Analysis of Poem Wild Nights by Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson and Wild Nights
Emily Dickinson's Wild Nights is a short poem that has captured people's imaginations over many decades. It focuses on rapture, ecstasy and loving passionate union - the main question being:
- Is the poem about latent sexual yearnings, or about a spiritual love experienced with God?
- Because of the poem's ambiguity and use of metaphor, the answer to the above question isn't straightforward. There are strong arguments for and against both propositions.
The following analysis will take an in depth look at each stanza and conclude with a number of possible interpretations.
Perhaps, in the end, it will be up to the reader to decide which interpretation suits them best.
Following Emily Dickinson's death in 1886, editing for publication of the hundreds of poems was undertaken by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, friend of the poet, and Mabel Loomis Todd, an acquaintance. Together they brought out the first books of Emily Dickinson's poems, in 1890 and 1891.
Higginson wrote to Todd about this particular poem:
'one poem I dread a little to print - that wonderful Wild Nights - lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there'
Clearly, Higginson thought the poem religious but was aware that others might take it the wrong way.
At the time the poem was written, in 1862 or thereabouts, restrictions on sexual expression would have been severe, especially within the Dickinson household, where father Edward and mother Emily kept tight reins on family affairs.
Emily Dickinson herself never had a fully established intimate relationship with another person. So it would be understandable for a young woman in her thirties with a rather shy and secretive nature to want to express her innermost self through her writings.
Wild Nights presents the reader with a great challenge. There's little doubting that the poet's use of certain words, which she must have known about, points towards the poem's theme being sexual in nature.
For example, the word luxury in Emily Dickinson's time meant gratification of the senses, sensual pleasure. The prominence of this word in the first stanza, coupled with full rhymes, suggests a leading role.
Yet are we deluding ourselves when we entertain notions of the shy poet and her sexual longings? Take note of this letter she wrote to her cousin Peter (Perez) Cowan, a former student at Amherst College and subsequently a Presbyterian pastor:
It grieves me that you speak of Death with so much expectation. I know there is no pang like that for those we love, nor any leisure like the one they leave so closed behind them, but Dying is a wild Night and a new Road.
I suppose we are all thinking of Immortality, at times so stimulated that we cannot sleep. Secrets are interesting, but they are also solemn - and speculate with all our might, we cannot ascertain.
Emily Dickinson was a deeply religious person yet not in a conventionally pious way. This extract does underline the fact that she felt death was not the end but a new beginning, a natural transition. And could this idea have been taken from her poem, which was written a few years earlier?
Wild Nights - Metaphors
The second and third stanzas of this poem contain metaphors - a Heart in port, a boat at sea - then moored - which could be interpreted as an emotional bonding, a physical coming together, that cannot be undone. Some understand this as meaning a sexual liaison (wild nights) contrasting with a relationship based on peace and security (the port, the mooring). The biblical allusion to Eden suggests that this could well be a religious metaphor for a new relationship with God.
Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
Analysis of Wild Nights - Stanza by Stanza
The opening line is a little bit outrageous, a repeated phrase, fully stressed, complete with exclamatory punctuation, giving the reader the idea that the speaker has experienced something extraordinarily profound.
This loud, excitable introduction is followed by a quieter second line that helps put things into perspective. The speaker seems to be merely proposing the idea that if she and some other could be together then....
....wild nights would certainly ensue. Note the plural. Not a single one night stand but envisaged nights, ongoing, indefinite. This third line further underlines the inevitability of such togetherness - should be - a probable deserved and shared experience.
But what of this experience during these wild nights? Everything hinges on the word luxury, which, in the context of this first stanza and the poet's life, points to a fulfilment of an intense desire. This could be sexual, this might be spiritual; it's more than likely linked to death, leaving behind all that is mundane, earthly, physical.
Some ambiguity has already crept into the interpretation as the speaker announces that the winds cannot be of any use. This is the first mention of an element, the first clue - the winds that blow, that cause change.
- Yet, the reader needs the second line to confirm that the setting for this little drama is the sea. Before the word port arrives there is no clear indication for the setting.
- Before the word Heart appears the reader has little idea that this poem is about love and the intimate feelings attached. Or is that Love and religious feelings attached?
The third and fourth lines reinforce the idea that the journey (already made or to be made) is of no consequence - reason and direction mean nothing.
This is the challenge - either the speaker cannot reach their intended goal because they're held fast in the port, so the winds are useless, as is guidance and rationality symbolised by compass and chart.
The speaker is with her lover or her God or she has lost the opportunity in real life and can now only dream of being united.
Eden is the biblical garden where Adam and Eve first lived and here is the speaker in a boat, rowing across an imagined sea. Rowing is an obvious sensual action, a rhythmical movement that many have construed as sexual.
And the sea can be understood to mean the passion or emotion, the element we all return to.
The third line brings home the idea of immediacy - tonight - and wishful thinking - Might I - related to the verb moor, which means to fasten (a boat) on to, as with a rope to land.
The speaker is enthusiastically looking forward to this time, that much is obvious. A time when love and fulfilment will be attained, when body and spirit are one, achieved through human intimacy and bonding, or through a spiritual act that leads to God.
Further Analysis of Wild Nights - Rhyme and Rhythm
Wild Nights is a short 3 stanza poem with that typical Emily Dickinson look about it - odd syntax, with dashes punctuating lines as well as ending lines and enjambment plus plenty of exclamation marks/points.
There is an inconsistent rhyme scheme based around abcb - the second and fourth lines being full rhyme (thee/luxury, sea/thee) except in the second stanza where it is near rhyme (port/chart).
Note the first stanza has the last three lines all full rhyming which adds to the idea of union and bonding.
Meter (Metre in British English)
This poem is written in dimeter, two feet on average per line, but the type of foot alters a bit from stanza to stanza, strengthening the notion that the speaker is in a boat, rowing, yet the experiences are slightly different as the poem progresses.
For example, the first line is full on stressed:
Wild nights - / Wild nights! (2 spondees)
whilst other lines have a mix of iamb and trochee:
Futile - / the winds - (trochee + iamb)
or trochee and iamb with extra beat:
Rowing / in E / den (trochee + iamb + extra)
The most striking aspect of the rhythm is the stress on the first and last syllable of several lines, which is the underlying rhythm and gives the feel of the physicality either of the waves or the human actions.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP,2005
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
© 2018 Andrew Spacey