“The Moon is distant from the Sea”

The Moon is distant from the Sea –
And yet, with Amber Hands –
She leads Him – docile as a Boy –
Along appointed Sands –


He never misses a Degree –
Obedient to Her eye –
He comes just so far – toward the Town –
Just so far – goes away –


Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber Hand –
And mine – the distant Sea –
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me –

~Emily Dickinson

I chose this poem in honor of February’s full moon, the Snow Moon. Last night the clouds hung heavy with snow and the light of the moon, amber or otherwise, didn’t touch my little patch of earth. But the moon is still there, irrevocable as the tides, pulling and tugging at consciousness even when invisible.

This is yet another in the category of “Is It a Love Poem??” It easily could be, but the “Signor” could be God as easily as the beloved. Rather than comment on that, I want to focus instead on the gender reversal in this poem.

Dickinson begins with the Moon as “She” and the sea as “Him.” The moon has for thousands of years been associated with the feminine, so there’s nothing surprising her. The interesting thing happens in the third stanza–the female speaker takes the place of the masculine sea, and “Signor,” whoever he is, takes on the feminine role of the moon. I love this kind of gender-bending; it happens occasionally in Dickinson’s poems, and while I don’t know what exactly it means, I find it fascinating.

If we go with a religious reading, there’s precedent for this, of course, in descriptions of God as not only a masculine force, but also a mother bird gathering her chicks under the nurturing shelter of her wings. But why the gender reversal partway through the poem?

Maybe it’s because, in any sustained relationship, socially-constructed notions of gender have to blur from time to time. No one can be the sole nurturer; no one can be the sole protector. Our roles wax and wane over the cycles of time like the phases of the moon. Roles that are stereotypically “feminine” can and should be played by both partners in a relationship, and so should the stereotypically “masculine” ones. I can’t know if Dickinson was thinking anything along these lines, but the fact that she so easily compares the influence of the masculine (God, the beloved) to a feminine power (the moon) is suggestive.

There are so many interesting features in this poem–the gorgeous evocations of the moon’s amber light, the poignancy of the repeated emphasis on the impossible distance between the speaker and the object of her devotion, the sheer beauty of Dickinson’s language. No matter how you read it, it’s a lovely poem to read under the light of the full moon.

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