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23 March 2012

My River runs to thee –

My River runs to thee – 
Blue Sea – Wilt welcome me?

My River wait reply.
Oh Sea – look graciously!

I'll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks – 

Say Sea – take Me?
                                                            F219 (1861)  162

The mighty oceans and seas are receptacles for all the rain that runs off the hills and plains into rivulets, brooks, streams and majestic rivers. The water runs downhill, looking for its place of rest at the lowest point. And so the basins that hold the oceans stay full. This love poem comes from a river rushing towards its appointed end, the “Blue Sea” and asking hopefully if it will be welcomed. As if signing a formal letter, the River will “wait reply.” As if a job applicant or someone else asking a great favor, the River hopes the Sea will be gracious.
The Heathcote R. flowing into the
Pacific near Sumner, NZ.
            Just as the ocean is fed by rivers, so rivers are fed by brooks and streams. In order to make herself more welcome, the River promises to “fetch” all its feeder brooks from their shady “nooks,” adding their water to her own. There is a nice play on words here, as “Brooks” might be read as “Books” – which are also kept in little nooks with dappled light from the windows. As this poem was sent to Mary Bowles who was probably a great reader, this allusion would be apropos.
            The poem ends with a childishly playful plea: “Say Sea – take Me?” The question mark turns what might otherwise seem a demand into a sweet request.
            The metaphor is of love. The beloved is like the sea and the river wants only to merge with it. To adorn herself the river will bring the most lovely little brooks to add to the beloved’s glory and contentment. This metaphor was espressed much more concisely in two lines from a letter to Samuel Bowles that have been deemed a poem (#206):
Least Rivers – docile to some sea.
My Caspian – thee.

            Dickinson usually sent her poems to Samuel Bowles rather than his wife, Mary. A bit transparent, perhaps, but women in that era were much more effusive in their protestations of love and affection to each other so perhaps Mary didn’t find anything amiss. It is difficult to overlook a deeper sexuality in the poem, though, in light of other more explicit poems where the sea suggests sexual passion. In “Wild Nights – Wild Nights,” for example, Dickinson writes of throwing out the compass and chart to row “in Eden – / Ah, the Sea! / Might I but moor – tonight – / In Thee!”
Sprinkled throughout the poem, and the poem's primary rhyme, are long "e"s: thee, Sea, me, graciously, Sea, Me. Along with the many "s" sounds, this gives the poem the sound of the sea (“Say Sea – take Me?” has just the sound of a quiet wave gliding up the shore and back) or the sliding of the river through the estuary. The poem is written in rhyming couplets with a final single line that echoes the second line. The slant rhyme of "reply" and graciously" in the second couplet ties "graciously" in to the Sea / Me rhymes as just discussed. 


  1. Franklin (1998) tells us ‘My river runs to thee’ was written in early 1861. Johnson (1955) and Habegger (2002) say definitively that ED included this poem in a letter to Mary Bowles, who in November, 1860, had given birth to her third consecutive inviable child (Habegger 2002). It’s unclear to me why ED would send a poem containing four self-references to a woman grieving three recent stillborns. Something’s amiss.

  2. ED’s combined Letter-Poem L235 & F219, early 1861:


    “I do not know of you, a long while - I remember you - several times - I wish I knew if you kept me? The Dust like the Mosquito, buzzes round my faith.
    “How is your garden - Mary? Are the Pinks true - and the Sweet Williams faithful? I've got a Geranium like a Sultana - and when the Humming birds come down - Geranium and I shut out eyes - and go far away -

    “As "Meme" [Mamie, Mary’s 7-year-old daughter] - if I shall catch her Butterfly with a vest like a Turk? I will - if she will build him a House in her "Morning - Glory." Vinnie would send her love, but she put on a white frock, and went to meet tomorrow - a few minutes ago. Mother would send her love - but she is in the "Eave spout," sweeping up a leaf, that blew in, last November. Austin would send his - but he dont live here - now - He married - and went East.

    “I brought my own - myself, to you and Mr Bowles. Please remember me, because I remember you - Always.

    “My river runs to thee -
    Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me?
    My River waits reply -
    Oh Sea - look graciously -
    I'll fetch thee Brooks
    From spotted nooks -
    Say - Sea -
    Take Me!”

    ED’s letter-poem recalls for me no scene in literature more similar and sad than Ophelia’s closing lines, addressed to her brother, Laertes (Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 5)

    A document in madness. Thoughts and remembrance fitted.

    There’s fennel for you, and columbines.—There’s rue for
    you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of
    grace” o’ Sundays.—Oh, you must wear your rue with a
    difference.— There’s a daisy. I would give you some
    violets, but they withered all when my father died. They
    say he made a good end

    [sings] For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy—

    [OPHELIA exits.]

  3. The gain on my encryption antenna may be set too high, but here’s a paragraph from ED’s letter to Mary with possible code translations in brackets:

    “How is your garden - Mary? Are the Pinks true [trustworthy] - and the Sweet Williams faithful [steadfast in affection?]? I've got a Geranium [Sue?] like a Sultana [Cleopatra?] - and when the Humming birds [Samuel Bowles?] come down [from Springfield to Amherst?] - Geranium [Sue] and I [ED] shut ou[r] eyes - and go far away [ignore what’s happening at Evergreens and/or Homestead?] -