“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.



HE put the belt around my life,—
I heard the buckle snap,
And turned away, imperial,
My lifetime folding up
Deliberate, as a duke would do
A kingdom’s title-deed,—
Henceforth a dedicated sort,
A member of the cloud.

Yet not too far to come at call,
And do the little toils
That make the circuit of the rest,
And deal occasional smiles
To lives that stoop to notice mine
And kindly ask it in,—
Whose invitation, knew you not
For whom I must decline?

~Emily Dickinson

In a cursory search for information on this poem, what I’ve discovered is that, though it’s included among Dickinson’s love poems, interpretations seem to identify it as a poem about either the speaker’s devotion to God, or her devotion to her poetic calling. If it’s not a love poem, what is it doing with the other love poems?

This is an interesting example of the significance of context. Because I was thinking of it as a love poem, surrounded as it is in my text by love poems under the heading “LOVE,” I assumed this was a love poem and proceeded accordingly in my reading of it.

It’s a pretty terrible love poem.

The images are of constraint, ignoring, condescension. My 21st-century sensibility protests, “Nobody puts Emily in a corner–or in a belt–whatever!!” It’s not a love poem, I suppose, so much as a poem of devotion. But that devotion is enforced rather than chosen, and no matter how you read it, the “he” doesn’t come out looking so good.

It’s hard to separate my own knowledge and cultural context from this poem. Frankly, “he” sounds like an abuser. The speaker gets snapped into a belt, constrained, controlled. Her lifetime is folded up, she does little toils, she declines invitations because of “him.”

There is a strange sort of elitism in the speaker’s role, however constrained. She is “a member of the cloud.” This sense of a rarefied role–how sincere is it? How tongue-in-cheek? She declines a specific identity in the first stanza, identifying herself as “a dedicated sort.”

This is a strange, strange poem, and the more I read it and delve into it, the stranger it becomes. No matter how I read it, it feels deeply problematic. This one is definitely in the category of “love poems that probably aren’t actually love poems.”

I => You


I have no life but this,
To lead it here;
Nor any death, but lest
Dispelled from there;

Nor tie to earths to come,
Nor action new,
Except through this extent,
The realm of you.

~Emily Dickinson

This reads like a classic description of an obsessive love. Without the beloved, the speaker is nothing, has nothing, not life, not death, not anything after that. The beloved is an entire realm through which the speaker experiences everything. This definitely seems like a new love and not a relationship that’s well-established.

One of the interesting things about this poem, to me, is that unlike other Dickinson love poems, this one doesn’t convey a clear emotion–rather, a state. We don’t get a sense of whether or not the speaker views any of this as good or bad–it simply is, without judgment.

This is also not Dickinson’s typical “Yellow Rose of Texas” meter. The lines are shorter than her usual ones, and every even-numbered line is shorter than the one before it.

What I like most about this poem, though, is the cleverness of its construction. It begins with “I” and ends with “you,” demonstrating through its very language and structure how the lover has become subsumed into the beloved.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

We think we’ve found it at last–an Emily Dickinson love poem that’s actually about love and not secretly about death! Enjoy!


The rose did caper on her cheek,
Her bodice rose and fell,
Her pretty speech, like drunken men,
Did stagger pitiful.

Her fingers fumbled at her work,—
Her needle would not go;
What ailed so smart a little maid
It puzzled me to know,

Till opposite I spied a cheek
That bore another rose;
Just opposite, another speech
That like the drunkard goes;

A vest that, like the bodice, danced
To the immortal tune,—
Till those two troubled little clocks
Ticked softly into one.

~Emily Dickinson

A taxonomy of love poems

~Emily Dickinson

For some reason I could not get this poem to format no matter what I tried; thus, the picture. It seems appropriate–this poem seems to defy conventional formatting in a number of ways.

It’s a strange little poem, but then, that seems to be par for the course here. I’m not sure what’s going on with the sudden use of Scots dialect in the third line. Like many (most?) of Dickinson’s poems, though, it ends with an image of decay/death, so that’s not unexpected.

The poem seems pretty straightforward, as many of her love poems do. As we work our way through this month of love poems, I’m starting to think that all Emily Dickinson love poems fall into one or more of several categories:

  • love poems that address her little heart;
  • love poems about being married that sound vaguely ominous;
  • love poems that depict passion in terms of cold rather than heat;
  • love poems that rely on some pretty obvious metaphorical language about bees and flowers;
  • love poems that end in death;
  • love poems with a rhythm/rhyme scheme that somehow feels vaguely embarrassing to read;
  • love poems about the inaccessibility of the beloved; and
  • love poems that may or may not be love poems, but somebody decided to anthologize them as such.

We’re almost halfway through this short month of Emily Dickinson love poems, and there’s much more to read, so we’ll see if we need to add to this list as we go along. Perhaps we can create a taxonomy of Dickinsonian love poetry…

“The fathoms they abide”

 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: 
    Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.

~William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Emily Dickinson

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…)

New and old…

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.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring her knell.



MY river runs to thee:
Blue sea, wilt welcome me?

My river waits reply.
Oh sea, look graciously!

I’ll fetch thee brooks
From spotted nooks,—

Say, sea,
Take me!

~Emily Dickinson

We had fun discussing this weird little poem, but our conversation took a number of twists and turns, including a digression in the direction of The Golden Girls, so instead of that conversation, we’re offering you a prompt born of our discussion.

As we make our way through Emily Dickinson’s poems, we often find ourselves wondering about her life. Why write poems if you never want anyone to read them? Why write poems to the beloved if you never intend to deliver them?

And so, today’s prompt: Write a love poem that reads like no one is intended to read it, and then share it with the world! Preferably via the comments section below. 😉

“Pale sustenance”

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –

Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –

I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down –
You – could not –

And I – could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Death’s privilege?

Nor could I rise – with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ –
That New Grace

Glow plain – and foreign
On my homesick Eye –
Except that You than He
Shone closer by –

They’d judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –

Because You saturated Sight –
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise

And were You lost, I would be –
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame –

And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to Me –

So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair –

~Emily Dickinson

The only way this poem could be more Emily Dickinson would be if it had a bird and some flowers in it. Otherwise, it seems to hit all of what I am coming to think of as the Dickinson notes: pathos, unanswered questions, metaphors galore, paradox, passion depicted in terms of cold rather than heat, and a healthy helping of blasphemy.

This poem devastates from the first line–“I cannot live with you”–and then piles on the sorrow. Life is behind a locked shelf, but “our” life, her life, is locked in that shelf. Despite being locked in, it is old, weak, unpleasing. The beloved could not wait for her, and the speaker could not rise with the beloved–this just gets more and more tragic, in that quiet, Dickinsonian way.

This brings us to the really fun part. The reason the speaker cannot rise with the beloved is that, to her, Jesus would pale in comparison. The beloved served heaven–or tried to, she qualifies–but she could not. She even suggests that she would cast off heaven to follow him into hell. She takes this a step further to say that she would become hell to herself if not near him after death.

Then comes the paradox–“So we must meet apart”–with only a door ajar between them, a space wide as oceans. After all the blaspheming, she then suggests that prayer connects them, and finally ends, in peak Emily style, on the word “despair.”

It’s a gut-wrenching poem, but also meticulously executed. There’s much to examine here, and I’ve only touched on a few of the points that fascinate me. Of the poems we’ve read so far this year, this one strikes me as perhaps the most emblematic of Dickinson’s brave and passionate style. What do you think?



AS if some little Arctic flower,
Upon the polar hem,
Went wandering down the latitudes,
Until it puzzled came

To continents of summer,
To firmaments of sun,
To strange, bright crowds of flowers,
And birds of foreign tongue!

I say, as if this little flower
To Eden wandered in—
What then? Why, nothing, only
Your inference therefrom!

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna: Things I love about this poem:

1) Personification of little wandering flower = adorable.

2) There is not a complete sentence in the entire poem–no completed thought–which works really, really well, since the whole point of the poem is to not tell the reader exactly what she’s thinking–to not complete her own thought, but imply it. This brings me to

3) Emily is SO VERY flirty. This is the kind of poem that makes me think she didn’t get married because she just didn’t want to. Girlfriend must have been able to flirt with the best of them. She is so coy.

Pam: I love your second point! Yes. Having the unfinished sentences makes sense if you are trying to obscure the meaning. However, I do not see the flirting at all.

Brenna: It’s the elusiveness.

Pam: I am immediately thrown by how off the meter feels, especially in that last line. I feel like I need to go over this with a ruler and count out syllables and stresses.

Brenna: The “I have something to say but I’m not going to tell you, you have to guess” aspect of it.

Pam: “your inference therefrom” breaks the entire meter from every previous line. Emily.

Brenna: Apparently she could be quite the flirt, and sent Valentines to young men at her father’s office. I could see this being the text of some nineteenth-century Valentine.

Brenna: She breaks meter maybe because she’s breaking her train of thought.

Pam: Yes, because in this line, she’s addressing “you”!

Brenna: Yes!

Pam: So perhaps we’ve switched from flower poem traipsing around to talking to the subject of her affections?

Brenna: Yes. I think she’s saying that meeting him (whoever) is like being a little Arctic flower (small, plain, pale) traveling to exotic locales, winding up in Eden and seeing–oooh, she can’t say “him,” that’s just way too forward.

Brenna: I think Miss Always-Wears-White is the little Arctic flower. My working theory now is that for Emily, cold = passion.

Pam: The idea of an Arctic flower is just so Mary Sue to me. I love it. “I know flowers don’t usually grow in the Arctic, but THIS ONE does, and it’s special, and this shows how determined it is.”

Brenna: But there are Arctic flowers, right? During the spring/summer? Things bloom there. Of course, they’re more ephemeral. And rare. Because DEATH. And because nobody is quite like Emily.

Brenna: It’s a little bit vain, in an oddly closeted way. EMILY HUMBLEBRAG.

Pam: Apparently, there are Arctic flowers! Shows you what I know about different climates. And she would have known this, I’m sure, as an avid gardener. Aside: look up Arctic cotton grass. It is ADORABLE

Brenna: Okay, that is an adorable plant.

Pam: I want to squeeze it. I’m wondering now which plant she was imagining as her Arctic flower.

Brenna: It’s like a tiny Muppet on a stalk! And I would bet you cash money it’s a white one.

Pam: Well, if the “bright crowds of flowers” are strange, I bet you’re right.
The little white Arctic flower descending down to see the colorful, common flowers!

Brenna: It’s a perfect metaphor for the agoraphobic. All of us introverts are wallflowers when thrown into a room of gorgeous, gaudy people.

Pam: There’s such a lovely sentiment at the end, too. Being in this unknown person’s presence is like a flower wandering back to Eden.

Brenna: Yes! It’s as if she’s found her original habitat, her true home.

Pam: Yes! You can absolutely feel the “I don’t belong here” vibe.

Brenna: And the birds. Always with the birds, this one.

Pam: Which ties in even more to the broken meter at the end. It goes completely passive. The stresses just disappear.

Brenna: Because her stress melts away in the presence of this mystery-person. That might be going a bit far…. I am apparently feeling quite literal today.

Pam: Ha, or she loses personality or authority! It’s like having a big speech prepared and then seeing a cute guy and then you mumble, “Hey, hi, hello,” and scutter off.

Brenna: If I had an Arctic cotton grass for every time that’s happened…

Prompt: If you were coming in the fall

IF you were coming in the fall,
I’d brush the summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn,
As housewives do a fly.

If I could see you in a year,
I’d wind the months in balls,
And put them each in separate drawers,
Until their time befalls.

If only centuries delayed,
I’d count them on my hand,
Subtracting till my fingers dropped
Into Van Diemen’s land.

If certain, when this life was out,
That yours and mine should be,
I’d toss it yonder like a rind,,
And taste eternity.

But now, all ignorant of the length
Of time’s uncertain wing,
It goads me, like the goblin bee,
That will not state its sting.

Emily Dickinson

I’m not sure this poem was meant to be sad, but oh, I feel that it is. There’s such yearning here: such desperation. If I knew that we’d be together in eternity, the speaker says, I’d happily die now. But it’s the not knowing how long it will take for the unspoken (and, perhaps, unknown) lover to come that proves the speaker’s undoing: if only she knew when the lover might arrive, she could handle it. What do you do when you’re single, and you don’t know when–or if–that will change?

Today’s prompt: consider life from the perspective of the unknown lover. What if this lover knows about the poet–and knows how long it will take for them to meet? Would the lover wonder whether the poet would wait? Is the lover delaying for a reason?