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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)


  1. "More pelagic than terrestrial" -- just so.

    This is such a beautiful poem -- easier to understand than many of ED's poems. She melds the awe of the immensity of the sea with the simple experience of walking on the beach -- with the tide and waves washing over her (and our) feet as we retreat up the beach.

    The sexual element is there -- the sea is anthropomorphized as a Man and the speaker is clearly a woman. But this isn't some assault. There is a contrast in size of the power of nature to the speaker. The speaker is a "mouse" and a "dew" drop compared with the immensity and power of the sea. But, as ED has noted elsewhere, the "brain is deeper than the sea". This is a connection of equals.

    I don't get any feeling of fear in this poem -- at all. More a sense of playful wonder. The world is not contained in the prose of the "solid town" -- where the sea knows "No One". But is ED's world. She brings the joy and freshness and wonder of that world to us.

    1. I think you're right about the fear. I probably overstated that. There is a sense of pleasure and potentiality along with an attractive potent sense of danger. But not a fear of assault -- I agree. It is a bit of a dance, Emily and the sea.

      Thanks for your comments -

  2. What a full and thorough reading of the poem. I like your approach to go from simplest to most interpretative. I don't think the poem could be laid out any clearer.

    You're really taking advantage of your ever-growing interpretations of ED. I love the lists you make of other sea poems at the end, connecting the ocean to love and poetry. You make a particularly good case for poetry (though that doesn't exclude sexual desire, which might very well be wrapped up with poetry for ED). That got me looking back myself at those works.

    And thanks for introducing the term "pelagic" to me. That word has eluded my experience all of my life, apparently. At least it looked totally foreign when I first read it. But it's perfect for your point.

  3. What if the rising tide were a metaphor for the unrelenting passing of time? First are youth’s dreams of mermaids and frigates inviting to far-away wonders, but “no man moved me”, and the passing years slowly (shoe, apron, belt, boddice) make these wonders a dangerous impossibility. Better to run back to the Solid Town, and its dull timeless existance.

    I like the other readings you proposed, which I tend to trust more than my own based as they are on a knowledge of ED’s opus and poetic world far wider and deeper than mine, but this is what this beautiful poem tells me, so here it is.

    Thanks again for your great blog.

    1. Thank you, Roberto. I liked reading the poem your way. I don't think it will 'stick' -- but it opened up the poem a bit more for me and that is always appreciated.

  4. To me this poem is ED's exhilarating experience writing poetry.

    She sets out early in the morning to visit this sea. We know that she wrote from 3am to noon. The actual sea, the Atlantic, is roughly 100 miles east of Amherst. So, she's not going there. This sea is in her house. Mermaids in the basement, frigates on the upper floor, and she a mouse on the shore, a perfect image of a lone human facing the immensity of the ocean, but in this case it's the ocean of her imagination and all the words that she might possibly command. No man moves her until the power of the ocean takes that role. She is thrilled by the excitement of it, using the sexual imagery of ravishment, as you point out. But as JWilton says so well, this is fun - until she's had enough for now and runs back up the beach, pursued by the passion of her poetry until she reaches the town, the more prosaic duties of life, where her passionate lover feels out of place and takes his leave, until a time when clearly they will meet again.

    That, anyway, is how it feels to me.

    1. I like this interpretation. It certainly adds to the third reading of the poem that Susan mentions above.

  5. And one final comment, It's such a treat to have this blog for someone like me who is trying to understand ED's poetry. I admire your bravery in undertaking it.

  6. This poem starts off with much charm; taking a dog to visit the sea and and watching mermaids! But this seemingly innocent scenario quickly turns into experience, a kind of dangerous all-consuming experience. There are clues from the beginning. Both the dog and the mermaids can be read as symbols of lust. You have the wandering animal drive that is often represented by a dog (see Fr617) and then the mermaids bring in their own kind of sexual mythos to the poem. Something is coming up from below (basement) here. It is hard to dissociate mermaids from their origin, which is surely lonely men out to sea who are seeing women under the water because they desperately WANT to see this. (These mermaids might possibly represent a feminine siren song to which ED herself responds too.) The frigates I take to be so-called "great" men like Higginson, Wadsworth and Bowles, men who may be reaching out to her, but at the same time "presume" her to be a mouse. I love that word "presume" here. (These men, in their reaching out, condescend, in other words.)

    But there is one man (Who?) who moves her. There is so much in that verb "moves". Moving isn't "solid", it's more liquid, it's emotional, and here, I think it's romantic and sexual too. From there you get the bit by bit seduction from the shoe up past the belt and bodice. It is hard not read sexuality in this, especially with the word choices of belt and bodice. And then follows the voraciousness of being eaten up, ravenously devoured, consumed. The dew that overtakes the dandelion, and the salty ocean both represent a kind of "wetness" here. All becomes liquid, nothing is solid. The next lines are the most heated ones to me. I picture a man coming up behind a woman, in a kind of pursuit, the legs intertwining from this position so that the man's heel is next to woman's ankle. That's extremely close. He is up against her. Then? The shoes are filled with pearl, which is about the loveliest way you could say it.

    Whether all of it is meant overtly is hard to say, but the "no man moved me" until that "tide", then that kind of shoe>apron>belt>bodice undressing, then "follows close behind" until the heel is next to ankle is all, to me, hard to read any other way.

    I see parallels to this poem in fr617 and fr621 which have, instead of an ocean, a pursuing wind. "Solid town" being left behind is akin to the waiting housewife talking to an empty sofa in fr617 and to the narrator "becoming alone" in fr621.

    This guy might be a heel, leaving her there in solid town, but he's a silver heel, and quite seductive.

    1. Love your last line. I also like your comments about the frigates being the (self) important men in ED's life who "may be reaching out to her, but at the same time 'presume' her to be a mouse." And I agree: it is very hard to read the poem without finding the third through fifth stanzas as very much about seduction.

  7. My suspicion is that ED is using the sea (and wind in fr617 and 621) to stand in for a man, but it is possible that she is actually talking about the sea itself. It is sometimes hard to say with ED, how much is symbol and how much is "nature." Compare this poem to Whitman's passage in "Song of Myself" where the sea becomes a lover.

    "You sea! I resign myself to you also—I guess what you mean,
    I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
    I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me,
    We must have a turn together, I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land,
    Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
    Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you."

    It seems that whereas the sea is personified in Whitman, a person is oceanified in Dickinson.

  8. Franklin estimates ED copied this poem into Fascicle 30 “about last half 1863”.

    ED loved kids. She’s famous for lowering baked goodies in a basket from her second story window. Her nephew, Ned, was two June 19, 1863, too young to understand fairy tales, but neighborhood children were not.

    When I read this poem, I see ED sitting in her yard on a summer day, surrounded by kids in rapt attention to a funny-to-the-point-of-ridiculous fairy tale. It's also slightly scary with sexual undertones, just like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.

    With this scenario in mind, read this poem again. Sure, ED intentionally or unintentionally included those undertones, but that would pass right over most neighborhood kids’ understanding.

    Let’s lighten up on the Freudian psychoanalysis.