welcomed in the 1950’s and received a lot of criticism based on fear and prejudice. The relatives of Kate Anthon forbade Pattersson further access to any letters and diaries as soon as they learned of her thesis. She managed to copy most of the material before the Anthons had most of the correspondence burned. Fearing any hint of a possible lesbian relationship with one of Americas most famous poets. Some researchers and critics today still wish to masque Emily’s homoerotic poetry and letter-style writing and refer to these outbursts as “romantic friendship”. The desire to oppress this side of Emily’s authorship is pointed out in Comment’s essay Dickinson’s Bawdy: Shakespeare and Sexual Symbolism in Emily Dickinson’s Writing to Susan Dickinson (2001). It’s interesting how interpretations continues to stir up controversy.

Sources

Comment, Kristin M. 2001. “Dickinson’s Bawdy: Shakespeare and Sexual Symbolism in Emily Dickinson’s Writing to Susan Dickinson”. Legacy. 18 (2): 167-181.

Dickinson, Emily, Ellen Louise Hart, and Martha Nell Smith. 1998. Open me carefully: Emily Dickinson’s intimate letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press.


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Emily and Susan H.Dickinson