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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.


  1. I think another read is that it's not two competing versions of what happened. In the morning, the sailors set out, exultant, ready to weather the storm, but they were worn out by dusk and lost the battle with the gale. If death is to be read into the poem, so should life. The day is the life, the struggle. When angels tell the story of the boat, they are optimistic and only see the beauty of the good fight to live early in life. When the sailors tell the story, they focus on the negative, forgetting their strength and exultation earlier in their life. It's all the same day. Is one life, and the angels rejoice about living while the sailors get fixated on dying.

    1. That makes sense. Yet it is confusing to me in the poem that at yesterday's dusk the boat foundered, according to sailors; yet at yesterday's dawn, the boat righted itself and sped on, according to angels. It would seem the righting and speeding on would be the subsequent morning -- unless there are two boats and this is a comparison. One boat gives up and sinks; the other lives through the night and exultantly survives by taking action agains calamity.

      I'm just now thinking of this, as I haven't revisited this poem until your thoughtful comments. Thanks!

  2. I found this poem both conventional and hopeful. What ‘people say’ if taken seriously is often a problem.

    I appreciate your blog and all comments!

  3. The answer to the contradiction is that Emily is contrasting different views of the soul. Humans, the 'Sailors' who share our 'voyage' through physical life, see only the demise of the body and the death / loss of the human being at the end of his/her life, the dusk. The angel see the liberation of the soul, the dawn of a new stage of life, and the continuation of the being on the seas of a different plane

    1. Yes, I agree. You said it much more clearly than I did -- thanks!

    2. Beautifully expressed. I displayed a copy of this at my brothers funeral because I felt it was so fitting, and described his new journey escorted by angels. Thank you so much.