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12 December 2012

The Moon is distant from the Sea—

The Moon is distant from the Sea—
And yet, with Amber Hands—
She leads Him—docile as a Boy—
Along appointed Sands—

He never misses a Degree—
Obedient to Her Eye
He comes just so far—toward the Town—
Just so far—goes away—

Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber Hand—
And mine—the distant Sea—
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me—

                                                                      F398 (1862)  429

I don't mind that Dickinson begins the poem with the moon female and ends with it as male. It's lovely from first to last. The gentle ballad meter of the first stanza is lulling, just as the moon seems to lull the powerful sea into following her. The stanza also calls up the familiar and beautiful image of the golden moonlight spreading across the ocean as the moon makes its way up and across the sky. It's a beautiful invocation of the tides and their never-ending attraction to the moon. 
          The attraction is a regulating influence. Because of it the sea never over-runs the town with incoming tide but rather retreats to follow the moon to some other shore. He is "Obedient" and never fails her wishes.
Moonlight on Bosporus, Ivan Aivazovskii, 1884
          Just so the poem's speaker is "Obedient to the least command" of her "Signor." In a gender reversal, she is now the Sea and he the amber-handed moon. He, like the moon, can command her at a distance. He doesn't need to speak, for she is responsive to just the look in his eyes. 
          This is not only a love poem, comparing the love of the speaker for the Signor to the response of the sea to the moon, but a brief meditation on the invisible force of attraction. Our deepest yearnings may be profoundly and irresistibly stirred by something quite distant. We may never fulfill or even approach the object of our desire, just as the sea will never touch the moon, yet it influences everything we do.
          There's a plaintive quality to the poem signaled not only by the lonely rhythms of the tides, but by the "Oh, Signor." The second stanza interrupts the lulling regularity of  the first and last stanzas—both of which are not only in regular ballad form but have an ABAB rhyme scheme. It begins regularly but in the third and fourth line the meter breaks down. The halting rhythm of "He comes just so far" signals the lapping wave that doesn't go past its appointed limit. I read the line spondaically, each word accented: "—toward..." The halting rhythm picks up again on the next line: "—goes..." The effect underscores the stopping and starting of the obedient sea. It's as if it is a marionette.
          But then the last line stanza smooths the poem back into the lovely image of gentle amber hands. It does so, however, with the exception of the word "impose." In typical Dickinson fashion, she inserts a little twist at the end. The sea is portrayed as a little boy held by the hand of a gentle mother. Even when she keeps him from washing over the town it seems gentle. He just "goes away." But in the last two lines of the poem we have the speaker "Obedient" to commands that the Signor's eye might "impose" on her. That "impose" tells us that the speaker might live life very differently if the beloved man weren't influencing her so much from afar. The idea of a lonely woman influenced to such a degree is far different that that of a "docile boy" being led by his mother.



  1. i personally viewed the gender swap as a hint to emily‘s androgynous self image. the way she did obey to most of society‘s expectations of a woman (her physical appearance) but described herself with male terms, like „uncle emily“ in letters etc. so maybe she wasn‘t even writing about a man at all