Search This Blog

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?