Emily Dickinson: “I Started Early — Took my Dog —”
Many poets have written about the sea: Whitman, Baudelaire, Rimbaud . . . a list that goes all the way back to Homer. For some people and poets, the ocean represents adventure and escape. For others, its vastness suggests the infinite depths of the self or the unconscious, even danger, which also lurks beneath the waves. For Emily Dickinson (who’d never actually seen the ocean), its unfathomable beauty represented many of these things and more. In her poem, “I started Early — Took my Dog,” we can fully experience the ocean’s power over the poet’s imagination.
Though unpublished—and largely unknown—in her lifetime, Dickinson is now considered one of the great American poets of the 19th century. She spent most of her adult life at home in Amherst, Massachusetts, but her reclusive tendencies didn’t stop her from roaming far and wide in her mind.
Like most of Dickinson’s work, this poem relies heavily on the hymn and ballad forms. As a churchgoer, Dickinson was very familiar with hymns, whose rigid rhyme and syllable structure create a melody that’s recognizable in many of her poems, which can be sung to familiar hymn tunes, such as “Amazing Grace.” Because of its religious association, the hymn form brings a certain spiritual gravity to Dickinson’s work, lending her poems about everyday experience a kind of religious reverence.
Dickinson also relied on the ballad in structuring her poems. Composed of four-line stanzas with strong rhythms, repetitions, and rhymes (usually on the second and fourth lines), ballads were traditionally a form of storytelling set to music. When Dickinson’s lines are read out loud, it’s easy to see (and hear) how they create their own song that tells a story.
That story begins with the simple-enough task of taking a dog for a walk on the beach:
I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
But this early-morning stroll is anything but ordinary. Though Dickinson, indeed, was known to walk her dog, Carlo, on the grounds of her house, they never ventured as far as the ocean. Having never seen it, Dickinson must imagine the sea, and she transforms it through metaphor into something much more familiar to her: a house, complete with a “Basement” and an attic (“the Upper Floor”).
As if paying a social call, she’s greeted not at the door, but at the shore—by mermaids and frigates (square-rigged ships of the 18th and early 19th centuries), which hold out their “Hempen Hands” (their ropes) to her as though she were a shipwrecked mouse scurrying between the ship’s deck and the dock, with the possibility of escape:
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 –
In Dickinson’s imagination, the sea becomes a magical place, and the poem, filled with friendly, unthreatening creatures, is like a nursery rhyme. That comforting sense of simplicity is heightened by her unique syntax and punctuation, filled with dashes and unusual capitalization. Each dash demands that we pause for a moment between the capitalized words, emphasizing the rhythmic and lyrical qualities of the poem. Much as the full “stops” of a telegram charge every subsequent line, Dickinson’s dashes slow us down and make every inventive detail and carefully chosen image seem all the more deliberate. The effect lulls us, as waves do, and also forces us to feel the drama of the poem’s language.
But all is not as it seems. In the third stanza, we see a literal turning of the tide. The waves begin to take on a menacing tone:
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 –
The advancing water threatens to drown the speaker as it rises dramatically, phrase by phrase, past her chest. Taking on the characteristics of a man, the ocean becomes volatile and voracious, threatening to devour her:
And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
“And then—I started—too,” the speaker says, repeating a crucial verb from the poem’s first stanza. In the poem’s first line, “started” implies “starting a journey.” Repeated here, it suggests she is “startled” by fright, retreating as the tide continues to pursue her:
And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –
The speaker who so calmly “visited” the sea with her canine companion at the start of the poem now flees from it, with the sea (still a “He”) running “close behind,” lapping at her feet. As though he is trying to consume her, his “Silver Heel” touches her ankle. She pauses to imagine what might happen if they truly become one: “Then my Shoes / Would overflow with Pearl” (the ocean’s bubbly, white-washed surf). Though she’s obviously threatened by the possibility of consummation here, there’s beauty in it, too: the way pearls are beautiful, once they’ve been released from their shells.
But her dream of being subsumed by the sea is interrupted by the inescapable reality of the town, a place so “solid” that her imagined Poseidon must concede (and recede) back to his ocean floor:
Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –
The use of the pronoun “we” in this final stanza reiterates that the speaker and the sea are indeed united for a moment, and then separated at last. Our final sight of the sea is as a “bowing” gentleman whose “Mighty look / At me” (a lowercase “me” that contrasts with the capitalized “Me” in the third stanza) leaves her feeling a tangible sense of loss.
Invited, awed, and ultimately cowed by her imagined experience, Dickinson’s speaker undergoes a true sea change in her perception. For someone who could only imagine it, the ocean, which on the surface may seem serene, comes to represent something decidedly more sinister. Dickinson’s vision portrays the sea as a place that’s both welcoming and wary, as the imagination itself can be for many writers and readers.
Robin Ekiss is the author of the poetry collection The Mansion of Happiness (2009), which won the Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize and was a finalist for the Balcones Poetry Prize, the Northern California Book Award, and the Commonwealth Club’s California Book Award. A resident of San Francisco, she received a 2007 Rona...