Thursday, April 09, 2009

I Started Early, Took My Dog by Emily Dickinson

From "Crossing the Bar", a poem about death that's related to the sea, to "Sea-Fever", a poem about wanderlust and the sea, it was a short hop to Emily Dickinson. No, really.

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 One He seemed to know—
And bowing—with a Mighty look—
At me—The Sea withdrew—

I must confess, I love the imagery in this poem. But first, I must confess a longstanding shortcoming of my own. For years, I resisted reading much Dickinson, in part because I found her slightly morbid (as in "I heard a Fly buzz when I died") and in part because I had an issue with, well, her punctuation. It's all the em-dashes. Everywhere. Every blessed where. They get in my way, somehow, when I read her poems on the page. Kinda like reading a Barbara Cartland romance novel, when the spunky heroine attains her love interest at the end . . . and starts . . .to speak . . . breathlessly . . . (Those of you who haven't read a Barbara Cartland romance will have to take my word on it, but the spunky, well-spoken ingenues always end up sputtering with ellipses by the end.)

However. This issue is readily overcome by reading her poetry aloud. It's really that simple. Each dash represents a slight pause or break. As it turns out, it alters the pace of the poem in ways you might not expect. For instance, the last two lines of the first stanza "The Mermaids in the Basement Came out to look at me" gets run all together. The same goes for the first two lines of the second stanza (starting after the em-dash): "in the Upper Floor Extended Hempen Hands" all goes together, without a break after Floor (where you might expect one).

All of these keeping things together or apart are part of her poetry. The spaces between some of the thoughts, the brief silences in the gaps of the dashes, are as much a part of her text as are the actual words. And while that may be (arguably) true of other poets as well, it's decidedly the case when reading Miss Dickinson's work.

It makes the reading of the third from last stanza break out as follows (assume that you should pause after each line here):

And made as He would eat me up
As wholly as a Dew Upon a Dandelion's Sleeve
And then
I started

Because many, if not most, of her poems are in common metre, they can be sung to the tunes of Amazing Grace or the Theme from Gilligan's Island or The Yellow Rose of Texas. But if you sing them, you will miss the meanings because you will leave them in four-line stanzas, without the pauses coming in the proper places in the text. You'd have read the second and third lines as separate ideas, when in fact they are one long, lovely image.

Traditionally, today's selection is classified as a Nature poem, and it is accepted that the speaker went to the sea and stood there as the sea rose, then returned to land. Others give the poem a psycho-sexual reading, and go so far as to claim it's a masochistic erotic fantasy. While I've always believed (paraphrasing Freud) that sometimes the Ocean is just the Ocean, and that this is more of a nature poem, it definitely has an erotic overtone to it. It can be read as a girl getting surprised by a wave in the sea, but it also has the subtext of a love poem -- the speaker's risk of being consumed by the sea fits with other poems Dickinson wrote about her fear of being all-consumed by love, and so I assumed it could have that as a second meaning. Masochism, however, is still too far of a stretch for me, even if I'm willing to acknowledge that "Hempen Hands" might be ropes.

But today, while putting this post together, I found another plausible interpretation that seems likely enough to me that I thought I'd point you to it. I found an online analysis in which the author (identified as Djehuty) puts forward the position that the speaker in the poem is not Dickinson, and is not even a woman, but is Orion, out for a stroll across the sky with his dog, Sirius. I must say, I find the argument persuasive, and it is at the very least plausible, given the description of the items of clothing worn by the speaker (including a belt), and the fact that the sailors are paying more attention to the speaker than to the mermaids. In this reading, the "He" following close behind would not be the tide at all, but would be the dog (the Canis Major constellation that follows at Orion's heel). And that, my friends, is what makes poetry so very much fun to parse.

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Anonymous said...

LMAO at your mention of the extreme..overuse Barbara Cartland...novels.

Those who are unfamiliar with her work don't even have to read a WHOLE book of hers to get the gist - just open the last page of ANY of her novels!

Anonymous said...

The speaker in the poem is Emily herself with her dog imagining she is Orion with his dog walking across the sky. As the constellation sinks into the West, Emily imagines him speaking about it, then she abruptly cuts off the reverie when in it danger comes to close to her, because she is in charge--as she has been the whole time.
The poem is one of her very deepest explorations of her psyche.