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02 April 2012

Two swimmers wrestled on the spar –

Two swimmers wrestled on the spar – 
Until the morning sun – 
When One – turned smiling to the land – 
Oh God! the Other One!

The stray ships – passing – 
Spied a face – 
Upon the waters borne – 
With eyes in death – still begging raised – 
And hands – beseeching – thrown!
                                                                                 F227 (1861)  201

This poem was sent to Samuel Bowles with only the following preface: “I cant explain it, Mr. Bowles.” Dickinson sent many poems to Bowles and many of them full of erotic imagery. Perhaps he was the “Master” to whom she wrote (but probably did not send) three very erotic and passionate letters. The poem is dream-like – or nightmare-like, and the poem may have been written to capture some imagery from a dream. We do not know what if anything Bowles may have said or thought about it.
            A spar is a stout pole used in the rigging of  a sailing ship to support the sails. The poem starts with two “swimmers” wrestling on one throughout the night. A shipwreck is implied, the spar floating from the wreckage and two survivors struggling to hold on. At last morning comes and then one of them sees land and turns “smiling” to it.” He or she is safe, saved. But tragedy awaits the other one who did not turn and go to land. This is clearly an act of volition – land was clearly there to be seen; salvation was at hand.
Clinging to a spar
Ivan Constantinovich Aivasovisky, The Ninth Wave, 1850
            The poet seems to be watching the scene in horror. “Oh God! the Other One!” But nothing can be done. She drowns – and it is a terrible death. Her eyes are “begging” even though dead. Her “beseeching” hands are still raised to the sky desperate for help. But, alas, help is too late. the “stray ships” find only the dead swimmer.
            Dickinson uses the sea to represent many things: life, the afterlife, death, secret passions. Here, as in a parable, two people are nearly lost and drowning in it. I find this suggestive of passion. They are struggling throughout the night to survive after a shipwreck. The passions have foundered in the dark, the ship of their relationship has been torn apart. A remaining spar is their only security, all that remains of their wrecked love. But daylight, the illumination of reason and sanity, allows one of them to make it to the safety of secure and stable ground, to see sense and swim for shore. Notice that this person does not leave reluctantly, but with a smile, as if after all he or she has been through land looks extremely appealing. But as sometimes happens, the other partner sinks, for some reason unable to pull herself to safety.
            It’s a wonderful if horrifying psychological profile of the survivor and the doomed. They say that a drowning person sometimes drowns the rescuer in her desperation. Dickinson captures this with her verb “wrestling.” The two aren’t floating or hanging on to the spar. They are involved in a real struggle. No wonder the seemingly stronger of the two turns away in smiling relief to swim to shore. “Stray ships” might have saved the other one, and these may be well-meaning friends and families who had been oblivious to the struggle, but as often the case, by the time they see the danger, it is too late.
            The psychological weakness of the drowned swimmer is suggested not only be her staying behind (and perhaps she is unable to swim and must stay alone with the spar watching her companion head for safety) but by her “begging” eyes and “beseeching” hands. She is unable to help herself and must hope someone comes to her rescue. But no one does. Even the ships that eventually discover her are “stray.” Today if someone sent us a poem like this we would see it as a real warning sign and a call for help (perhaps subconscious). If we were Samuel Bowles we might very well initiate some psychiatric intervention. 
            Perhaps the safe shore is something like marriage or a conventional life. One swimmer decides in favour of this safe choice while the other person chooses to stay in the treacherous sea – a brave choice, but a fatal one. Bowles himself was married and Dickinson at this time was experiencing great turmoil. This poem exemplifies it and to some Dickinson scholars reveals her passion for Bowles as well as her sense of drowning abandonment. Dickinson was also facing up to the loss of her beloved Sue who was turning from her in favour of her own marriage to Dickinson’s brother. Sue had an active social life, a highly regarded husband, and by now, two children. Why wrestle on a spar with a troubled poet when your own hearth waits?
            The poem is full of “s” sounds, suggestive of the sea. The first two lines of the second stanza are a split tetrameter line. The rest of the poem is in common ballad form.


  1. Wrestling on the spar--- they were trying to balance with each other on the spar to stay afloat and hence stay alive.

  2. They were complimenting one another to accomplish survival.

  3. There is no stronger of the two-- you are so wrong. But the one that turns violates a trust between the two and the "other one!!!!!!!" drowns on account of this betrayal. Selfishness, ego and instinct is involved here.

    1. I think both parties would have ended up drowning. Here, one is saved. It may be that land represents safety and conformity and so swimming to it represents a rejection of passion, depth, and mystery, but very few of us can survive in such a sea. Your thought of 'instinct' is useful here. Perhaps to one, shore is a sort of death, while to the other it is safety and sanity.

  4. Throughout the night two shipwrecked swimmers wrestled for a floating spar. At dawn one turned smiling toward the shore; the other cried “Oh God”, then drowned. We don’t know whether the smiling swimmer reached land, but ED used a similar wrestling scene between Jacob and God in ‘A little East of Jordan’ (F145,1860), which may have spawned ‘Two swimmers wrestled on the spar’ (F227, 1861).

    An uncommented scenario is that both swimmers are ED, one wishing for a dreamed of life with Sue and the other committing, instead, to a marriage with poetry, one doomed and one possibly happy if only she can make it to shore.

  5. After wrestling with 58 more poems (F228-F286) and related biographical information, my preceding paragraph rings truer than ever, with one word changed: Replace “Sue” with “Wadsworth”. Future comments will give reasons for this switch of names. What we know for certain is that ED and Reverend Wadsworth corresponded for more than 20 years, beginning in 1858, and that he visited ED in Amherst at least twice, in March 1860, when ED was 29 and Wadsworth 46, and again in 1880, two years before his death, six before hers.

  6. Reminds me of Franz Kafka: “It would be very unjust to say that you deserted me, but that I was deserted, and sometimes terribly so, is true.”