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19 June 2012

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the Winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor – Tonight –
In Thee!
                                                            F269 (1861)  249

Dickinson begins the poem with a paradox: If she were with her lover, wild and stormy nights would be their oasis, their ‘luxury’ rather than the peril wild and stormy nights bring to sailors out at sea. Instead, their hearts would be “in port” and therefore in no danger from the “Futile” winds. The moored heart no longer has to chart its way through life, checking the compass, looking for love and safety.
Tossed by wind and waves, this ship longs for 
port: Ivan Alvazovsky, 1887
            Dickinson uses the sea here and elsewhere as a metaphor, a traditional one, for passion. The body caught on that sea might be prone to its wild winds. But the narrator doesn’t shy away from that as long as she can “moor – Tonight” in her lover. In that case, her time at sea is “Rowing in Eden – ” a lovely metaphor for making love. The line is followed by the ecstatic sigh, “Ah, the Sea!” No, Dickinson doesn’t shy from passion. What is longed for is the mooring, the coupling – even if only for one night!
            The narrator here implies that so far her passion has not been consummated. Dickinson uses the subjunctive case in the first stanza: if she were with her lover their wild nights should be their luxury. She uses it again in the last lines: Oh, if only she Might moor in “Thee.”  She longs to spend at least one night in the arms of her lover.
            Lilia Melani discusses how this poem caused consternation among those who first sorted through Dickinson’s poems after her death, deciding which would be published:

"When the 1891 edition of Dickinson's poems was being prepared, Colonel Higginson wrote to his co-editor Mrs. Todd,
'One poem only I dread a little to print--that wonderful 'Wild Nights,'--lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia [Emily Dickinson's sister] any shrinking about it? You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.'

His comments reflect both the sexual narrowness of his times and the Myth of Emily Dickinson, Virgin Recluse. "   

This is not Dickinson’s only poem celebrating sexual passion. She may have been virgin; she may have become reclusive. But she was never an ascetic.


  1. I always got caught on the 'moor in thee' part, because if taken quite literally (sexually), it sounds more masculine... But since Emily mentions her 'Heart in port', I kind of assumed the 'moor in thee' was a little bit more Platonic?

  2. It does sound masculine -- except that if you think of it, a ship is made fast by anchoring or tying in its berth or at shore. It's not really a male/female sort of fitting. The "in thee" sounds masculine, but it also sounds better than "at thee" (although "with thee" might have been an option--but lacks the passion, somehow).
    I admit the poem doesn't need to be read as a cry for or paean to sexual union with the beloved: Those wild nights might not be passion but be the tempests of life. The love between the two principals would provide such wonderful shelter that they would feel in "luxury." Still, I don't doubt that Dickinson knew she was creating sexual imagery.

  3. Have anyone ever mentioned the similarity between this poem and "No coward soul is mine" by Emily Brontё?

    "Wild" / "storm-troubled"
    "with thee" / "God within my breast"
    "Our luxury" / "have power in Thee"
    "Futile - the winds -" / "Vain are the thousand creeds"
    "a Heart in port" / "hearts ... Holding so fast by thy infinity"
    "Sea" / "main"
    "moor" / "anchored"

    "nights" / "Heaven's glories shine", "Faith shines"
    "Were I", "Might I" / "ever-present"
    "Compass", "Chart", "Rowing" / "No trembler", "Holding so fast"
    "tonight" / "eternal years"

    The idea occured to me last night when I was trying to sleep.

    1. I haven't heard of any comparisons, but then I am not scholarly (though I have a few Dickinson books and can do the Google thing). I see what you mean about the similarities -- but Dickinson's poem seems very fleshly whereas Bronte's seems decidedly spiritual. Perhaps it is like Ecclesiastes where the passionate love is purportedly like the Church and Christ -- bridegroom and bride.

  4. American Composer John Adams concludes his choral symphony, Harmonium, with this poem. The transition from the middle poem to the last – “Wild Nights! Wild Nights!” – reminds me of a steam locomotive coming down the track from a distant point, to you, the listener. It chugs along, then charges with power down the line until the choir explodes with volcanic fury: “Wild Nights! Wild Nights!” I can only imagine Dickinson’s heart exploding with passionate fury for her distant lover. Then,
    “Might I but moor – tonight –
    In thee!"

  5. Since this was found amongst her tied together poems after her death, it can be assumed this was for no one's eyes but hers. I can imagine her, or anyone, writing this out of a passionate fantasy or frustration, but in her case I wonder who it was for? It does have the feeling more of a one-night stand, than a relationship. Probably because of the circumstances of the person's status.

    1. I'm not sure that no one else read it, although, it does seem intensely personal and likely to have been private. Nonetheless she did 'save' it by including it in her fascicles. I do know she made copies of poems she sent others -- and sometimes they have variance.

  6. ED probably was a heterosexual virgin, but the intensity of this poem suggests she was well aware of all the physiological and psychological stages of powerful sexual arousal and release, the Wild Night on the tossing sea, followed by the peace of God, which passeth all understanding. The last two lines unmistakably reminisce falling into deep after-sleep in the arms of her lover.

    What is astonishing is that the editors, Retired Reverend / Colonel Higginson and Mabel Todd, Austin’s passionate paramour, were willing and able to sneak this poem past family censors and the commercial publisher, Roberts Brothers, Boston, probably under the guise of a religious interpretation, as Higginson intimates in his letter to his co-editor, Mrs. Todd: “One poem only I dread a little to print--that wonderful 'Wild Nights,'--lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there.” Neither Austin nor Lavenia, nor the publisher, wanted a “malignant” reputation.

    Susan K deserves a standing ovation for her amazing explication.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Congrats to you and your beloved!