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25 June 2012

Should you but fail at – Sea –

Should you but fail at – Sea –
In sight of me –
Or doomed lie –
Next Sun – to die –
Or rap – at Paradise – unheard
I'd harass God
Until He let you in!
                                                            275 (1862)  226

This desert really is next to the sun.
Dickinson here begins the poem in an old-timey melodramatic way that was probably all to common in the parlors where poetry was read in her day. She sketches three woeful fates that might befall her beloved: 1) he might drown in the ocean – in sight of her!  2) He might perish in the burning desert “Next [to the] Sun”; or 3) He might die for any number of reasons but then be knocking on Heaven’s door with nobody letting him in.
            The first four lines are in rhymed couplets in keeping with their doom: Sea / me; and lie / die. I’m pretty sure we’re to pronounce “doomed” as “doom – ed” to emphasize the schmaltz. But then the poet’s playfulness becomes manifest. She uses “unheard” for the futile rapping at Paradise, but then slant rhymes it with “God”! It’s a kind of awkward, funny rhyme and it certainly undermines the sense of poetic tragedy that seemed to be building.
            And then the last two lines clinch the mood. Like a terrier wife, the poet is going to get after God, “harass” him, until he calls Uncle and opens the door. It’s a funny image and the diction is comical, too.

The poem was sent to Samuel Bowles, a man often ill and often traveling. I imagine him saying in response to Dickinson’s frequent wishes for his health and safety that he didn’t dare die because the Almighty wouldn’t take him in. I imagine this poem as a response.


  1. I need to know more of this Samuel Bowles as he is becoming more and more curious.

  2. Slant rhymes are too frequent in Emily's poems to say that this one is funny because it is with God. Other poets use it far less, so that slant rhyme can be, on the contrary, seen as a kind of intimated, personal "signature" of Emily Dickinson, provided it is not simply stereotyped and irrelevant.

  3. (Still me, as a moment ago; by the way, my e-mail is

    I am not sure, since English is not my mother tongue, that slant rhyme is thought to be less perfect that normal rhyme. True? Nonetheless I think slant rhyme is more original that most of English rhymes that are overused and banal, such as sea - me, lie - die or be - see - me etc. I read in some study that there are in English altogether three words that rhyme with such a poetically important word as "love". In Czech, for examples, there are as many as 56!

    1. Slant rhyme wasn't much appreciated in Dickinson's day. I think that today's poetry students and teachers prefer it for the reasons you suggest. I find Dickinson's slant rhymes often open up a poem in unexpected ways.

  4. Usually, ED gives God His due decorum, but now and then, as in this poem (F275), she can’t resist a little blasphemous familiarity. Here are three endearing favorites:


    In the name of the Bee -
    And of the Butterfly -
    And of the Breeze - Amen!


    I had some things that I called mine -
    And God, that he called hls,
    Till, recently a rival Claim
    Disturbed these amities.
    . . . . . . . .
    I'll institute an "Action"—
    I'll vindicate the law—
    Jove! Choose your counsel—
    I retain "Shaw"!


    Over the fence –
    Strawberries – grow –
    Over the fence –
    I could climb – if I tried, I know –
    Berries are nice!

    But - If I stained my Apron –
    God would certainly scold
    Oh, dear, - I guess if He were a Boy
    He'd - climb - if He could!