This video segment from Poetry Everywhere uses animation to illustrate Emily Dickinson's poem "I started Early—Took my Dog." In writing about the changing nature of the sea, Dickinson's poem explores themes of adventure, escape, and the depths of the self.
Read "I started Early—Took my Dog" at the Poetry Foundation.
Many poets and authors have written about going to sea—Whitman, Melville, Baudelaire, Rimbaud… a list that goes at least all the way back to Homer—for the sea lets the poet talk about adventure, escape, vastness, even the infinite depths of the self or the unconscious. In her poem about the sea, which talks about all of these things, Emily Dickinson uses the ballad form. Constructed in four-line stanzas with strong rhythms, repetitions, and rhymes (usually on the second and fourth lines), ballads have strong associations with oral poetry and storytelling.
In her first stanza—the first brief scene of her story—Dickinson's speaker transforms the sea into a house. As if paying a social call, she is greeted at the shore by mermaids and frigates (square-rigged ships of the 18th and early 19th centuries); the frigates hold out "Hempen Hands" (their sails and ropes) to her as though she were a shipwrecked "Mouse" that they could rescue. The sea seems a magical place, and the poem like a nursery rhyme, filled with friendly, unthreatening creatures with no other people in sight.
In the third stanza, however, the mood shifts. Just as the speaker notes that "no Man moved Me," the tide rises above her shoes, apron, belt, and bodice, becoming a "He," a man, who threatens to "eat me up." "And then—I started—too," the speaker says, repeating a crucial verb from the poem's first stanza. In the poem's first line it implies "starting a journey"; repeated here, you see the speaker more as someone "starting with fright."
The speaker who calmly "visited" the sea at the start of the poem now flees from it, with the sea (still a "He") running "close behind." Literally, we can picture her running from the incoming tide as the water laps at her feet; figuratively, the sea seems about to join with and consume her, its (or his) "Heel" touching her "Ankle." She pauses to imagine the two of them as one: "Then my Shoes/ Would overflow with Pearl," she muses, shifting from the past to a conditional tense and suggesting that, in her imagination, some bounty of beauty would result. The use of the pronoun "we" in the final stanza reiterates that they are indeed united for a moment, and, again, that the experience in this uncertain, fantastical world of the shore isn't entirely unpleasant. As the two reach the "Solid Town," though, they become separate selves. Our final sight of the sea is as a "bowing" gentleman whose "Mighty look/ At me" (a lower case "me" that contrasts with the capitalized "Me" in the third stanza), leaves her feeling a tangible sense of loss.
Read a biography of the poet Emily Dickinson at the Poetry Foundation.
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