1. How does looking at the ocean make you feel—overwhelmed and insignificant, or part of something larger and full of possibility? Write a poem exploring those feelings.
2. In her poem, Dickinson uses a house as a metaphor to describe the sea (with “Mermaids in the Basement” and ships in the attic). Write a poem in which you use a different metaphor to describe an encounter with nature.
3. Try your hand at a ballad. The form uses four-line stanzas and words that rhyme at the ends of every second and fourth line. For other examples, see:
“The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall
“The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” by Gwendolyn Brooks
1. What is the speaker’s attitude toward the sea in the poem? Does it change? Which words or images suggest a shift in her thinking?
2. Dickinson’s poem loosely adapts the ballad form. Like a song, it uses rhythm, rhyme, and repetition to tell its story. What effect do the rhymes (and later on in the poem, the slant rhymes) have on the story she tells here?
3. How does Dickinson’s use of dashes and capitalization help to create a sense of suspense in the sea’s growing danger?
4. What makes the sea, which seems to threaten to drown the speaker, recede at the poem’s end?
1. Give students several minutes to generate at least three interpretive questions about the imagery of the poem. They might ask, for example, Why did the speaker take a dog? Why are there mermaids in a ‘basement’ of the sea? Assure them that any question is fair game. Debrief in a large group, having students share their questions and possible answers.
2. Have students explore the poem’s rhythm by clapping along. Simply begin with a group reading of the poem, asking students to read the first stanza or two in unison two or three times. As they read, ask them to begin clapping to the rhythm. After modeling this process, have students explore the connection between changes in rhythm, rhyme, image, and idea, have students discuss how the meaning of the poem, as it is shaped by these formal elements.
3. Show students the animation of Dickinson’s poem and discuss the animator’s choices. How do these choices affirm or challenge student ideas about the poem’s meaning?
Related Poem Content Details
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.
Related Poem Content Details
Emily Dickinson is one of America’s greatest and most original poets of all time. She took definition as her province and challenged the existing definitions of poetry and the poet’s work. Like writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, she experimented with expression in order to free it from conventional restraints. Like writers such as Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she crafted a new type of persona for the first person. The speakers in Dickinson’s poetry, like those in Brontë’s and Browning’s works, are sharp-sighted observers who see the inescapable limitations of their societies as well as their imagined and imaginable escapes. To make the abstract tangible, to define meaning without confining it, to inhabit a house that never became a prison, Dickinson created in her writing a distinctively elliptical language for expressing what was possible but not yet realized. Like the Concord Transcendentalists whose...
Poems By Emily Dickinson
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