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18 June 2011

On this wondrous sea - sailing silently -

On this wondrous sea – Sailing silently -
Ho! Pilot! Ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar -
Where the storm is o'er?

In the silent West
Many – the sails – at rest -
The Anchors fast.
Thither I pilot thee -
Land! Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!
                                                           J4,  Fr3 (1853)

I think Dickinson weaves sound and rhythm and line breaks together in this poem  to create the mood of the sea and the tension of the journey. The first line is sybilant as the sea-- "On this wondrous sea--sailing silently-- and is in trochaic pentameter  with a spondee on "sea - sail..." that slows the line so that I can feel the long ride of the boat on a swell. It's a long line -- 5 feet (iambs) with an extra syllable at the end  (a 'feminine' ending or hypercatalexis for those who must), while the rest of the poem  has only two or three feet. 
She makes extensive use of long vowels, particularly in the first stanza, and this  also reinforces the feel of  open water. The words take time to say: "Ho! Pilot! Ho!"  takes time, not only with the long vowels but with the the spondee of the first two  syllables. The last three lines of the first stanza rhyme with very long sounds: shore, 
roar, and o'er. 
I read the poem as a call and response. The first stanza calls out to the captain,  Jesus, maybe, or an angel--and in the second stanza the captain answers back. It is  fitting that the ship is going to anchor in the West, the horizon where the sun sets.  And the captain reassures his anxious passenger that there are many "sails at rest" 
there. She need not fear.
     This poem was sent to her beloved sister-in-law, Sue, with the title "Write, Comrade,  Write"--which wittily echoes the second and penultimate lines of the poem. It is  thought that she is encouraging Sue to write poems, or perhaps to write Emily back.
I sense the poet exploring her toolbox, taking a rather conventional subject and  approach and making it vibrant with tone and sound.
I'm not the only one who likes the sound of the poem--it has been put to music more than once. Here is a rendition of Daniel Galbreath's chorale version:


  1. Thank you again for doing this! I'm making my way through one poem, one day at a time.
    I just hope there's no chance you're gonna take down the blog before my year's up!

    1. Welcome to the blog -- and thank you for your kind remarks. I'm pretty sure this blog will be here for more than a year...I have over a thousand more poems to do!

  2. Splendid! Didn't mean to doubt (you or) your blog's continued existence! I'm just really enjoying them. So thanks again.

  3. I think the pilot in the first stanza is meant to be Susan, rather than a deity. I'm not sure how this fits into the timeline, but ED wrote to Susan at times for editorial guidance, and subsequently rejected her advice. The word "thee" in the second stanza is underlined in the manuscript, which to me indicates a reversal in roles. It is ED who is really doing the piloting; she is recognizing herself as the one with the real inspiration.

    1. I imagine Emily and Sue had their own private language and set of references. I can very well read this poem as a playful exchange where one of them is to be the concerned passenger and the other the reassuring pilot.

      Your reading of the poem reminds me of "He (She) showed me Heights I never saw".

  4. This poem was very nice as it was for a n assignment in English class and since I had your analysis help me I got an A!

    1. I'm glad your teacher has you reading Dickinson -- although this is not one of her most exciting. Was your assignment on poetics or meaning -- or both?

  5. ED sent the first variant of ‘On this wondrous sea’ (Variant F3A), to Susan Gilbert in March 1853, two months after Susan left Amherst for an extended visit to Manchester, NH, and three years before Susan married ED’s brother, Austin. At the top and underlined, ED wrote “Write, Comrade, write”, suggesting Sue’s habit of replying infrequently or not at all began early. Stanza 1 of Variant F3A had six lines, the first two “On this wondrous sea / Sailing silently,” without dashes, which matches the meter of Stanza 2. Variant F3B, printed above, was a copy ED made in 1858 for inclusion in a fascicle.

  6. Vladimir got it right (Comment 3) except, I think, the poet speaks Stanza 1 and the last two lines of the poem. ED has Susan speak the first four lines of Stanza 2. For me, this poem spans 360 years, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597), Dickinson’s ‘On this wondrous sea’ (1853), and Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957).

    The poet describes a silent sailing scene and asks her pilot, Susan, if she knows a peaceful place without strife. Her pilot replies, “The west is calm and stable, I’ll take you there.” The poet exhilarates, “Look, we found eternity, we’re ashore!”

    West Side Story: “There's a place for us, somewhere a place for us, peace and quiet and open air, wait for us somewhere. … Hold my hand and I'll take you there, somehow, someday, somewhere.”

    1. I just can't see the west with eternal rest as anything but death. The speaker in the first stanza is looking forward to the strife being over; the speaker in the second is reassuring.

      I can twist it around in my mind to have it be a Susan/Emily story, but I need to nudge the poem quite a bit to get it there.

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    1. I hadn't realized my use of 'twist' would cause a reader to find me biased or the comment 'loaded.' For the record, then, Open Me Carefully is prominent in my library and I find it profoundly insightful and very helpful in reading Dickinson. It would be very hard to read the letters and certainly many Dickinson poems without feeling the deep connection at all levels between these two women.

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  9. When we’re 22 and in love, as ED and Susan D were in 1853, eternal can mean many things other than death. Here’s Alan Walker’s lyrical, slant-rhymed version of “The end of time”, but you can name many more of similar ilk:

    I'll cross my heart / And hope to die
    We're always and forever, I'll be by your side
    When days are dark / And stars don't line
    We're always and forever 'til the end,
    The end of time

  10. “In an 1850 letter to Susan, Emily's brother Austin remarks on the previous Thanksgiving [1849] and expresses his happiness [that] Emily and their sister Lavinia (Vinnie) asked Susan's family into the circle which had for two or three years been gradually forming." (Hart and Smith. 1998. Open Me Carefully. Page 3). Susan’s intellect and sharp wit attracted Austin’s attention, a spark that gradually developed into more of a relationship than ED or her family foresaw. The same traits attracted ED; on October 9, 1851, when both women were 20, she wrote Susan that she hoped “you and I would try to make a little destiny to have for our own” (Letter L5).

    In March 1853 when ED sent ‘On this wondrous sea’ (F3) with a letter to Susan, who was visiting relatives in Manchester, NH, she had no idea that Susan would stop in Boston on her way home to Amherst and spend the night of March 23 at the Revere Hotel with Austin. Susan was a realistic orphan and realized that she would need something more than ED’s dreams of a “little destiny to have for our own” or a calm harbor “In the silent West” to secure her future. When Susan arrived in Amherst, she told ED that she was engaged to Austin (Open Me Carefully, 1998).

  11. After ED learned of the engagement, she sent Austin her congratulations and humorously blamed him because Susan seemed distracted and absent, devising punishment for him: "… let me see; you deserve hot irons, and Chinese Tartary [banishment to Siberia]….”, then adding, “I guess we are very good friends tho', and I guess we both love Susie just as well as we can" (Open Me Carefully, 1998). Humorous anger in a joke often rests on the real thing; perhaps that’s why she adds the apologetic explanation.

    ED’s next poem, ‘I have a little bird in spring’ (F4) dates more than a year later and paints a less sanguine view of her future than a calm harbor in the west.