Love Marine: Sea Imagery by Emily Dickinson
Is it too late to touch you, Dear?
We this moment knew--
Love Marine and Love Terrene--
Love Celestial too--
--Emily Dickinson, Poem 1637
Write! And your self-seeking text will know itself better than
flesh and blood, rising, insurrectionary dough kneading itself,
with sonorous, perfumed ingredients, a lively combination of
flying colors, leaves, and rivers plunging into the sea we feed.
“Ah, there’s her sea,” he will say as he holds out to me a
basin full of water from the little phallic mother from whom
he’s inseparable. But look, our seas are what we make of
them, full of fish or not, opaque or transparent…; and we are
ourselves sea, and coral, seaweed, beaches, tides, swimmers,
children, waves… More or less wavily sea, earth, sky—what
matter would rebuff us? We know how to speak them all.
--Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of Medusa”
Sand-glass is like the coastline
Body is drifting sands and Poetry ice-cube
Cat—tender and delicate—but the Seabird is Time
--Xia Yu 夏宇, “Hugging”擁抱
In this paper I attempt to do a comprehensive recapitulation of sea imagery in Emily Dickinson’s poetry to show how this American woman poet, dubbed by Sandra Gilbert “the wayward nun beneath the hill,” projects through marine images or motifs her polymorphous urges to cross boundaries using poetry as her “plank,” such as her sublimated longing for life after death, her adventurous quest for the “Sweet Skepticism of the heart,” her wavy jouissance rowing with the corporeal fluidity of female desire roused by autoeroticism, heterosexual or homosexual love, and her metamorphic imagination that turns the enclosed garden into a boundless sea claiming that her artistic tour de force is the same as a military triumph leading to spiritual liberation, etc. I would try to argue that reading Dickinson by penetrating her multiple desires to wade into and go beyond the sea, not as geographical space but literary trope depicting inner terrain of “finite infinity,” one encounters in her poetry a bisexual text. To read her poems which articulate boldly the multiplicity of female desire in the form of “love marine,” one is at the core of her feminine writing listening to how she allowed in her counter-phallic lines the free flow of erotic imagination, or “the female imaginary” formulated by Irigaray, not submitted to patriarchal castration. To read her poems which appropriate but revise the Puritan discourse on life after death, on the paradisiac state of being, or mock commercial imperialism, one’s attention follows her to shift from the female body or feminine realm of domesticity to hear her voice challenging and eventually disrupting the patriarchal forum of theology and economy. Finally, as we read her delicate strokes of genius that evoke in our mind’s eye the flimsy and precarious boundary of the sea and enable us to hear the intelligible sound of “syllabus-less” sea, to physically experience the caresses of the sea that launch us back to the origin of life, we witness the culmination of her poetic art. That is to say, with the keenest sensibility of a woman poet at her free disposal, Dickinson succeeds in returning her readers back to the bosom of the sea like a child submerged in naked intelligence and oceanic rapture, experiencing the “chora” state manifested by Kristeva, a maternal space in which a new-born enjoys total identification with its mother before the castration complex takes place, a “matrix space, nourishing unnamable, anterior to the one, to God and consequently, defying metaphysics.”
Ⅰ. From the Beginning to the End: Introspective Mines and beyond
In 1850, when she was twenty,
wrote to her friend Abiah Root: Dickinson
“…You are growing wiser than I am, and nipping in the bud fancies which I let blossom—perchance to bear no fruit, or if plucked, I may find it bitter. The shore is safer, Abiah, but I love to buffet the sea—I can count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love the danger! You are learning control and firmness. Christ Jesus will love you more. I’m afraid he don’t love me any!…”
All throughout her life, Dickinson dedicated herself to “buffeting the sea” with the act of poetry writing, assuming a subversive and autonomous spirit unbounded by the phallogocentric law socially, lingually, or religiously endorsed by the patriarchal culture. Sea imagery pervades her works. Among seventeen hundred and seventy-five poems she left to us, more than one tenth of them contain marine images or motifs. In poem 1, a valentine composed on March 4th, 1850, which Thomas H. Johnson lists as the earliest known poem by her in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, we find a sea image depicting the comfort of romantic love in the storm of life with the wave representing the male lover and the moon his female beloved:
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make them solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose. (15-18)
Although less conventional than this early metaphoric stroke, sea imagery by
since 1860 retains the same archetype simplicity achieved in this first attempt. Mostly, the sea in her poetry pertains to “the Landscape of the Spirit.” Rarely does it refer geographically to a specific body of water. Unlike Margaret Fuller, the leading feminist intellectual of her adolescent years, who died in 1850 at the age of 40 with traveling experience to the Mid-West frontiers and Europe, Dickinson , also a well-educated daughter of a legislator, chose to confine herself in her room since her early-thirties. She shunned physical contact with the world outside except corresponding with a few friends, kindred, and T. W. Higginson, a literary man and an advocate of women’s right whom she had written to since 1862 until her death. Physically, she never traveled far beyond Dickinson New England. To a recluse who believed that “to shut our eyes is Travel,” the sea grants her “spiritual dimension to the mind,” and in her own words, “…shall be / Compared with that profounder site / That polar privacy / A soul admitted to itself- / Finite infinity”(Poem 1695). A pithy metaphor of her own private soul, the sea is often internalized and becomes an equivalence of her desire or literary aspiration. In Poem 1700 which Johnson regards as a later work, reviewing her own life-long poetic endeavors, she called Beauty the sign of “a syllable-less Sea” and claimed that her efforts to find its words, although failed, nonetheless had led her to enjoy the rapture of bequeathing “introspective mines,” i.e., rich legacies of poetry she would later be commemorated with:
To tell the Beauty would decrease
To state the spell demean-
There is a syllable-less sea
Of which it is the sign-
My will endeavors for its word
And fails, but entertains
A Rapture as of Legacies-
Of introspective Mines.
Her resolution to “buffet the sea” in the early years turns out a lifelong literary exploration of the soul’s inner terrain. Her brilliant achievement invites Adrienne Rich to pay such a compliment to her: “a mind engaged in a life time’s musing on essential problems of language, identity, separation, relationship, the integrity of the self; a mind capable of describing psychological state more accurately than any poet except Shakespeare.”
At the end of her literary journey, the sea again “haunts” her. In poem 1775, an elegiac piece, probably her last poem, she compared herself to the cricket, a witness to the beauty of the earth, the land as well as the sea:
The earth has many keys.
Where melody is not
Is the unknown peninsula.
Beauty is nature’s fact.
But witness for her land,
And witness for her sea,
The cricket is her utmost
Of elegy to me.
In her final stroke, the sea shifts from being an archetypal symbol of inner landscape to a synecdoche of Nature.
might never have traveled across the four seas, but with the help of her wild imagination, she, like the cricket, had visited even the remote corner of the unknown peninsula. As early as 1861,one year prior to the volcanic outburst of her poetic genius, she already foresaw that by choosing to be a woman poet, “ a solemn thing”—“A Woman…wear…Her blameless mystery”—the size of her “small” life would swell “like Horizons” in her breast (Poem 271), i.e., her life of literary exploration would lead her to travel across boundless seas into immortality. Turning inwards to inscribe her erotic drives with unprecedented freedom and looking outwards to recapture the beauty of the diminished in Nature, she encountered “finite infinity.” The sea is an apt metaphor to convey the immense joy she thus experienced. And, the ways in which she treated the sea are different versions of her scenarios about love or eternity (Farr, Passion 215). Dickinson
Ⅱ. Immortality or Death
To begin with, in some of her earlier works, when Dickinson was still fascinated by the fervent faith in life after death or “resurrection,” a pious concern of New England Puritans, she compared life to a sea journey toward the other shore—the soul’s eternal haven/heaven (e.g., Poem 78). She described, often in imitation of nursery rhymes, the soul as “bark,” “boat,” “ship,” “brig,” or “plank” tossed adrift in a tumultuous sea hoping for angelic guidance, or harking for the bird of hope to return from beyond the sea with a new melody (Poem 7). Related to this religious theme, the sea symbolizes variously eventful life, death, or immortality experienced here and beyond. Of the third category, Poems 76 and 695 are two prominent examples in terms of metaphoric ingenuity. With an ecstatic outcry, Poem 76 portrays eternity experienced as the sea, an infinite space, opens up to an inland soul launching on her virgin journey:
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses--past the headlands
Into deep Eternity—
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?
In contrast with the outward migration of Poem 76, Poem 695 vividly recaptures the joy of eternity as if it were wave after wave of pleasure experienced by a woman in her vulva and other erotogenic zone similar to the feminine jouissance celebrated by Irigaray in “This Sex Which Is not One”:
As if sea should part
And show a further Sea--
And that--a further--and the Three
But a presumption be--
Of Periods of Seas
Unvisited of Shores--
Themselves the Verge of Sea to be--
Instead of being a boundary, the sea in these two poems is a space-in-between making boundary-crossing possible and leading to further infinite exploration. The experience of eternity, the ecstasy of the divine intoxication, blurs the distinction between life and death; eros and thanatos merge and sublimate into heavenly bliss. In this sense, the sea in these two poems also connotes the primordial power of God, besides immortality experienced in mortal life. In Poem 695 especially, with a series of the conjunction “and” to indicate that the proliferation of seas, eternity, i.e., the primordial power of God, is experienced not as the One, the phallic god; it is “those,” even more plural than the “three,” the figure that encompasses all the forms of patriarchal Godhead in Christianity. This short lyric illustrates a Dickinsonian way of converging the divine intoxication and feminine jouissance. A typical example of écriture feminine, it shows us how the Godhead can be comprehended akin to the infinite proliferation experienced in the female body.
Around 1863, when she wrote Poem 726, death, analogous to baptism, was regarded as a threshold to immortality, which she called “that Great Water in the west,” ample enough to terminate our corporeal thirst in life:
We thirst at first – ‘tis Nature’s Act –
And later – when we die –
A little water supplicate –
Of fingers going by –
It intimates the finer want—
Whose adequate supply
Is that Great Water in the West –
Termed Immortality --
Again, in 1872 she proclaimed that “If my bark sink/ ‘Tis to another sea--/ Mortality’s Ground Floor/ Is Immortality—” (Poem 1234). However, later around 1878, attesting to her power of antithetical imagination, she wrote a poem using “dew” to depict a tragic life totally devoid of pious faith in immortality. In contrast with Poems 79 and 695, the sea in Poem 1473 connotes death, nothingness, the “eternally unknown, ” utter extinction:
A Dew sufficed itself--
And satisfied a Leaf
And felt “how vast a destiny”--
“How trivial is Life!”
The Sun went out to work--
The Day went out to play
And not again that Dew be seen
Whether by Day Abducted
Or emptied by Sun
Into the Sea in passing
Attested to this Day
That awful Tragedy
By Transport’s instability
And Doom’s celerity.
Viewed with scientific empiricism, man’s brief and precarious life is nothing but a process of mutability marked by vicissitudes, like a dew transported by the sun into the sea. Such a natural phenomenon, nevertheless, is regarded as an “awful” tragedy, for the sea, a figure of death, annuls everything. Samuel Bowles, the alleged “Master” to whom Dickinson write many love poems and two love letters calling herself “The wife - without the Sign!” and “Betrothed - without the swoon,” died in 1878. Is this poem a dirge for him?
Ⅲ. A Skeptical Mind Favors Shipwreck
Death haunts life just as shipwreck always keeps the sailors anguished, giving their journeys “precarious Gait” (Poem 875), especially to those who dare to explore the strangest sea. Shipwreck is
’s favorite motif throughout her writing journey. She surely loved “the danger of the sea” as she confessed in her letter to Abiah Root mentioned above. Poem 708 and 879 portray the heroic strife of a wrecked man and Poem 739 the false hope kindled by “fictitious” shores that keeps the strife alive. More unique than these and the other poems of shipwreck is Poem 1217 that juxtaposes paradise, traditionally a place of eternal repose, with the storm-impending sea, as if to thrive in the fear of the shipwreck is to live in the real paradise, a realm of no death: Dickinson
Edifice of Ocean
Thy tumultuous Rooms
Suit me at a venture
Better than The Tombs (9-12)
Apparently written in revolt against the religious orthodoxy which values life after death, the poem recalls the two stanzas in Poem 3 affirming
’s venturing rascality that jeers at loss and death in order to reach a new continent: Columbus
It was the brave
A sailing o’er the tide,
Who notifies the nations
Of where I would reside!
Mortality is fatal--
Gentility is fine,
Insolvency, sublime! (37-42)
A mind that constantly bewares of shipwreck but does not avert “the danger of the sea” is an inquisitive mind. Such a mind
strongly advocated and compared in Poem 928 to a maelstrom, a sea turned alive and energetic by hurricane, unbounded by narrow banks: Dickinson
The heart has narrow Banks
It measures like the Sea
In mighty--unremitting Bass
And Blue Monotony
Till Hurricane bisect
And as itself discerns
Its insufficient Area
The heart convulsive learns
That Calm is but a Wall
Of unattempted Gauze
An instant’s Push demolishes
A self-complacent mind, like the calm sea, was abhorred by
for its dull platitude. However, aside from a lyric manifesto of the poet’s epistemological stand, it may be more significant to read in this piece a triumph of her poetry as aesthetic transformation, if we take into regard that Dickinson did suffer sporadic psychotic crises and that madness or maelstrom is a theme she repeatedly dealt with in order to gain an objective ground from which to look nakedly at thunder-bolt-like movements of her own titanic and volcanic mind. In the later stage of her life, in Poem 1413, she loudly affirmed and celebrated her skeptical mind in a jubilant mood and called it “a Fleet of Balm-- / Affronted by the snow--,” appropriating an image related with commercial navigation to recommend the daringness of her epistemological as well as aesthetic inquiries: Dickinson
Sweet Skepticism of the Heart--
That knows--and does not know--
And tosses like a Fleet of Balm--
Affronted by the snow--
Invited and then retards the Truth
Lest Certainty be sere
Compared with the delicious throe
Of transport thrilled with Fear--
However, even more profoundly, the “Sweet Skepticism of the Heart” depicted in Poem 1413 implies a typical Dickinsonian economy of desire. Renouncing but always cherishing in one’s private heart a reciprocated love blurs the boundary between to have and not to have, keeping one always in the verge of shipwreck. As a scenario of forbidden love, shipwreck often connotes loss of one’s self in the turbulence of desire. Carefully read, the kernel image of Poem 1413, “A Fleet of balm--/ Affronted by the snow--,” actually conflates two images Dickinson employed in 1862 to connote her love for Susan Gilbert and Samuel Bowles. “A Fleet of balm” recalls the last stanza of Poem 368 apparently addressed to Susan, her sister-in-law and the woman she was passionately in love with:
Our’s be the tossing – wild though the sea –
Rather than a Mooring – unshared by thee.
Our’s be the Cargo – unladen – here -
Rather than the “spicy isles-”
And thou – not there -- (16-20)
Snow is a synonym of her integrity, her renounced love for Bowles, so called in a letter to him (Letter 251). This composite image thus associates “Sweet Skepticism” with her strategy of abstinence in terms of desire. Writing to Susan Gilbert in 1871,
asserted “To miss you, Sue, is power. The Stimulus of Loss makes most Possession mean.” (Letter 364). In “Go not too near a House of Rose—“ (Poem 1434), she concluded “In insecurity to lie / Is Joy’s insuring quality.” As Joan Burbick indicates, “such statements about desire fit into the larger schemas of opposition throughout her poetry.” To Dickinson , “Opposite – entice,” and, the desired goal “gains” through destitution; actual possession pales in relation to the struggle to acquire. In “sumptuous destitution,” upholding “Sweet Skepticism of the Heart” lies the joy and pains of forbidden love. Dickinson
Full of a gothic air, the motif of shipwreck occurs twice in the poem Dickinson enclosed in her letter to Bowles, first in a letter dated about 1860 (Letter 219) and then in a letter written in early 1862 (Letter 249), when he sailed for Europe. In the earlier piece, as Judith Farr read it, comparing herself to a wreck victim, a goblin-like floating corpse, Dickinson bemoaned with the metaphoric veil her hopeless love for Susan, who (the “one turned, smiling, to the land—”) had chosen to tie the marital vow with her brother, Austin:
Two swimming wrestled on the spar
Until the morning sun,
When one turned, smiling, to the land—
Oh! God! The other One!
The stray ship – passing, spied a face
Upon the waters borne,
With eyes, in death, still begging, raised,
And hands – beseeching—thrown!
Two years later when the metaphor of the same vein is repeated in another letter, the despairing tone of the previous images is replaced by uplifting joy as Dickinson imagined a union with Bowles in Heaven after death. The drama of necrophilia, the desire consummated only in death, depicted in the impassioned lines of Poem 226, is heart-enthralling:
Should you but fail at – Sea –
In sight of me --
Or doomed lie –
Next Sun – to die –
Or Rap – at paradise – unheard
I’d harass God
Until he let you in!
The possibility of shipwreck, “the delicious throe / Of Transport thrilled with fear,” the courage to challenge the forbidden taboos, if not with physical action, at least with her dashing lines, “a Loaded Gun,” delighted Dickinson in her relentless quest for truth and love. Shipwreck of course forebodes loss and death. Calling herself “Empress of Calvary,” she was at ease with her fate “Ordained to Suffering.” Shunning easier goals, the delight promised by the Land in Sight, she preferred to sail forward so as to reach her visionary land, the “
” in Poem 405 (c. 1862): Blue Peninsula
It might be easier
To fail – with Land in Sight –
Than gain – My Blue Peninsula –
To perish – of Delight – (13-16)
The same motif recurred 15 years later in Poem 1425 (c. 1877) to testify her tenacious passion for exploring the boundless, “finite infinity,” disclosed to the human soul by Nature:
The inundation of Spring
Enlarges every soul—
It sweeps the tenement away
But leaves the Water whole—
In which the soul at first estranged—
Seeks faintly for its shore
But acclimated— pines no more
IV. Rowing in
: Garden / Sea Eden
Assuming the free and defiant spirit that the sea inspired, since 1862, a year in which she dashed out more than three hundred poems, Dickinson used bold sea imagery to express her outpouring passion and her multiple erotic desires— autoeroticism, heterosexual love and lesbian love; the sea stands for ecstasy experienced in either kind. In her metaphoric language, sea is the equation of sexuality. Many of her erotic dramas are unfolded through multiple roles played by sea imagery. In the context of lesbian love, the sea, when used as an erotic symbol, represents either the woman poet or her beloved (see Poem 249 cited below), but in the context of heterosexual love, only her male lover. Of the second type, the often anthologized Poem 520 is a lovely example. With the tide acting like a courting prince, it displays in the aura of a fairy tale a virgin’s sexual fantasy in the form of heterosexual love:16
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 – upon the Sands –
But no Man moves Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Bodice – too –
And made as he would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –
And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle – 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 –
The sexualized female body, gracefully clad in shoes, apron, belt, and bodice in this fairy-tale, is effectively laid bare by two images of limpid, diminished, and elusive roundness: dew and pearl. In Poem 162, burning with desire for her male lover, the woman poet cries out in the voice of a river pleading to flow into the sea:17
My River runs to thee –
Blue sea! Wilt welcome me?
My River waits reply –
Oh Sea - look graciously –
I’ll fetch thee Brooks –
From spotted nooks –
Say -- Sea - Take Me!
The same image recurs more elaborately in Poem 506:
He touched me, so I live to know
That such a day, permitted so,
I groped upon his breast –
It was boundless place to me
And silenced, as the awful sea
Put minor streams to rest.
And now, I’m different from before,
As if I breathed superior air –
Or brush a Royal Gown –
My feet, too, that had wandered so –
My Gypsy face – transfigured now –
To tender Renown
Into this Port, if I might come,
Would not so ravished turn –
Nor Persian, baffled at her shrine
Lift such a Crucifixal sign
To her imperial Sun.
In this poem, besides the sea, her male lover is associated with the king, a port, and Christ as the sun. His love transfigures her. Like an emperor to his queen, he bestows royalty upon her; she is thus more ravished than Rebecca betrothed to Isaac and the Persian priestess converted to Christianity. Because of his love, she gains ennobled social and spiritual stature. However, a strong sense of inferiority or servility lurks behind the gratitude exuding from poems which, like Poem 506, exalt the redemptive power of male love.18 If in the real life, the friendship that Samuel Bowles extended to her drew Dickinson out of the gloom she suffered from her unrequited love for Susan Gilbert, Dickinson, in the moment of sardonic reflection, had been aware of gender asymmetry deeply embedded in heterosexual marriage and felt repulsed by it.19 In Poem 643, one of the key pieces dealing with the poet’s vacillation between two kinds of love, we witness a subtle episode unfolded with the sea representing the woman poet who shifts the object of her desire from the sun, a male lover, to the moon, her lesbian beloved: the reason for the choice is her rejection of male chauvinism, the man’s strong sense of possession, as revealed through the dialogue in the second stanza:
I could suffice for Him, I know --
He -- could suffice for Me –
Yet Hesitating Fractions -- Both
Surveyed Infinity –
“Would I be Whole” He sudden broached --
My syllable rebelled –
‘Twas face to face with Nature -- forced --
‘Twas face to face with God –
Withdrew the Sun – to Other Wests
Withdrew the furthest Star
Before Decision -- stooped to speech --
And then -- be audibler
The answer of the Sea unto
The motion of the Moon --
Herself adjust Her Tides -- unto --
Could I -- do else -- with Mine?
The last line ends the poem in a rhetorical question, as if the woman poet still doubts and vacillates, but in fact it makes even more distinct the “naturalness” of the new choice—there is no other alternative, since the sun always gives way to the moon at nightfall; and the fact that a woman is capable of loving both man and woman is as natural as the sun and the moon take turns to illuminate the sea day and night. The second stanza especially reveals that not all the moments of heterosexual love are so sweet that the woman poet always feel contented to be self-submissive. She finds her right to speak for Nature and God without intervention is deprived by her male lover when the latter demands he be “whole” to her, subsuming her direct communion with Nature and God, i.e., her original speech, into his phallogocentric discourse.20 Her insistence on having her own discourse then turns him away. She thus shifts her attention to the moon, her lesbian beloved. The reciprocal dialogue between them on an equal stand creates for her an “audibler” speech—her voice is not muffled and silenced in the lesbian relationship.
The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea --
Forgets her own locality --
As I -- toward Thee –
She knows herself an incense small --
Yet small -- she sighs -- if All -- is – All--
How larger -- be?
The Ocean -- smiles -- at her Conceit --
But she, forgetting Amphitrite --
Pleads – “Me”?
Amphitrite became Poseidon’s wife not by her own free choice. She is a Nereid. One day she was seen dancing in the shores of
Naxos by Poseidon. Fascinated by her innocent beauty, he sent his emissary the dolphin to kidnap her from her father’s house. When she was brought to his presence, he raped her. To make up for his violence, he wedded her and crowned her “Queen of the Ocean.” So honored, she nonetheless was no longer free and inviolate. She was from then on compelled to dwell forever in the unfamiliar world under the sea. When pleading “Me,” i.e., to become the wife of “the sea” forgetting Amphitrite’s tragedy, the female lover in the poem is “wrestling” to regain her locality, seeking to enter a wedlock but still retain her own self-identity, claiming different but equal importance as measured against her husband, since as the conceit indicates: the word “small” can contain “all,” but the word “all,” no matter how great in implication, cannot contain “small.” If All is All, it does not need to appropriate “small” to get larger. “Small” should be set free to be herself (Wolff 272). When free to be herself, to articulate her desire in female speech, she will be able to lead her lover to the realm of infinity encompassing the sea, the earth, and the heaven as indicated by poem 1637 cited as an epigraph for this study. No wresting for self-identity plagues lesbian. On the contrary, the joy of merely imagining to be together with one’s beloved feels like returning to the garden of Eden as Poem 249 demonstrates:
Wild Nights -- Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Futile -- the Winds --
To a Heart in port --
Done with the Compass --
Done with the Chart!
Ah, the sea!
Might I but moor -- Tonight --
One is home in
, a realm prior to the need of human laws or mortal guidance, since no distinction between Good and Evil spilt the human mind before the Temptation. Most significantly, this poem contains a salient and unique feature of sea imagery by Eden : she often juxtaposed sea and garden, especially when the poem was about her love for Susan Gilbert. Poem 484 is the most explicit example of this kind: Dickinson
My Garden -- like the Beach --
Denotes there be -- a Sea --
That’s Summer --
Such as These --the Pearls
She fetches -- such as Me
A single Clover Plank
Was all that saved a Bee
A Bee I personally knew
From sinking in the sky --
“Twinx Firmament above
And Firmament below
The Billows of Circumference
Were sweeping him away --
The idly swaying Plank
Responsible to nought
A sudden Freight of Wind assumed
And Bumble Bee was not --
This harrowing event
Transpiring in the Grass
Did not so much as writing from him
A wandering “Alas” --
Later in Poem 1400, in contrast with the nursery-rhyme tone of Poem 1343, the garden/sea is compared to “an abyss’s face,” a “haunted house,” “what is awe” to the poet, i.e., the synecdoche of Nature as a strange and uncanny beauty resisting human comprehension:
What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar
Whose limit none have ever seen,
But just his lid of grass—
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!
The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.
Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands next the sea –
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray
But nature is a stranger yet;
The ones that cites her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.
To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who knew her, knew her less
The nearer her they get.
Among the poems that juxtaposes sea and garden, Poem 658, which depicts her garden bathed in the crimson sunset, is the most telling piece:
Whole Gulfs – of Red, and Fleets – of Red –
And Crews – of solid Blood –
Did place about the West – Tonight –
As ‘twere specific Ground –
And they – appointed Creatures –
In Authorized Arrays –
Due – promptly – as a Drama –
That bows – and disappears –
Wielding her metaphoric imagination,
Dickinson transformed her garden into the “ Red Sea.” In her vision, she ruled over the enclosed garden outside her window exactly like a monarch, or a female Moses. These fleets of “Red Sea” she owned and maneuvered, composed of tiny creatures celebrated in her poems, such as bumble bees, crickets, bobolinks, butterflies, squirrels etc., could defeat “Pharaoh,” laws of enslavement, and led her people to the promised land. Cast self-reflexively as an illusive drama, this gorgeous lyric adumbrates, with an epic-like grandeur, an impending military triumph, a prelude to a new epoch of spiritual and political liberty. It attests to the fictive power of metaphoric imagination. Poem 1642 depicts even more explicitly the triumph of the literary / spiritual battle she envisioned taking place in her garden / sea:
Red Sea,” indeed! Talk not to me
Of purple Pharaoh --
I have a Navy in the West
Would Pierce his Columns thro’ --
Guileless, yet of such Glory fine
That all along the Line
Is it, or is it not, Marine --
Is it, or not, divine – (1-8)
Marine is divine. In these two poems doing homage to her “Red Sea,” Dickinson demonstrated, we may argue, that the garden / sea as a private domain of her female desire is comparable to a spiritual battle-field of the gravest historical significance. Using garden / sea as a literary space to excavate “introspective mines,” we may say,
succeeded in creating a female speech debunking orthodox religion and patriarchal discourse. Through her private garden/ sea talk, she in fact participated obliquely in the public forum of theological debates, subverting the traditional doctrine—fulfilling her vocation to “tell the truth, but always tell it slant.” Dickinson
Her triumph is literary and imaginary. Realistically speaking, the garden / sea that brought joy and divine freedom to her did have its bleak side—it physically separated her from Susan, and was an immense boundary which resisted any hope of crossing. She saw from Susan’s rejection of her love the social prohibition imposed upon lesbian love. Poem 474 seems to depict the tragic martyrdom of two lesbian lovers condemned to die as adulterous sinners; nevertheless, in the final glimpse they saw on each other’s face the real sun of paradise.22 Apparently, in the third stanza the Sun they eschewed implies the patriarchal law that persecuted them, and for them, to succumb to it is to commit perjury, whereas to die is to be honest:23
They put Us far apart --
As separate as Sea
And Her unsown
We signified “These see” –
They took away our Eyes --
They thwarted Us with Guns --
“I see Thee” each responded straight
Through Telegraphic Sighs –
With dungeons – They devised –
But through their thickest skill –
And their opaquest Adamant –
Our Souls saw – just as well –
They summoned Us to die –
With sweet alacrity
We stood upon our stapled feet –
Condemned - but – just – to see –
Permission to recant --
Permission to forget --
We turned our backs upon the Sun
For perjury of that --
Not either--noticed Death --
Paradise -- aware --
Each other’s Face -- was all the Disc
Each other’s setting -- saw –
Separated as “Sea” and her “unsown
Peninsula,” the two lovers still could “see” each other. This drama of lesbian martyrdom is framed by the mirroring pun of “sea” and “see,” “saw” and “sow.” Turning their back on the patriarchal Sun, they penetratd each other with loving gaze, for each was the other’s source of light and circumference. Love between them is so equal, so true! The last verb that concludes the poem, “saw,” evokes its pun, “sow,” and changes the “unsown’ peninsula of the first stanza into a “sown” paradise: death is supplanted by the prospect of germination and proliferation of life. Their martyrdom of love, like Christ’s, leads to resurrection.
V. To Dive for the
The “other” sun that the two lesbian martyrs died for in Poem 474 is represented by the pearl in some other poems. An object associated with the sea, “pearl” is
’s favorite symbol.24 It signifies “the capsule of the mind,” “Our thoughts /Most shun the Public Air / Legitimate, and Rare –“(Poem 998). In Poem 270, she proposes to dive to take the pearl even at the cost of her life and in the final stanza she even exalts the divers and compares them to the crowned monarchs: Dickinson
One Life of so much Consequence!
Yet I – for it—would pay—
My Soul’s entire income –
In ceaseless – salary—
– to me—so signal— Pearl
That I would instant dive –
Although – I knew – to take it –
Would cost me –just a life!
The Sea is full – I know it!
That—does not blur my Gem!
It burns—distinct from all the row—
Intact – in Diadem!
The life is thick—I know it!
Yet – not so dense a crowd –
But Monarchs—are perceptible –
Far down the dustiest Road!
Poem 732 compares a married woman and a faithful wife with her talent wasted, and the “playthings” of her life sacrificed, to “the Sea / Develop Pearl, and Weed, / But only to Himself- be known /The Fathoms they abide -.” Underlying in this poem is a critique of patriarchal castration of female desire. A double critique of commercial imperialism and patriarchal institution is also wrapped in Poem 452 with the motif of diving to get the pearl serving as its narrative plot:
The Malay – took the pearl --
Not – I -- the Earl--
I feared the Sea – too much
Unsanctified -- to touch –
Praying that I might be
Worthy -- the Destiny--
The Swarthy fellows swam--
And bore my Jewel -- Home –
Home to the Hut! What lot
Had I -- the Jewel -- got --
Borne on a Dusky Breast --
I had not deemed a Vest
Of Amber -- fit –
The Negro never knew
I -- wooed it -- too --
To gain, or be undone --
Alike to Him - One –
I do not agree with Paula Benette that the earl in this poem should be read as the lesbian poet in gender cross-dressing condemning the Negro for pre-empting the pearl, i.e., for privileging male desire (Benette, “Pea” 545). Instead, I would suggest, through a mimicry of the earl’s voice,
is mocking the cowardly effeminacy this agent of imperialism and patriarchy turns into. The one who deprives may become the one deprived, for the hegemony he supports takes away his pristine life force—“I feared the Sea--to much / Unsanctified -- to touch--.” In this poem, Dickinson gives the earl an effeminate voice to expose how males are castrated and harnessed by the patriarchal tradition that advocates economy of ruthless exploitation giving them the privilege to enslave the female and the colonized natives. Dickinson
“Tis little I –could care for Pearls –
Who own the ample sea –
Or Brooches – when the Emperor –
With Rubies – pelted me – (1-4)
VI. Maritime Conviction
Most of the poems we discussed above deal with the sea as a sign of “introspective mines” and “the Landscape of the Spirit.” Yet, we also find in
’s collection the following three short lyrics that evoke to our mind’s eyes the most delicate features of the physical sea. Poem 884, a haiku-like piece, depicts the precarious nature of the tidal line. It is at flimsy boundary of the sea where we sense its powerful presence. Visually vivid, the sea with its undulant movement comes alive to us like an epiphany in these lines: Dickinson
An Everywhere of Silver
With Ropes of Sand
To keep it form effacing
The Track called Land
Poem 1302 allows us to hear the sound of the sea—we listen and are enthralled to delve into its profound depth. We hear layer after layer of intelligible sounds echoing with each other between the shores connoting cosmic love – it is the song of the earth, “Mediterranean intonations:”
I think that the Root of the Wind is Water --
It would not sound so deep
Were it a Firmamental Product--
Airs no Oceans keep--
To a Current’s Ear--
There is a maritime conviction
In the Atmosphere--
By restoring the geographical term “
Mediterranean” to its etymological root, this poem succeeds in captivating our attention to the body of water encircled by shores. With this device, proclaimed that she loved the Sea better than the Sky: the root of the wind is the water rather than the celestial home from which the Holy Ghost descends like the wind according to Christian doctrine. Her poetry is meant to preach love marine, “a maritime conviction,” an earth-bound faith in the beauty of Nature. In the same vein, Poem 867 invites us to wade into the sea and play with it like child submerged back into the origin of life, the home of a new kind of divine knowledge: Dickinson
Escaping backward to perceive
The Sea upon our place--
Escaping forward, to confront
His glittering Embrace--
Retreating up, a Billow’s height
Retreating blinded down
Our undermining feet to meet
Instructs to the Divine.
In these three short pieces we encounter
’s strokes of genius, the culmination of her poetic art. Reading these lines, we are in the presence of the sea, opening up our senses and mind to take in naked intelligence and oceanic rapture. We turn to the “chora” state enjoying reunion with Nature, the maternal space of ineffable “female imaginary,” intervened not at all by pre-empting speech of phallogocentric discourse.25 “Rowing in Dickinson / Ah, the Sea!” Eden--
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Iowa City: U of P, 1996. Iowa
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Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson.
: Addison-Wesley, 1988. New York
 Thus called by Sandra Gilbert in her essay on
’s poetry, “The Wayward Nun beneath the Hill,” collected in Suzzane Juhasz ed., Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, 22-44. In her influential study, Juhazs suggests that Dickinson used all the materials of daily reality, especially the details of domesticity, as metaphors in order to create herself and her life as a single, emblematic text, a sort of hagiography of a New England Nun. “ Dickinson structured,” Juhasz suggests further, “this life/text around a series of ‘mysteries’ that were distinctly female, deliberately exploring and exploiting the characteristics, even the constrains, of nineteenth-century womanhood so as to transform and transcend them.” Dickinson
 To counter “penis envy” declared by Freud as the contour of the female sexual drive, Irigaray writes, “Perhaps it is time to return to that repressed entity, the female imaginary. So woman does not have a sex organ? She has at least two of them, but they are not identifiable as ones. Indeed, woman’s pleasure does not have to choose between clitoral activity and vaginal passivity, for example. The pleasure of the vaginal caress does not have to be substituted for that of the clitoral caress. They each contribute, irreplaceably, to woman’s pleasure.” From this biological difference, Irigaray then infers the now widely-known female economy of desire that can help interpret the polymorphous passion uttered in
’s poems: “Ownership and property are doubtless quite foreign to feminine. At least sexually. But not nearness. Nearness so pronounced that it makes all discrimination of identity, and thus all forms of property, impossible. Woman derives pleasure from what is so near that she cannot have it, nor have herself. She herself enters into a ceaseless exchange of herself with the other without any possibility of identifying either. This put into question all prevailing economies: their circulations are irremediably stymied by woman’s pleasure, as it increases indefinitely from its passage in and through the other.” See her “This Sex Which Is not One,” trans. Claudia Reeder, collected in robyn r. warhol and diane price herndl ed., Feminism: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, 350-56. Dickinson
 See Julia Kristeva, “Woman’s Time” translated by Alice Jardine and Harry Blake, collected in warhol and herndl ed., Feminism, 445.
 Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward ed., The Letters of Emily Dickinson, I, ＃ 39, 104. All quotes of the letters are from this edition, cited in the text by the appropriate letter number.
even makes waves physically with her handwriting. In her study of Dickinson ’s calligraphic orthography, Martha Nell Smith remarks, “In the Sea said’ the sly producer shapes her letters so readers are focused to consider mimesis in the most literal sense. By performing letters that ‘look’ like waves, Dickinson mocks exclusively mimetic goals for language. Her reminders that words can be cymbals as well as symbols, and of language’s self-referentialities, are gleefully comic, and her amused and amusing tone show her self-conscious and ironic stance.” See Rowing in Dickinson : Re-reading Emily Dickinson, 85. Eden
 All quotes from the poetry are from ed. Thomas H. Johnson, The poems of Emily Dickinson, cited in the text by the appropriate poem number.
 In a letter to her friend Mrs. Holland,
used the term to describe the mind (Letter 315). Suzanne Juhasz in her essay “The Landscape of the Spirit” argues that Dickinson’s choice to keep herself in her room, to live in her mind rather than in the external world, is not a passive withdrawal out of timidity or due to psychic wounds; rather, it is her active choice ”in order to achieve certain goals and to circumvent or overcome certain forces in her environment and experience that were in opposition to those goals –particularly, the expectations and norms that a particular society creates for women, especially problematic when a woman wants to be a poet.” See Judith Farr ed., Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, 132-33. Dickinson
 See her chronology in Jeffery Steele ed., The Essential Margaret Fuller, iv-lvii.
 See Adrienne Rich, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar ed., Shakespeare’s Sister, 107.
 Jane Donahue Eberwein in “Emily Dickinson and the Calvinist Sacramental Tradition” comments on Dickinson’s life-long concern about the issue of immortality and how she appropriated and converted Calvinist Sacramental symbol to convey her own unique vision: “She began with the symbol provided within her religious culture but refused to be limited by Congregational church practices or by Calvin’s insistence on following Christ’s few specific ordinances. Instead,
revitalized the concept of sacrament to include those imaginative processes by which the poet—recognizing occasions of grace in the natural world, within her own consciousness, and in her relationship with other people—demonstrated the multifarious ways in which spirit surcharges matter, thereby giving symbolic expression to her hope for immortality.” See Farr ed, Emily Dickinson, 104. Dickinson
’s critics, Richard B. Sewall in his award-winning biography of the poet gives many evidences to support his view that Sarmul Bowles is the “Master.” See his The Life of Emily Dickinson, 512-31. Dickinson
 In her reading of Poem 414, “’Twas like a Maelstorm, with a notch, / that nearer, every Day, / Kept narrowing its boiling Wheel,” Cynthia Griffin Wolff comments on the triumph of aesthetic transformation achieved by Emily Dickinson in the poems of this topos: “… the aesthetic structures of the poem serve a crucial moral function: they reiterate the progress of the travail in an orderly sequence that allows a reader to experience it safely—vicariously and coherently—without the full force of anxiety and chaos that the speaker was constrained to endure; and they give the clearest evidence of victory in their superbly controlled modulation away from despair toward power.” See her Emily Dickinson, 356.
 For an extended study of snow as a metaphor of “austerity” “associated with hunger aesthetics” in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, see Wendy Parker, Lunancy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor, 80-84.
 See Joan Burbick, “Emily Dickinson and Economics of Desire” in Farr ed, Emily Dickinson, 81-82. For the “gothic aesthetics” demonstrated in this poem, see Daneen Wardrop, Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge, 48-49.
 To support Farr’s reading, we may cite a letter to Susan about March 1865 (Letter 306) in which the image of two swimmers striving to survive the shipwreck recurs: “You must let me go first, Sue, because I live in the Sea always and know the Road. I would have drowned twice to save you sinking, dear. If I could only have covered your Eyes so you wouldn’t have seen the Water.”
16 For how the sudden introduction of the conditional “would” in the third stanza changes what seems a single action in the past into a hypothetical or a customary, repeated action—a sexual fantasy, see Christanne Miller, Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar, 74.
17 The same image is repeated in her letter to Ottis P. Lord dated 1878 (Letter 559):
smiles at me. I see his Face so often – but I have done with guises. I confess that I love him – I rejoice that I love him – I thank the maker of Heaven and Earth – that gave him me to love – the exultation floods me. I cannot find my channel – the Creek turns Sea – at thought of thee.” Salem
18 For example, the woman poet compares herself to her male lover’s “little spaniel” in Poem 236 and his parishioner in their “
” in Poem 322. On her humbleness, Judith Farr comments, “it implies depths of psychological and sexual servility that Sealed Church ’s attempts at humor only in part conceal.” See Judith Farr, The Passion of Emily Dickinson, 197. Dickinson
’s awareness of the dark side of marriage, see her well-known letter to Susan Gilbert on the subject of marriage and women about to marry: Dickinson
“How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden…but to the wife, Susie, sometimes the wife forgotten, our lives perhaps seem dearer than all others in the world; you have seen flowers at morning, satisfied with the dew, and those same sweet flowers at noon with their heads bowed in anguish before the might sun…they know that the man of noon, is mightier than the morning and their life is henceforth to him. Oh, Susie, it is dangerous, and it is all too dear, these simple trusting spirits, and the spirits mightier, which we cannot resist!” (Letter 210).
20 For a more detailed discussion of
Dickinson’s original speech about Nature and God formulated as a counter dialogue with Christian eschatology, consult Mary Loeffelholz’s analysis in the light of Lacanian psychoanalysis: “ ’s interrogation of religious language and Christology is one with her interrogation with the Law of the Father, of the family romance and woman’s possible places in it. The structure of this interrogation, for Dickinson , is almost always triangular—unlike Emerson, who desires the unmediated relationship with the all-in-all. Faced with the orthodox scheme of God the Father and Christ the Son, Dickinson time and again usurps the son’s place of mediator between human kind and the Father and asserts her own power in a separate romance with the Son. Her favorite setting for this drama is apocalyptic rather than natural: she speaks from an afterlife that is a scene of final judgment. She asserts the power of judgment and, relatedly, the power of her gaze—the two powers denied women in the cultural myth of sexual difference, as Freud magisterially codified it.” See Mary Loeffelholz, Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory, 57. Dickinson
21 When Higginson was selecting together with Mabel Loomis Todd, poems from fascicles for publication in 1891, he hesitated to include this one, for he wrote Mrs. Todd on 21 April 1891: “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. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.” Apparently, he read it in the context of heterosexual love. However, feminist critics might read it as sexual pleasure experienced in autoeroticism or sexual fantasy conducted in the form of homoeroticism. For autoerotic fantasy in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, see Paula Bennett, “’Pomegranate-Flower:’ The Phantasmic Productions of Late-Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Woman Poets” in Paula Bennett and Vernon A. Rosario ed., Solitary Pleasure: The Historical, Literary and Artistic Discourse of Autoeroticism, 198-200. In her book, Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, Bennett also cites Poem 249 as one of the examples to illustrate that most of Dickinson’s erotic poetry are written in a homoerotic mode (166). She comments, “Reading these poems as they blend into one another through repeated patterns of imagery, one can hardly help noticing that they are all written from an ambiguous point of view. They are about the joys of entering but who is doing the entering? Where does the speaker stand? With whom does she identify? Not only are the poems imbricated with layer upon layer of female sexual imagery – Eden, lips, bashful, sip, jessamine, faint, flower, round, chamber, nectar, balm, girdle, Paradise, yield, pearl, sea – but Dickinson focuses entirely on the delight these images project. The speaker’s awareness of the sheer physical enjoyment of female sexuality, symbolized by the idea of losing oneself in balms, is almost over-whelming” (167).
22 This poem appears in fascicle 33 together with “To my small Hearth His fire came” (Poem 638), “I cannot live with you” (Poem 640), and “I am ashamed – I hide / What right have I – to be a Bride” (Poem 473). Each of these poems describes forbidden love. In Judith Farr’s reading, fascicle 33 is a narrative of the Master, i.e., it tells the whole story of the poet’s tragic love for Samuel Bowles, from the male lover’s first assumption of sway over the speaker, interdiction, separation, to the final despair. As Farr reads it, the two lovers in Poem 474 are heterosexual lovers (Passion 495). My reading differs from hers, for at least one reason, the “Sea” in the first stanza is given a feminine pronoun “her.” Consistently in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, when sea connotes woman, most often the poem is about lesbian love. Of course, they are not a few cases that the same poem was sent with little variation both to Susan Gilbert and Samuel Bowles. If the gender of the beloved in Poem 474 remains ambiguous, it might be intend so.
23 For an extended study of the sun as the dowering and depriving power of male love, see Barker, Lunancy of Light, 51-73.
24 Cf. Rebecca Patterson’s remark, “the most sexually charged of Dickinson’s jewels is the pearl – and from at least as early as the girlhood days when she first began to think of writing poetry.” See her Emily Dickinson’s Imagery, 86.
25 From the perspective of a critic following Phenomenological approach, e.g., a follower of Gaston Bachelard, one may say that aided by the archetypal sea imagery, Dickinson achieves in these three short lyrics “the correspondence of word and world on the level of a primary rapport o f poetry with the liquid material source.” See Lois Oppenhelm, “The Oneiric Valorization of the Sea: Instances of Poetic Sensibility and the ‘ Non-Savoir’” in Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka ed., Poetics of the Elements in the Human Condition: The Sea, 217.