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Emily Dickinson's "Adrift! A little boat adrift!"

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

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Introduction and Text of “Adrift! A little boat adrift!”

Emily Dickinson enjoyed the riddle essence of poetry. She often employed that riddle essence by implying or directly asking a question. Other times, she simply offered her a rather detailed description and allowed the reader to arrive at their answer.

In this little drama, she elides the physical universe with the spiritual universe, metaphorically comparing the human being to a “little boat” floating without a guide on the sea of life. She deliberately sinks that boat before resurrecting that drowned life through the agency of the human soul, which cannot be drowned but which possesses all the power of its creator to demolish all human suffering.

Adrift! A little boat adrift!

Adrift! A little boat adrift!
And night is coming down!
Will no one guide a little boat
Unto the nearest town?

So Sailors say – on yesterday –
Just as the dusk was brown
One little boat gave up its strife
And gurgled down and down.

So angels say – on yesterday –
Just as the dawn was red
One little boat – o'erspent with gales –
Retrimmed its masts – redecked its sails –
And shot – exultant on!

The Poem Rendered in Song

Commentary

This little drama offers a useful example of Dickinson’s most intense style, featuring her use of the riddle and her mystic appraisal of the human mind and heart, influenced by the human soul, whose guidance may seem rudderless until that guidance becomes crucial.

First Stanza: Report of Danger

Adrift! A little boat adrift!
And night is coming down!
Will no one guide a little boat
Unto the nearest town?

The speaker begins with an exclamation revealing that danger is on the horizon in the form of a small watercraft floating about unguided by a knowing pilot. Such a situation alerts the reader/listener that all sorts of calamity could ensue. To make matters worse, nightfall is fast approaching. An unguided vessel drifting into the nighttime brings down a veil of fright and concern. Again the speaker is exclaiming, for again she places the exclamation point at the end of her brief outcry!

The speaker then cries for assistance for the little drifting sea-craft, but instead of a command, she frames the cry as a question with a negative emphasis, “[w]ill no one . . . ?” She demonstrates that she suspects there is no one who will chaperone and usher this little vessel to a safe harbor, such as to “the nearest town.”

The painful negativity suggested by the speaker early on in her little drama foreshadows the ultimate outcome in her conclusion. She alerts her listeners that a likely catastrophe is on the horizon. But truly alert readers/listeners will suspend judgment until the conclusion is revealed, for Emily Dickinson can be as tricky as any poet writing. She can out-trick Robert Frost by miles and miles.

Second Stanza: Disaster

So Sailors say – on yesterday –
Just as the dusk was brown
One little boat gave up its strife
And gurgled down and down.

The speaker continues her report of the disastrous fate of this “little boat.” It has been reported by “Sailors,” those who would know, that this little sea vessel that so valiantly struggled nevertheless gave up the ghost and let the sea take it down into its depths.

The time of this sinking was dusk when the color of sunset spread its brown, saddening haze upon the land and sea. The sailors have reported that the vessel simply “gave up” because it could not overcome its “strife.” It gave up its life, its cargo, and all that was precious within it. It gave up and then went down with gurgling sounds—the sound of a living throat taking on water that will drown it.

The speaker creates a scenario of pain and suffering that can only be assuaged with extraordinary finesse. The sinking of a little boat remains a sorrowful image, and the speaker sears that painful image into the inner sight of her listeners/readers. She has dramatized the events surrounding that image in such a way as to heighten the pain and anguish experienced by her audience.

Third Stanza: Safety at Last

So angels say – on yesterday –
Just as the dawn was red
One little boat – o'erspent with gales –
Retrimmed its masts – redecked its sails –
And shot – exultant on!

Finally, the speaker quickly pulls the readers'/listeners' minds from the earthly tragedy on the physical level of existence on which the sinking of a sea-craft causes pain and suffering. Despite what the “Sailors” have reported, there is another report by higher beings that will impart a different engagement—a different outcome of this earthly event.

Now, the report is brought by “angels.” The higher, mystical beings are reporting that this event happened the same day as the earthly report “yesterday.” But the time was early morning when “dawn was red,” setting up a dichotomy from yesterday when “dusk was brown.”

Instead of merely going down “gurgl[ing],” this little vessel, when faced with ferocious “gales,” fought valiantly—it transformed itself by reshaping it “masts” and reinstalling stronger and better sea-worthy “sails.” And after it did that, it sped past all earthy danger and triumphantly entered into the realm of mystic life (Christians call it “Heaven”) where no water can drown, no storm can toss, and no pain and suffering can stifle.

Paradox and Metaphor

Upon first encounter, the reader will detect what seems to be a contradiction or impossibility because of a reversal of two time periods. In the second stanza, it is reported that the little boat sank yesterday at “dusk.” But then in the third stanza, it is reported that the little boat encountered its difficulty yesterday at “dawn.”

The resolution of this paradox is accomplished through the realization that on the spiritual, mystical level of being, time remains eminently malleable. At the time the “little boat” experienced it difficulty, it realized its immortal, eternal aspect—that it is, in fact, a spark of the Eternal, and therefore, nothing can harm it. It realized that stature at dawn, thus by the time dusk had arrived to take its physical form, its mystic/spiritual form—or soul—had moved on.

This poem may be considered one of Emily Dickinson’s riddle poems. Although it does not seem to call for answering a riddle question, readers cannot fail to grasp that the “little boat” is a metaphor for a human being. This metaphor becomes obvious, however, only after the angels offer their report. The “little boat” then is revealed to possess the human ability of realization of its power, its mystical spark, and its ability to transcend earthly trials and tribulations.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on June 16, 2020:

Thank you, Lorna! I love writing about Emily Dickinson's poems. They always hold wonderful surprises, which she puts on display in her magical, minimalism. She can say more in one line than most poets can muster in volumes. Just an exceptional talent with amazing insight into life, love, and truth.

Lorna Lamon on June 16, 2020:

A wonderful and inspirational poet who saw beyond the curtain. I enjoyed reading this insightful article Linda.

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