Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Futile – the Winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden –
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor – Tonight –
F269 (1861) 249
Dickinson begins the poem with a paradox: If she were with her lover, wild and stormy nights would be their oasis, their ‘luxury’ rather than the peril wild and stormy nights bring to sailors out at sea. Instead, their hearts would be “in port” and therefore in no danger from the “Futile” winds. The moored heart no longer has to chart its way through life, checking the compass, looking for love and safety.
|Tossed by wind and waves, this ship longs for |
port: Ivan Alvazovsky, 1887
Dickinson uses the sea here and elsewhere as a metaphor, a traditional one, for passion. The body caught on that sea might be prone to its wild winds. But the narrator doesn’t shy away from that as long as she can “moor – Tonight” in her lover. In that case, her time at sea is “Rowing in Eden – ” a lovely metaphor for making love. The line is followed by the ecstatic sigh, “Ah, the Sea!” No, Dickinson doesn’t shy from passion. What is longed for is the mooring, the coupling – even if only for one night!
The narrator here implies that so far her passion has not been consummated. Dickinson uses the subjunctive case in the first stanza: if she were with her lover their wild nights should be their luxury. She uses it again in the last lines: Oh, if only she Might moor in “Thee.” She longs to spend at least one night in the arms of her lover.
Lilia Melani discusses how this poem caused consternation among those who first sorted through Dickinson’s poems after her death, deciding which would be published:
"When the 1891 edition of Dickinson's poems was being prepared, Colonel Higginson wrote to his co-editor Mrs. Todd,
'One poem only I dread a little to print--that wonderful 'Wild Nights,'--lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia [Emily Dickinson's sister] any shrinking about it? You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.'
His comments reflect both the sexual narrowness of his times and the Myth of Emily Dickinson, Virgin Recluse. "
This is not Dickinson’s only poem celebrating sexual passion. She may have been virgin; she may have become reclusive. But she was never an ascetic.