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19 October 2019

I started Early – Took my Dog –

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion's Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –
Fr656 (1853)  J520

The poem begins as a simple account of the speaker's walk to the beach with her dog. But then the world comes alive in a fantastical way: mermaids swim to the surface to look at her. Frigates in the harbour seem to extend their anchoring ropes should she, like a mouse, want to scurry on board. She is the center of attention, gazing at an ocean alive with feelings and intent towards her.

          She stays, charmed, perhaps, at the wonders, unmoved until the intent culminates in a tidal wave rushing up. "[N]o Man moved Me", she says, until this tide floods first her shoes, then her skirt, then belt, and finally up to and past her "Boddice" – that is to say, her blouse or bosom. Feeling now as if the Tide would "eat me up", the speaker makes for the safety of a nearby town on higher ground.
But the Tide follows 'close behind' drenching her shoes with the pearls of his 'Silver Heel' until the 'Solid Town' is reached. Against this solidity the fluid sea curls up into itself, 'bowing – with a Mighty look', and withdraws.

            There are several ways to read the forking of this poem from the speaker's imaginative musings on the beach to the sense of danger that makes her flee. The simplest and most innocent is to read it as a girl/woman staying too long in an incoming tide with no one (no Man) compelling her to move to safety. In this reading the engulfing, following, and finally withdrawing Tide is just an extension of the Mermaids and friendly Frigates. Yes, the tide came up too high and she had to hightail it, but that (as many sea-goers know) is part of the fun. The towering, bowing wave looking at her at the end, caps the close call. All in all, a marvellous adventure at the beach.

            Another reading is that of the sexual awakening of a young woman. The transition from child to woman is allegorically portrayed as the shift in focus from companion dog, legendary mermaids and romantic frigates, to immersion in a sexualized tide. This immersion seems dangerous to the young woman, and she flees to the safety of the town whose people, she thinks, are strangers to this powerful tide. Yet she is not entirely safe. As she runs she feels the ocean's 'Silver Heel' close behind. A silver toe would seem less ominous, certainly more polite; yet the heel is not without allure. In an image of fear mixed with desire, it fills her shoes to overflowing with foamy 'Pearl'.  The final image, that of the Sea drawing up into a bowing wave and bestowing a 'Mighty look' before withdrawing, assures that this is not a one-time experience. The maiden must expect that Tide to come again and probably again – and not just for her 'simple Shoe'.

          A third reading would be a deeper allegory: just as a maiden might be seduced "As wholly as a Dew", so a poet who writes of the "divine intoxication / of the first league out from Land", risks the abyssal depths. The mermaids who look can also draw her down. The frigate can only extend its arms when she stands on shore. The town is her refuge only when she dwells in its confines. But Dickinson is not a poet who seeks refuge. She is more pelagic than terrestrial

I believe she writes with the mighty sea at her heels, overflowing her with Pearl.

Poems with the Ocean as love, the Beloved, and desire:
"Wild Nights – Wild Nights" where the poet, "Rowing in Eden", longs to moor in the sea of her beloved (Fr269)
"My river runs to thee –" where as a river, the speaker hopes the Sea will welcome and take her (Fr219)
In "He touched me, so I live to know",  the speaker writes of her beloved's arms as "a boundless place" that 'silenced' her "as the awful Sea / Puts minor streams to rest" (Fr349)
"The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea" depicts the subsuming nature of the lover's attraction to Beloved: "The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea – / Forgets her own localaity – / As I, in thee –" (Fr255)

Poems with the Ocean as poetic gifts and depths:
"'Tis little I – could care for Pearls –" where Dickinson declares, ''Tis little I – could care for Pearls – / Who own the Ample sea" (Fr597)
I'll clutch – and clutch –": the poet is diving for pearls, and although it is getting late, continues diving hoping that the next one "might be the golden touch" or maybe diamonds. The pearls maybe presents for a loved one – and also pearls and other treasures might be the poems brought up from the depths of the sea (Fr385)
"Exultation is the going" – where journeying out upon the ocean is to find 'divine intoxication' in its deep freedom and 'Eternity' (Fr143)
"Three times – we parted – Breath – and I –": Here the ocean is a great trial, almost drowning the speaker who emerges with sunrise stronger and alive (Fr514)
"Once more, my now bewildered Dove": In this poem the speaker 'flings 'Her troubled question' out over the ocean, the 'deep' for answers, one presumes, to deep questions (Fr65)