On this wondrous sea – Sailing silently -
Ho! Pilot! Ho!
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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZaDgYJdTP4