Sunday, May 31, 2009

Poem of the Week 5/23/2009: By the Sea

By The Sea

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 man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

Emily Dickinson

I guess my question with most Emily Dickinson poems is, what is happening? Which is a question of reading-- how are we to interpret what is going on? And how subjective is it? If it is subjective, will it reveal something about ourselves, and if it is objective will it reveal something about the world? In a way, I do not believe that the answer to this question is important, but I do think that investigating it is imperative. And to investigate, we must gather our impressions of the poem, which is another point about poetry (as I think of it)--the experience, subjective or whatever!--of reading and dreaming through emily dickinson's mind. 

These are a lot of questions, and with all of this I don't even know if there will be time right now to work out the poem for myself bit by bit. I can offer some ideas, I guess. To begin, there are some strange characters, and a strange landscape at play--the characters of the narrator, her dog, these strange frigates (warships), the sea, and some mermaids. All of these, I think, establish the dreamlike/mythic quality of the poem. And the arc of the story could be, roughly, a woman and her companion (one subordinate to her), and the various things that are interested in the woman, the ways they attempt to reach out to her, and then the one that does touch her, actually--the sea. What a sensual experience she paints in the middle stanzas, bringing not only the sea, but the reader's mind up with her. And then, when it sees her in some social context, or some more real, "solid" (certainly not watery) context, it recedes.

But this is the structural arc. It is so much like a dream that... how could anybody feel that they absolutely claim to understand what it is saying? For myself, it's such a lonely poem, and still charged, like a thundercloud I guess--the strength of the sea recedes against this woman, after knowing her and feeling her, recedes. The image of power and tension and loss... of love? I don't know, beauty perhaps. It is a tensile and lightly magnetic beauty, apparent in Dickinson's juxtaposition of images of delicacy with those of strength-- the sea lands on a woman like dew on a dandelion, and it, in its immensity, is as small and lovely as a pearl, has such beloved aspects as a silver heel, and yet it can bow with a mighty look... 

So that is my own quick and dirty interpretation. What is yours? No need to share unless you really feel compelled, I am hoping that you can ask yourself, reading carefully and examining even closer. 

1 comment:

SJL said...

Amidst the loneliness and epic awe invoked by Dickinson's journey to the sea (and/or somewhere else? Oh, subjectivity!) and back, the sea has such a strange and dangerous allure! "And made as he would eat me up/as wholly as a dew," reminds me of how mountaineers dare death when they summit mountains. It's a lonely poem, to be sure, but also one about testing, maybe even defying, the limits of self.