Blogging all the poems of Emily Dickinson, by Susan Kornfeld
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20 June 2011
Adrift! A little boat adrift!
Adrift! A little boat adrift! And night is coming down! Will no one guide a little boat Unto the nearest town? So Sailors say -- on yesterday -- Just as the dusk was brown One little boat gave up its strife And gurgled down and down. So angels say -- on yesterday -- Just as the dawn was red One little boat -- o'erspent with gales -- Retrimmed its masts -- redecked its sails -- And shot -- exultant on! - F 6 (1858)
Here we have two competing versions of what happens to the little boat: Sailors say it sank at dusk (the "So Sailors say" can be read as "Sailors said that"), while angels say that the little boat (we assume it is the same boat) fixed itself and "shot' on exultantly. The tension in the poem comes from the first stanza where we see the little boat adrift with night coming and no help in sight. We read this to mean a soul floundering with death at hand. Other citizens of the sea only see a sad death, sadder when we think of the soul gurgling 'down and down' as opposed to ascending to heaven. But! even though the soul was tired and had even been defeated by the storms of life, it managed to right itself at the end and go on, we assume, to heaven. Dawn is the arising of the sun, life and birth;whereas dusk is nightfall or death, so Dickinson is not making the symbolism difficult here. She uses the ballad or hymn structure for the first two quatrains with the second and fourth lines rhymed. The last stanza is five lines with the third and fourth lines rhymed. The extra line, "And shot--exultant on!" provides the happy ending to the ballad. It could be a refrain if this were indeed a hymn. The imagery is conventional: the sea of life, the little boat of the soul, the storms of life, the need to adjust the sails; and so is the message. It's a nice little poem, but not one of my favs.