I chose this one to continue November’s shipwreck theme, though this is perhaps stretching a little. What really strikes me about this poem, though, is the depiction of the divine.
The speaker begins by describing the human desire for life–a drowning man is said to rise three times, attempting to save himself. When he at last sinks, he descends “to that abhorred abode/Where hope and he , part company.” So far this seems pretty standard. The “abhorred abode” is death, and of course none of us are anxious to get there.
But then Dickinson explains what she’s really getting at–the man loses hope, “For he is grasped of God.” It’s because he’s meeting God that the drowning man despairs.
This is the opposite of how Christianity is supposed to work. The end goal is heaven, God, the divine, eternal life. But there is something deeply human in the tendency of even the most Christian souls to fight death. Christians are supposed to be happy to meet God. Despair is the opposite of faith. This poem takes what must have been a very rebellious view at the time–the notion that we should be glad to meet God, but instead we fight it tooth and nail.
Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: Ding-dong. Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.
Today’s poem comes to you courtesy of my great-great-grandmother’s copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Yesterday my mom gave it to me. She had been going through her books, found this one, and thought I might like to have it. I had forgotten to tell her about this project, so it seemed a wonderful, magical coincidence.
The book is old, worn, obviously well-read. Its spine is completely missing. Any dust jacket it once bore is long gone (I wonder if that paper has rotted away into soil, its molecules alchemized into earth, blossoms, bees…)
My great-great-grandmother’s name was Lucile Jansen Bower. A generation before her, my great-great-great-grandmother, wife of an authoritarian husband, walked into the Atlantic Ocean one day and did not return. Officially, she drowned. Her story, as it has come to be handed down over a century, ends with, “but she was a very strong swimmer.” The implication is that her death was not accident but escape. I read The Awakening in college, long before I ever heard this family tale, and the first hearing broke me out in cold chills, forever conflating Edna and my ancestor in my imagination.
I wonder what Lucile thought of as she read this poem. Did she hold it up against her own marriage as a woman holds a dress against her body to estimate the fit? Did she think of her mother-in-law and the fathoms she abided?
Emily Dickinson must have thought of Ariel’s song from The Tempest as she wrote these lines. The first stanza begins in rather ordinary fashion–girl becomes woman becomes wife. It all sounds solemn and expected. Then, the turn–in the second stanza, the telling “If.” If her life lacked awe, amplitude, if the gloss wore off–only if–then that lack is as unknown as the ocean’s depths. Why “if”? Why introduce the idea at all if it isn’t so? Dickinson implies that in her marriage, the wife is silent, silenced. This is an interesting poem to include among the sections of love poems in Dickinson’s work. The wife in the first stanza is like a caterpillar become butterfly. In the last stanza, the allusion parallels her with a dead man. Birth, new life, death. The more Dickinson I read, the more I marvel at her ability to make basically anything all about death.
When I stand at the edge of the Atlantic, I think of my great-great-great-grandmother. In an anachronistic imagined memory I see her, standing with her back to a continent. I cannot see her face. She looks out at the infinite expanse, monsters gliding beneath its unquiet surface. She understands that they are free.
If I could somehow stop her, would this change the course of history? In the second this thought takes to lodge in my brain she steps out into the surf, her skirts billowing around her, and strikes out, strong and confident, for the impossible horizon.