Dickinson’s oeuvre is full of shipwreck poems. A ship is always a good metaphor, and she uses them frequently. So, November is shipwreck month here at The Emily Project. This is the season of hurricanes and storms. Last night, the wind rose and knocked everything about the yard. It was a veritable tempest for Halloween night.
In this poem, the storm has overwhelmed the ship that seems “drunk” and “delirious” from its battle with the waves. The last stanza is where Dickinson really gets to the meat of this poem–the ocean (nature? the divine??) doesn’t really care about any of us. We are insignificant, in the grand scheme of things. Yet that hasn’t stopped the speaker from valuing the little craft and its crew, their struggles on the deep. The meaning we find in our lives is meaning we make for ourselves, not anything conferred upon us from without. The universe may not note or care what we do, but we can value human effort and struggle, and feel for those who are lost.
Summer mornings in the Valley are dew-soaked and sparkling. As the sun climbs the arc of the sky, its heat burns away the liquid diamonds. Shaded, they linger for hours, but in the direct light of the sun, the moon’s tears dissipate quickly.
We are the dew of Dickinson’s poem, so certain in our smallness, our ephemerality. We suffice ourselves; we believe we are the answer to our own questions, the center of our own orbits. Like the dew, though, we vanish. What do we leave behind? And where do we go? What happens to the dew? Is it “by day abducted”–does it evaporate back into the same changeless cycle, or will it at last find the sea?
That Dickinson uses the phrase “in passing” suggests that the sun’s dropping of the dew into the sea is a casual gesture, offhanded. The dew that was so sufficient unto itself is, to the sun, a literal drop in the ocean. A drop of dew, to itself, is everything. In the vastness of the sea, it becomes nothing, eternally unknown.
And yet what is the sea but drops of water, gathered together from across a spinning planet, across lifetimes and ages, across space and time, all things coming together in one great final infinity?
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.
A riddle–not even a complete sentence, but a suggestive fragment, in Dickinson’s characteristic painterly style with words. The ocean is an everywhere, a water planet, though we land-dwelling creatures tend to forget this. It is only a narrow band of sand that separates the realm of the mermaids from our own narrow track.
Maybe I’ve been watching too much BBC lately, but this sounds like a murder to me. I haven’t found any reference to this yet, but the image of the swimmers wrestling on the spar, with one succeeding and surviving, the other drowning, is suggestive.
It’s also curious the way the speaker inserts herself as observer. The broken exclamation, “O God, the other one!” sounds as if she is somehow watching the drama unfold, if only in her very vivid imagination.
The poem also reads like a riddle. Who or what do the two swimmers represent? What do you think?
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.