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23 January 2013

How sick—to wait—in any place—but thine—

How sick—to wait—in any place—but thine—
I knew last night—when someone tried to twine—
Thinking—perhaps—that I looked tired—or alone—
Or breaking—almost—with unspoken pain—

And I turned—ducal—
That right—was thine—
One port—suffices—for a Brig—like mine—

Ours be the tossing—wild though the sea—
Rather than a Mooring—unshared by thee.
Ours be the Cargo—unladen—here—
Rather than the "spicy isles—"
And thou—not there— 

                                               F410 (1862)  J368

This love poem builds on the previous work, "The Soul selects her own Society – ", and makes it personal. This time Dickinson writes in first person, recasting the unswervingly monogamous Soul as "a Brig" with only one port of call. The image is quite different than in the previous poem where the soul was a cold sort who closed the stony "Valves of her attention" to any but the chosen one. Dickinson focuses there on how the soul turns off attention (and love, presumably). In this poem we have the positive: love, passion, and yearning flow unimpeded towards the beloved.
          The central metaphor of the sea differs as much as possible from the powerful image of the stone. Whereas the stone is hard and unmoving, the sea is alive, mythic, passionate and wild. Dickinson has used the sea repeatedly as representing not only passion but the unknown and the dangerous. Harbor, as in F3, "On this wondrous sea – sailing silently," represents heaven where "no breakers roar — / Where the storm is o'er." 
          What Dickinson does in this poem and in F269, "Wild Nights — Wild Nights!", is to transfer the location of heavenly harbor to her beloved. In "Wild Nights," Dickinson claims the wild sea as "Eden" and the wild nights as "luxury" as long as she is moored in her lover. In this poem, she again would seek a life "tossing — wild" at sea rather than a loveless "Mooring" with someone else. In both cases it is the love and the lover that are the poet's desired port rather than a place of physical safety and repose.
The poem begins almost petulantly. The narrator is sick of waiting, tired of being anywhere but at her beloved's side — or at least his "place." She was annoyed with someone's attempt to cheer her up, "twine" their thoughts and feelings with hers. Perhaps this was a potential suitor or friend. If so, the valves of the narrator's attention were certainly closed against them. She "turned — ducal" on them, adopting that "divine Majority" (F409) that reserves the right to parcel out rights and privileges — and love.
          The second stanza establishes her moral stance: only the beloved has the right to twine with her soul. She is true blue, the sort of sailboat that wants but one port. Dickinson italicizes some words to be extra clear: she is monogamous
One can still sail to the spicy isles
        The lovely last stanza is a declaration to the beloved: Not only would I prefer a stormy life with you than a safe life without you, but I would rather have the "Cargo" of our love here and now than wait to arrive at some fantastical "spicy isles" only to find you are not there. The Spice Islands, of course, have drawn traders and explorers for centuries. Accessing them sparked Europe's Age of Exploration and launched a series of trade wars. The glamor of the remote islands where nutmeg, mace, cloves, and pepper grew on trees, not only attracted explorers and traders, but became a literary trope. When Dickinson uses the reference she is calling on their romantic mystery and allure. 
          She may also be referring to the person trying to twine with her. Is this person offering "the 'spicy isles'"? Might it be Sue whose attractions were spicy and unpredictable — and who might very well sit with the poet, notice her extreme loneliness, and practice her attractive arts on her?

The poem can be read as a journey of discovery itself. The poet begins by reflecting on the night before. Someone had offered love and she had rejected it. She reflects on what she learned, what she "knew": that "One port suffices — for a Brig — like mine." The poetics support the dawning recognition. A plethora of long vowels support the plaintive, longing quality of the first stanza. A family of rhymes knits it together: thine, twine, alone, pain. The narrator seems lost. The tired and almost whiney tone, however, turns abrupt in the short second stanza with such curt-sounding words as ducal, right, port, and Brig. Her feelings are suddenly quite clear to her. The third stanza pivots to the impassioned with trochaic/anapestic lines. Two begin "Ours be..." and the formulation is emphatic: Ours be this, rather than that; our love is passionate and real rather than tame and romantic.

Somehow I feel sorry for whoever was with her that evening. Perhaps it was the always alluring and never reliable original Spice Girl, Sue, Dickinson's sister-in-law, neighbor, and former soul mate if not lover.


  1. Could she be retreating to her room here and talking to the page itself?

    1. Oh, now, what fun is that??? Also, it would be poetry in the service of itself. Possible, I suppose, but love seems to inspire all the greats and Dickinson is no exception.

  2. The two best lines for me are

    1. "when someone tried to twine" she turned "ducal" on them.
    That spunkiness is hilarious.

    2. "one port suffices for a Brig like mine" sounds like Mae West.

    There is a lighthearted playfulness in this poem for me that I don't see in the more authoritative finality in the Soul selects. Instead of ending with that cold graveyard image of sealed stone, she ends with the unladen cargo and the spicy isles.

    1. Yes! re-reading it now I really see the playfulness.

  3. what does she mean “spicy isles!”

  4. What’s the significance of the almost-unheard-of pentameter in the first stanza? So heavy and ponderous! So unlike her! And so, like you said, whiny.

    1. I would guess for the contrast. The poem is almost a study in moods. The first impatience: she has to wait and wait -- and with the wrong person. Similarly the line stretches out too long, too. The reader gets impatient and wonders what is wrong -- just as the 'someone' tried to somehow help.