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20 August 2011

My Wheel is in the dark!

My Wheel is in the dark!
I cannot see a spoke
Yet know its dripping feet
Go round and round.

My foot is on the Tide!
An unfrequented road—
Yet have all roads
A clearing at the end—

Some have resigned the Loom—
Some in the busy tomb
Find quaint employ—

Some with new—stately feet—
Pass royal through the gate—
Flinging the problem back
At you and I!
                                             J10,  Fr 61 (1859)

Here we have a mishmash of metaphors. Dickinson would get much better at consistency later. In the first metaphor the poet likens life to the wheel of a paddle boat turning in the dark. Its paddles drip with water as it goes ‘round and round’. And so our days are filled with the sights and sounds of life as the years go round. We know we are on a journey, for the paddle boat travels somewhere and life must travel to its end, but we don’t know where we’re headed.

Paddle boat with its 'dripping feet'

The second metaphor introduces a Tide and likens it to an unfrequented road. Tides go in and out and since boats typically avoid the strongest flows, are ‘unfrequented’. This tide has a clearing at the end. The assumption here is that the tide is a road and since roads have clearings at the end (do they really?), so the tide will as well. It’s a call to faith: yes, the Tide is going out, but be of good cheer and venture forth for there is surely a clearing at the end.
The third stanza metaphor goes back to the water, but this time in a different guise. The Loom here refers to the portion of an oar that terminates at the handle  (the blade is the other end that terminates in the paddle). This is a different boat than the one with the  paddle boat of the first stanza. This one must be rowed, and while some people paddle on to the other side, others get weary and give up. I’m not sure what ‘quaint employ’ are embarked on by some, but perhaps it is being a ghost, or just hanging out as Dickinson describes in other poems where she chats with the occupant of a neighboring grave, or waits patiently for a loved one to join her. I like the idea of a ‘busy tomb’, however. It’s sort of a cosy limbo.
In the last stanza we leave the water behind to see the Faithful walking in stately fashion through the pearly gates. They are now ‘royal’ and don’t take the time to let those of us toiling at our Wheel in the dark or venturing into the Tide or paddling away know what lies on the other end. The gate, of course, stands for Heaven.
While the first, second, and fourth stanzas all have four lines, the third has only three. Perhaps Dickinson didn’t want to say what the entombed are up to in there.


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  2. “My wheel is in the dark” states ED’s faith that poetry will lead her to a vision of meaning in life. It is her version of The Inferno, which Dante opens by saying he is lost in the dark: “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark”. Dante ends The Inferno with his statement of faith: “The Guide and I into that hidden road / Now entered, to return to the bright world; / And without care of having any rest / We mounted up, he first and I second, / Till I beheld through a round aperture / Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear. / Thence we came forth to behold the stars.” Dante’s guide is Virgil, ED’s is her poetry.

    Like Dante, ED is 28, exactly midway through her 56 years. Like Dante, she admits “It’s so rainy and dark I can’t see my buggy wheel, nor can I see its spokes”, but unlike Dante, she immediately affirms her faith: “I’m sure it’s dripping water as it turns”. Like Dante, “I’m walking on the Tide [where Heaven meets Earth] / A rarely travelled road”, but, unlike Dante who travels a long hidden road before finding faith, she immediately informs us “I’m certain at the end of this road / I’ll find a clear understanding of life.”

    Like Dante, who meets innumerable lost souls during his journey through Hell, ED immediately observes “Some have abandoned the search for meaning / Some rush busily toward death / Filling their lives with ancient trivialities”. But unlike Dante, who must walk through Purgatory before he finds saved souls in Heaven. ED immediately states “Some find meaning and can walk / Through the gate to Heaven / Tossing the quest for purpose in life / Back to us, the living”.

    Talk about a lady who is sure of herself!