Search This Blog

04 May 2012

The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –

The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea – 
Forgets her own locality – 
As I, in Thee – 

She knows herself an incense small – 
Yet small – she sighs – if all – is all – 
How larger – be?

The Ocean, smiles – at her conceit – 
But she, forgetting Amphitrite – 
Pleads – "Me"?
                                                            F255 (1861)  284

Dickinson covers familiar ground here – the small water merging into a larger body and losing its individuality.  In F219, “My river runs to thee,” she playfully asks the “Blue Sea” to “take Me.” She promises to bring him all her feeder brooks in return. A little earlier in F206 “Least Rivers – docile to some sea,” she refers to her lover as “My Caspian.”
            In this poem Dickinson is much more specific. The River becomes but an individual “Drop” that soon loses her own identity – or at least her “locality.” She no longer has a place of her own: only that within the vast waters of the ocean. However, small and insignificant as this drop is, she believes that by merging with the “all” she will be somehow enlarged herself. Perhaps this idea came to Dickinson via Transcendentalists such as Emerson or Thoreau who spoke of such notions as losing particularity within a more cosmic sense of life.
Amphritite is keeping an
eye on her husband,
 Lord Poseiden
            But then the poem becomes a bit pathetic. Background: Dickinson sent this poem to Samuel Bowles, a man she certainly had strong feelings for – at the least. Bowles, however, was married. Poseidon, Greek god who ruled the sea was also married – to Amphitrite. Dickinson ends the poem by saying, “okay, let’s forget about the wife for just a moment. Can you somehow still accept me?” The image of the Ocean smiling at the little drop’s presumption followed by the pleading of the drop – who knows she is being a bit out of line – makes us feel a little sorry for the poet.
            But we shall forgive her for she suffered much and wrote much splendid and hair-raisingly good poetry from that place of pain. This may not be one of the good ones, but it is interesting in its evocation of Eastern mysticism as well as in its intimations of the poet’s personal life.
            The poem is composed in three stanzas, each in iambic tetrameter for two of their three lines and then a third short line. In the first two stanzas it is iambic dimeter. In the last, Dickinson ends with a spondee: “Pleads – ‘Me’?” The assonance of "Plead" with "Me," along with the rhymes with previous stanza-end rhymes ("Thee" and "be") serve to emphasize the "Me." This emphasizes a hope that while the drop may become submerged in a greater body of water it still wants its own consciousness – its sense of “me.” And that is not really so transcendental after all!


  1. Yes! This is one of my favourites. It helps now to know the context of the original poem. I always read the last lines completely differently: The ocean smiles upon the conceited drop, but in so doing it can only smile upon itself, thus "forgetting Amphitrite". Thus Emily points out the hypocrisy of the ocean by its singling out of the drop, when, if it was consistent, the singling out would be a part of singling out itself.

  2. That's another interesting look at how the poet is working with individuality vs. transcendence. The Ocean seems very paternal and aloof -- both aware of the drops yet distinct in a sort of lofty consciousness. Now that I think about it, the poem begs for consideration of Amphitrite, a very rich figure in her own regard whom Dickinson would surely have known enough about that her unspoken qualities resonate a bit. Dickinson did correspond with Bowles' wife Mary, both during and after Samuel's death.

  3. I like the "wrestling" in this poem, between letting go into the ocean and retaining the me-ness of the drop. It's a deep part of the human struggle in general.

    The Amphitrite thing throws me off though. It takes this poem into the "other woman" territory, which is hard to square with the larger loss of locality. But maybe there is something there I'm not seeing. There so often is with ED (which is why I love to wrestle with her.)

    If indeed she is referring to Mary, this becomes a bit less interesting to me. Looking up Amphitrite I find, "Poseidon chose Amphitrite from among her sisters as the Nereids performed a dance on the isle of Naxos." Perhaps Mary was a really good dancer.

    By the way, the best episode of Dickinson is "Split The Lark" from season 2, which deals in an operatic way with the Sam and Mary issue, as well as ED's struggle with fame. Check it out. Here's a video of the show's musical treatment of the Split The Lark. Perfectly set.

    1. Thank you for the link! Beautiful. I watched the whole series but this was like seeing it new and fresh.
      I agree about if Mary is the subject the poem is less interesting. But rereading it now, I don't think reading Mary into it is necessary at all. That doesn't, however, mean I have another idea ...

  4. Another idea: The ocean is also feminine, and thinks of itself as "all", forgetting it is ruled by Amphitrite. At least the drop recognizes a greater world! The ocean can only see itself.

  5. The “Sea” and “Ocean” are Susan D; the “Drop” and “she” ED, who forgets her place when she’s near Sue. ED knows she’s a small part of Sue’s busy life as wife and mother, yet small as she is she would like to be larger. Sue smiles at ED’s conceit. ED forgets Sue rules supreme, pleads plaintively, “Me”. So sad.

  6. ‘The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea’ (F255), the latest pity poem in a spate of others (F251, F252, F254), arrived at Sam Bowles’ office in late 1861. What bee buzzed in ED’s bonnet? Could Edward Austin Dickinson, age six months, possibly be consuming Sue’s time and attention, leaving ED stranded on her Ocean’s shore? We’ll have to ask Emily in the Great Bye & Bye.