The other day I felt a sudden urge to feel the sea breeze on my face and through my hair. I drove to Port de Pollença and strolled along the Pine Walk and thought about how grateful I feel about being able to contemplate the sea —and smell it, touch it— whenever I wish to do so. Unlike Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).
Dickinson would never see the sea, yet wrote such a poignant poem as I Started Early — Took my Dog, in which the ocean plays an important role. But how do you imagine the rolling waves and the sound they make if you live in Amherst, Massachusetts? Let’s read the poem!
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 – opon 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 Boddice – too – And made as He would eat me up – As wholly as a Dew Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve – And then – I started – too – And He – He followed – close behind – I felt His Silver Heel Opon my Ancle – 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 –
Dickinson’s mind seems to envision the ocean as a mystic, magical place. In the poem she introduces it to us on a nice morning, while walking the dog, with mermaids and ships reaching out to her. It’s an appealing and seductive call. However, the temptation turns into arousement, only to transform to fear of giving in, to surrender. We sense her inner fight and the threatening force that surrounds her in deeper waters. Finally, she flees, literally fighting the sea’s grip on her. When they reach shallow waters, Solid Town, the ocean bids farewell with a bow and withdraws. She is left with… what? Relief? Excitement? A sense of emptiness?
Surrender vs Safety
Whereas you can read I Started Early – Took my Dog in a literal way, as described above, the poem also invites to further interpretation. What does the sea evoke and/or symbolize? It could be sexual initiation, including the phases of attraction, desire and finally, fear of the voracity —of masculine strength—, fear of succumbing. Yet wishing for it! While fighting to get loose, she pictures the beauty of surrender (My Shoes Would overflow with Pearls). So was the shore something to strive for? Safety versus life? Would she forever wish she had dared to submit?
Instead of visualising the ocean as masculinity and sexual awakening, we could consider it an expression for creativity and inspiration — or the fact that things are seldom what they appear to be. We never know for sure what lingers under the surface (of the sea, of people…) but oh, the temptation to surrender to something! To feel unity, oneness and fulfilment. Do we choose to take the plunge or do we opt for the predictable and safe?
Finally, the ocean could well represent Dickinson’s authorship and her life as a poet. The sea, appearingly inviting and pleasant from the outside, conceals inner conflicts, contradictions and emotional dramas. Whereas the poet’s secluded life in her family home was physically limited, her poetry shows a profound insight into the human mind.
I Started Early — Took my Dog is written in common meter and is read with rhythm and flow, which is representative for Dickinson’s writing. Read more about her style and meter here.