Mermaids in the basement

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me,

And frigates in the upper floor
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.

But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,

And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as a dew
Upon a dandelion’s sleeve—
And then I started too.

And he—he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle,—then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.

Until we met the solid town,
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

~Emily Dickinson

There’s so, so much I love about this poem, and so much I could say. It has the feel of the best kinds of fairy tales–the old ones–lovely and darkly glimmering, beautiful and somehow ominous, and just familiar enough for its strangeness to feel bone-chillingly strange.

On this reading, the thing that strikes me is the perspective in the poem–not just the speaker’s voice, but the physical position from which she is speaking. It begins in an ordinary way–she rises early, and goes to the shore with her dog. Then things begin to get interesting. The mermaids in the “basement” are presumably rising up from the depths of the sea; the frigates ride atop it, in the upper floor. To the mermaids, fantastical creatures of myth, the human speaker is the curiosity; to the massive frigates, she is merely a stranded mouse.

The speaker stands by the sea as the tide comes in–past her shoes, apron, belt, bodice, threatening/promising to swallow her completely. This would seem ominous, but then we get the odd line, “And then I started too.” Started what? To become the sea? To rise like the tide?

Suddenly now she is not in the sea but with it, being followed by it, the sea brushing her ankle, her shoes overflowing. Speaker and sea arrive at a town, and the line “No man he seemed to know” echoes the earlier line “But no man moved me,” again linking water and woman, and excluding man. Finally, the sea bows and withdraws, seeming to understand that it must leave her in the realm of land-dwelling things.

The whole poem reads almost like one of those Greek myths in which human and nature collide and coalesce in strange and unexpected ways. There is magic here, certainly, whether it is the magic of mermaids and sentient waters, or merely the magic of language to evoke the wondrous and strange.

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