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23 December 2011

'Twas such a little – little boat

'Twas such a little – little boat
That toddled down the bay!
'Twas such a gallant – gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

'Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast –
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost!
                                                            - F152 (1860)  107

On the face of it, the poem describes a tragedy on the sea: a small boat, out for a sedate sail about a bay, was tempted by the idea of a wonderful adventure on the "gallant" sea. Alas, it was then capsized by a "greedy" rogue wave and lost. A large passing ship ("the stately sails") fails to even notice its loss. The central metaphor is of a lost soul, although not necessarily "lost" in the heaven/hell sense. 
     It might be a tale of love: the poet, vulnerable and childlike, “toddled” out in the safe bay of her circle of friends and family but came in contact with some gallant and fascinating man. She was in deep water then, but still sailing along the relative safety of the coast until a rogue wave licked" the boat away, dooming it. The naive narrator was lost and all the sophisticated and “stately” friends never noticed a thing. Was the greedy wave another woman? Or was it something about the man himself – perhaps a greedy wave of passion?

I prefer a different reading, however: instead of a tale of a life capsized by a love affair, it may be a spiritual or intellectual crisis. Dickinson often used the sea or a bay to represent life and a boat as a soul on its journey. In this case something would have lured the little soul away from its quiet and safe journey. The sea, though, also represents a seductive and dangerous passion. Dickinson used the sea in this sense in later poems. And her contemporary, Walt Whitman (whom Dickinson claimed she'd never read) certainly used the sea in this sense. I like to think of Dickinson as tempted away from her safe life by her passion for poetry – which is another way of saying her passion for life and truth. The stately regular folk wouldn’t know how completely this passion for writing would take her, like a greedy wave, far from all the notions and beliefs that comprised the safety of her Puritan environment.

            There are other analogies one could think of, many life experiences to which the poem might apply. Readers have the joy of imagining their own rogue waves as they read. 
          Thee is also the delight of the wonderful verbs: toddled, beckoned, licked.  The repetitions of “little – little,” “gallant – gallant,” and “greedy, greedy” contribute to the image of a baby boat toddling. Never take a ride with a stranger, little girl! 


  1. Thank you for these insights! I'm currently creating a poetry program for my oral interpretation class. I chose to present poems by Emily Dickinson and this poem is one of them, so these thoughts were useful for thinking more about the poem's meaning.

  2. Since this poem follows 106, which eludes to not being able to take a chance on love, because the man in question is married, but then ED is safe from having to take a chance, because if one does poem 107 can happen.
    I'm not saying your take is wrong, but it seems too coincidental the two poems together.

  3. I was intrigued by the use of the word gallant and think it to mean chivalrous rather than dangerously tempting. A chivalrous sea inviting a little boat, encouragement for any timid endeavor.

  4. Surely, ‘Twas such a little – little boat’ isn’t simply self-pity, though that’s a possibility. Maybe the last two lines, “Nor ever guessed the stately sails / My little craft was lost!” express ED’s disappointment with Papa God for ignoring a naïve 16-year-old’s painful search for faith at Mt. Holyoke Seminary for Women.

    ED had graduated from Amherst Academy in June 1847. Her father, Edward, felt she needed another year of schooling and enrolled her at Mt. Holyoke, a new women’s seminary school 9 miles south of Amherst. In August, he drove her in an open buggy down the country lane ('Twas such a “little – little boat / That toddled down the bay!), passing through the scary, to ED at least, Devil’s Garden Pass in the Holyoke Mountain range ( ‘Through lane it lay’, F43, 1958, Comment 4).

    The Seminary had sounded like a “gallant-gallant” place when her father had described back home, but now, standing at the front entrance, alone for the first time in her life, Holyoke Seminary felt like a “greedy, greedy” overwhelming wave. Her letters home sounded happy; ED never mentioned her headmistress’s weekly grilling in front of classmates, unsuccessfully trying to coax Emily to accept Christ as her savior. Finally, after 8 months, Emily couldn’t take it anymore. She wrote home, asking her father to come get her.

    He sent Austin instead.