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27 January 2014

Three times — we parted — Breath — and I —

Three times — we parted — Breath — and I —
Three times — He would not go —
But strove to stir the lifeless Fan
The Waters — strove to stay.

Three Times — the Billows threw me up —
Then caught me — like a Ball —
Then made Blue faces in my face —
And pushed away a sail

That crawled Leagues off — I liked to see —
For thinking — while I die —
How pleasant to behold a Thing
Where Human faces — be —

The Waves grew sleepy — Breath — did not —
The Winds — like Children — lulled —
Then Sunrise kissed my Chrysalis —
And I stood up — and lived —

                                                                              F514 (1863)  J598

 The speaker of this poem is drowning, submerged in a hostile ocean. Fortunately her breath does not desert her and she survives until dawn when she emerges alive from her "Chrysalis".
       Dickinson makes the hostility of the ocean quite plain. It strives to drown the near lifeless figure while Breath strives to keep it alive. Its waves toss her about and mock her by making faces. It pushes away a sailboat that might have rescued her.
Fortunately Breath has greater fortitude and endurance. The waves eventually "grew sleepy" and the winds "lulled" like tired children. Sunrise, that symbol of life and hope, finally arrives. Its healing kiss opens up the speaker to what may be a new life. Certainly the word "Chrysalis" promises a transformation. What was a storm-tossed pupae wrapped in its coffin-like exoskeleton, emerges a butterfly in the morning light.
        Typically – both in literature in general and in Dickinson – the ocean represents death, passion, or the subconscious. Paradoxically, it can also represent life and life-giving forces. To be submerged in its powerful and unpredictable currents is dangerous but if survived may be deeply generative. 

        Dickinson repeats "Three times" three times in what is surely extra emphasis. I cannot resolve the ambiguity about whether she means "on three different occasions" or "three times during this one night". The latter interpretation is tempting, describing an epic battle where the speaker was near to drowning three times, finally outlasting the waves as they quieted towards dawn. Yet the emphasis lends itself to a reading of three different events, similar in terrible struggle yet each outlived and leading to substantial change.
        Another ambiguity is "Breath": on the surface it clearly represents the life force of the speaker, but it may also refer to the spirit – perhaps the Holy Spirit who refuses to relinquish the victim to the throes of passion or other turbulence. It may also represent another person, a man (as it is a "He") who is as close to the speaker's soul as her own breath. When she was drowning in despair, he kept her afloat, he never slept until she was safe.

While this is not one of my favorite Dickinson poems I like its drama and its depiction of being nearly sucked under by forces out of your control and with no help available. The promise of the last stanza is both sweet and profound. What once seemed powerful and mighty waves have become sleepy and still. They are not so invincible after all. Likewise the howling winds that whip up the waves. Their force is also expended and they must, like sleepy children, rest. Meanwhile, the sun, absent throughout this terrible night, once again rises. Its kiss opens up the chrysalis where inside the immature speaker had matured into a more beautiful and spiritual creature than the larva who occupied it before. It's a message of hope and fortitude.


  1. Some similarities to "My life closed twice before its close".

  2. A solid interpretation based on the language and imagery of the poem as well as the symbolic meaning of many of the images used. Analysis of "Breath" is clear and plausible.

  3. Lyndall Gordon would say (and I believe it is a plausible theory) that this is a vivid and specific representation of a seizure. It is certainly quite
    accurate, right down to the blue of the oxygen-deprived face.

  4. Caught in the waves in the storm, trying to catch breath, fighting for life, and STILL, in the midst of drowning, the mind notices and loves the sight of the sailboat in the distance where "human faces - be". And so when the winds die down and the "sunrise kissed my chrysalis" (what a lovely phrase) it is with great relief and a profound new appreciation for those human faces that one will now see again. The butterfly seems born in that moment of "noticing".

  5. Speaking of gaining ground against cycles of depression (comment, F513), ED’s final line:

    “And I stood up – and lived”

    ranks right up there with the final lines of Dante’s Inferno:

    “We climbed up, him first and me following,
    Until I saw through a small, round opening
    Some of the beautiful things that Heaven holds;

    Then we climbed out and looked up at the stars.”

    ED has won a battle in a never-ending war.