The first law of American literature: Somewhere, somehow, in God only knows what language, you are always going to come across one more, intriguing—if not indeed great—Emily Dickinson poem. A poem that you have previously overlooked, or not even heard of. And yet, there it is, ready to reward your attention.
A rider: The poem might be about sex. Not sex like Henry Miller with his beloved Germaine du Café de l’Éléphant, soaping herself at the bidet and “murmuring all the while in that hoarse, cracked voice of hers that it was good, beautiful, a treasure, a little treasure.” But for heady sexiness we’re not going to improve on
in the Isles of Spice —
The subtle Cargoes — lie —
I sit down to lunch at la Fondación Miró in Barcelona, a menu is brought. It includes snippets of poetry, including “Me desperté temprano saqué al perro”. English reverse translation: “I started Early — Took my Dog,” a Dickinson poem I had previously ignored.
May it not seem too vulgar or pretentious if my first comment in some connection to the poem is that, in addition to mon trésor, Germaine might have called her sex “ma chatte”—her Cat. And, shifting to biographical data and from sex to love, from petting to pets, I note that, in a letter to an older man who she at least admired and who had gone to England a few months earlier, Dickinson once wrote:
it is a suffering, to have a sea—no care how Blue—between your Soul, and you. The Hills you used to love when you were in Northampton, miss their old lover, could they speak—and the puzzled look—deepens in Carlo’s [her dog’s] forehead, as Days go by, and you never come.
It has been generally assumed, by the way, that—an unmarried woman in nineteenth-century western Massachusetts—Dickinson had little direct acquaintance either with sex or with the sea. Among other things, this may be to say that we do not understand what “direct acquaintance” could mean or involve. (And recent decades have brought increased speculations about a possible sex life. Or did she simply overhear her brother and his lover, who used her study for their adulterous trysts?)
In any case, in the poem the narrator starts early to go visit the sea. An early tipoff that this is no ordinary sea: “The Mermaids in the Basement” surface to check this woman out. She is mistaken for a mouse.
Indeed Dickinson may be thought to have had a murine appearance and demeanor. Except that she didn’t quite. Writing to another older man, she noted that, though she was “small, like the Wren,” her hair was “bold, like the Chestnut Bur — and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.” A contemporary, a friend of the Dickinson family, left a memory of Emily “often at the piano playing weird & beautiful melodies”.
In the poem with her dog,
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 sea, of course, is traditionally a she, and keep in mind, too, how, when Cinderella sought to land a prince, she did not leave a glove or hat. She left a shoe.
In Dickinson’s poem, the sea “He would eat me up . . .
And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –
There’s a stunning image: “Then My Shoes / Would overflow with Pearl.” We can see the little bubbly tongues of waves racing up a shore toward our feet. And, along with another commentator on the poem, we may also feel “the possibility of consummation here”.
However, by the next stanza, the Man and wild desire have reached the “Solid Town,” to which they are strangers. And my menu snippet concluded:
y con reverencia
y una mirada intensa que
me dirigió, el Mar se retiro . . .
Bowing—and with a sigh, let’s say—“The Sea withdrew — ”
The stew, la blanquette de veau, to which els barcelonins add raisins, was almost equally delicious.
— Wm. Eaton
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo and a writer of essays and dialogues. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, was recently published by Serving House Books. See Surviving the website..
♦ Top Image is of une blanquette de veau, from a French website which includes a recipe advertised as “inratable” (fail proof). A recipe with raisins, and also in French, and seeming different from la Fondación Miró version, is available here. Image at right is a “purple Regency bonnet,” snatched off Google Images.
♦ Click for a copy of the poem, “I started Early – Took my Dog (Emily Dickinson).” In addition, Poetry Everywhere (a production of WGBH, David Grubin Productions, the Poetry Foundation, and Garrison Keillor) has produced a video animation of the poem. The animation is directed by Maureen Selwood, over a reading of the poem by Blair Brown. See what you think of it.
♦ The line about Germaine is from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
♦ Dickinson’s “subtle Cargoes” appear in her great poem about a libidinous marriage, which begins “I gave Myself to Him — ”. The Cargoes are in the middle. The ending couplet:
Sweet Debt of Life — Each Night to owe —
Insolvent — every Noon —
In Translating Dickinson, I discuss a French translation of this poem, by Françoise Delphy, which appears in Poésies complètes : Edition bilingue français-anglais (Flammarion, 2009). The French ends with not quite the same rhythm or feeling as the English, but beautifully in its own right:
Douce Dette de la Vie – redevable chaque Nuit –
En Faillite – tous les Midis –
Sweet Debt of Life — coming due by Night —
Bankrupt in the Light —
♦ The letter that mentions Carlo, Dickinson’s dog, was sent in August, 1862, to Samuel Bowles III (1826-1878), a prominent American journalist and political activist, the publisher and editor of the Springfield Republican, and a friend of the Dickinson family. The novelist and editor William Dean Howells wrote in one of the first reviews of Dickinson’s (posthumously published) poetry: “if nothing else had come out of our life but this strange poetry we should feel that in the work of Emily Dickinson, America, or New England rather, had made a distinctive addition to the literature of the world”. In fact, even if we did not have the poems, but only Dickinson’s letters, . . . These alone are among our richest gifts. Along with many other fractions of this whole, the letters from Dickinson to Bowles may be found online. I quote again from the same letter:
when the Days are a little short by the clock — and a little long by the want — when the sky has new Red Gowns — and a Purple Bonnet — then we say, you will come — I am glad that kind of time, goes by.
♦ The description “small, like the Wren . . . ” is from a July, 1862, letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, July 1862.
♦ The Emily at the piano memory is from one Catherine Scott Turner, reminiscing decades later about visits to the house of Emily’s brother, Austin:
Those celestial evenings in the Library—the blazing wood fire—Emily—Austin,—the music—the rampant fun—the inextinguishable laughter, the uproarious spirits of our chosen—our most congenial circle. . . . Emily with her dog, & Lantern! often at the piano playing weird & beautiful melodies, all from her own inspiration, oh! she was a choice spirit.
Reminiscence as quoted in Alfred Habegger, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (Random House, 2001). Note that this reminiscence is of a person who has, after her death, become a famous writer.
♦ “The possibility of consummation” appears in a Poetry Foundation “learning guide” post by the poet Robin Ekiss: Emily Dickinson: “I Started Early — Took my Dog —”; The poet puts her vast imagination on display at the beach.
Click for pdf