Emily Dickinson's "My wheel is in the dark!"

Updated on January 26, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "My wheel is in the dark!"

Despite the grammatical error in the last line of this poem, the speaker's revelation shines through clearly and offers a unique perspective about the nature of understanding and explaining the ineffable.

My wheel is in the dark!

My wheel is in the dark!
I cannot see a spoke
Yet know its dripping feet
Go round and round.

My foot in on the Tide!
An unfrequented road —
Yet have all roads
A clearing in the end —

Some have resigned the Loom —
Some in the busy tomb
Find a quaint employ —

Some with new — stately feet —
Pass royal through the gate —
Flinging the problem back
At you and I!

Commentary

First Stanza: Vision by Implication

My wheel is in the dark!
I cannot see a spoke
Yet know its dripping feet
Go round and round.

The speaker reports that she is capable of knowing that the spoke on a wheel moves in a circular motion as it drips water even though there is no light on the wheel. She is revealing that she, as all human beings are, is able to infer information without direct sense perception that might otherwise reveal such knowledge.

Human beings prefer to rely on what they can "see" or "hear." But sometimes seeing and hearing are not possible. For example, human beings are convinced that love and hate both exist, even though they cannot see the concepts to which those nouns refer.

The ultimate argument ensues from the issue of whether God exists. Some will argue that because he cannot "see" God, then God must not exist. The argument runs further as the atheist insists that he also cannot hear, feel, taste, or touch God—and what cannot be experienced through the senses, therefore, does not exist.

The speaker in "My wheel is in the dark!" thus counters such an argument by demonstrating that not only is metaphysical knowledge based on intuition and inference but also simple knowledge about things like wet wheels that go round and round in the dark.

Second Stanza: An Uncharted Path

My foot in on the Tide!
An unfrequented road —
Yet have all roads
A clearing in the end —

The speaker continues with her comparison stating that she is walking an uncharted path, but she knows, again by intuition and inference, that this road will eventually lead to "a clearing." Despite the danger, such as would be experienced by having one's foot "on the Tide," the speaker can with fairly great certainty be assured that all the danger and complexity of the road she walks will end, and all will be understandable when she moves into that landscape which features clarity.

The speaker places that clarity at the end, which is at the end of her life, a time at which she will come to the end of the path and enter the "clearing." Her "unfrequented road" is unique as is each road each soul must frequent as it passes through life on the physical level of being.

Third Stanza t: Resigning the Loom

Some have resigned the Loom —
Some in the busy tomb
Find a quaint employ —

The speaker now reports that others have left this world. She indicates that departure by referring to their occupation while alive. She colorfully claims that some of the folks who have died simply "resigned the Loom." But she does not offer catalogue or list of what resigners have resigned. By mentioning one earthly occupation only, she implies that that "Loom," not only refers to the occupation of weaving, but also to the fabric that exists as life itself.

Thus those "some" that have "resigned" from the fabric of life find a different way to engage their time and effort "in the busy tomb"; she claims that they "find a quaint employ." The speaker is reporting that she intuits that after death the soul will continue its engagements, even though its engagements after leaving the physical encasement will be different. They nevertheless will be "quaint," an obviously optimistic claim.

Fourth Stanza: Remaining Mum in the Afterlife

Some with new — stately feet —
Pass royal through the gate —
Flinging the problem back
At you and I!

Those souls who will remain busy with quaint engagements however are not the only class of souls that the speaker intuits. In addition to those who engage in the those quaint pursuits, there are those who will become similar to royalty. They will possess "stately feet," and the enter the kingdom of heaven on those stately feet.

The speaker then returns to the world, but without any definitive answer about what the real differences are between life and afterlife. When those of the royal, stately feet pass through that gate into paradise, they will not reveal their new experiences, they will simply be "flinging the problem" into the faces of the those left watching for wheels in the dark and walking on the Tide.

Only those who have actually passed through that heavenly gate will understand what that experience offers. Thus, we—"you and I"—will continue to speculate about that experience, as the speaker has done in this poem and the many more that are to come.

Dickinson and Grammar

As Dickinson's readers soon discover, the poet often misspelled words and left her grammatical constructions a little cockeyed. Thomas H. Johnson, the editor of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, who restored her poems to their near originals, has revealed that he did correct some misspellings. And it remains unclear why he left the inaccurate grammatical construction, "At you and I!"

Of course, the correct pronoun form in that prepositional phrase is "me" instead of "I"—the objective case is required after a preposition. A reason for leaving such an error could be to complete a rime scheme, but that is not the case with this. As a matter of fact, by inserting "me" instead of "I," a partial rime would be achieved: "feet" would become a partial rime with "me."

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Nevertheless, this problem remains a slight one. No meaning is lost despite the grammatical error. Such errors may interfere with the total enjoyment of a poem, but we need not fuss about them unless they interfere with understanding. Luckily, this error does not confound meaning, and comprehension of the poem remains clear and unobstructed.

Dickinson's Titles


Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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