You cannot put a fire out

You cannot put a fire out;
A thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a fan
Upon the slowest night.

You cannot fold a flood
And put it in a drawer,β€”
Because the winds would find it out,
And tell your cedar floor.

~Emily Dickinson

This is an odd one. The first stanza seems fairly self-explanatory. Fire is powerful. It can spark seemingly without warning, and once it gets going, it can be impossible for humans to stop. Fire here could be a metaphor for all sorts of things that are uncontrollable by human beings.

The second stanza begins in the same vein–just as you can’t control fire, you can’t control water. A flood is wild, something that cannot be folded up and put away.

Then it gets weird. You can’t control a flood because “the winds would find it out”? “And tell your cedar floor”?? Umm…..

I think what Dickinson is really talking about here is trying to control language. Once something is put into words, it’s out there in the world. It cannot be taken back. If you try to control a word once it’s been spoken, you can’t. I’m reminded of this Dickinson poem:

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~Emily Dickinson

Words take on lives of their own. Once said, they cannot be unsaid. While the last line of this poem feels contrived–this whole “cedar floor” business sounds as if it’s trying too hard to match rhyme and rhythm–the point is a powerful one.

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