As a young student at the Amherst Academy and then at the Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, Emily Dickinson and her classmates spent a good deal of time doing geography- an important discipline that encompassed not only map study but economics, history (ancient and modern), geology, botany, and social and cultural relations as well. The school recommended that each student own an atlas for reference, and in the Dickinson household there were several. (Some of her seemingly more esoteric spellings- such as "Himmaleh" for "Himalaya"-- come straight from S. Augustus Mitchell's System of Modern Geography, used at the Seminary.) Atlases were frequently updated, as well: not only was new and more accurate information being supplied to cartographers by the ongoing process of Western exploration, but the political boundaries of the very United States were shifting during this age of expansion.
In one poem that gently pokes fun at the books she obviously loved,"Knows how to forget," Dickinson expresses a typical student's complaint:
I went to School
The original sources of the so-called "lure of the East"-- India and China, with their ancient civilizations and mythical riches- account for many references: Cashmere, Burmah, Himmaleh, Timbuctoo. South America, which had been all but closed to the rest of the world during the Spanish colonial period, provides many more. In this short poem addressed to Hernando de Soto- a Spanish explorer of Florida whose expedition was known as particularly bloody and violent- she seems skeptical about the spirit of adventurism behind the conquest of the Western Hemisphere:
Soto! Explore thyself!
Exploration, discovery, and settlement were watchwords of the modern age across the Americas, and this poem has generally been taken as typical of Dickinson's removal from the public spheres of politics and domination. Like Emerson's well-known injunction, "Know thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string," Dickinson's phrase reverberates with the suggestion that such energy would be better spent exploring the endless realms of the mind. Truly important "discoveries" happen within the individual, and do not bring wealth or fame. Yet at the same time, the heroic impulse remains strong; the first line sounds the charge of "Excelsior!"-- go higher, go further.
In another mood, Dickinson urges us to "Trust in the Unexpected," to have the full faith in the unseen that she could never bring herself to codify:
'Twas this- allured Columbus-
Like Whitman in "Passage to India," she seems to urge a kind of blind surrender to the unknown. Even in her most abstract writing, Dickinson is fascinated by boundaries and limits. Like any born explorer, she challenges the limits of the known, and pushes her consciousness as far as it will go- as if to the edges of the world.