0004. Emily Dickinson's "On this wondrous sea"

Updated on October 22, 2017
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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.

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.

Emily Dickinson


Introduction and Text of Poem, "On this wondrous sea"

Emily Dickinson's fourth poem in Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson may be thought of as the beginning of her true style and content. The first three poems feature two Valentine messages (#1 and #3) and an invitation (#2) to her brother, Austin, to come and experience the new world she is creating with her poetry.

In contrast to the first three entries in Dickinson's complete poems, "On this wondrous sea" sets out on a journey of poetry creation that will involve her belovèd Creator, whom she will beseech and at times even argue with in her zeal to substantiate truth and beauty in her other "sky."

In a very real sense, the Dickinson speaker is performing a set of little dramas that resemble that of the speaker of the Shakespeare sonnets. The Shakespeare sonneteer was interested only in preserving truth, beauty, and love in his creations for future generations. In the course of those sonnets, especially the section known as "The Writer/Muse Sonnets," he expresses his desire repeatedly to present only truth, beauty, and love in his works, in contrast to the poetasteral slathering on of tinsel and meaningless blather.

The Dickinson speaker demonstrates the same proclivities, and it also becomes evident that she shows a keen ability to observe the tiniest detail in her environment. Yet, even as she focuses on those details, her vision never lowers from her mystic sight, and that is wherein she differs dramatically from the Shakespearean sonneteer. While he reveals his devout awareness of the mystical in his life, he remains a mere observer compared to the active mysticism of the Dickinson speaker.

Emily Dickinson's rare ability to communicate the ineffable has earned her a place in American letters that no other literary figure in the English language has been able to out pace.

On this wondrous sea

On this wondrous sea
Sailing silently,
Ho! Pilot, ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar —
Where the storm is o'er?

In the peaceful west
Many the sails at rest —
The anchors fast —
Thither I pilot thee
Land Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!

Reading of "On this wondrous sea"


First Stanza: "On this wondrous sea"

The speaker begins by creating a metaphor for the physical level of being, this wide world, in which she finds herself tempest tossed and uncertain of the way to safety. Calling this world a "wondrous sea," she reports that she is quietly sailing upon this ocean of chaos, then suddenly she cries out: "Ho! Pilot, ho!"—and then she demands of him to know if he knows where there is safety, where there are no trials and tribulations, where one can find rest from the many upheavals and battles that continually confront each inhabitant of this world.

The speaker wants to know if the Creator of this seemingly confusing Creation knows where she can go to come out of "the storm." As the "sea" is a metaphor for the world, the "Pilot" is the metaphor for the Creator (or God), Who directs and leads His children through this confusing place. As a pilot would steer a ship, God steers the ship of life, the ship of this world that only He has created. Thus the speaker appeals to God for an answer to her question, is there anywhere that can offer peace to the poor soul who must navigate the churning waters of this world?

Second Stanza: "In the peaceful west"

In the second stanza, the speaker shifts from the supplicant to the Blessed Creator, Who bestows on the questioner the answer to her question. The storm is over where peace reigns supreme. Metaphorically, the speaker chooses to locate the peaceful place in the "west," likely to rime it with "rest."

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

In that peaceful west, one can cease the constant struggle with the dualities of this world. One can feel secure with "anchors fast," unlike the constant heaving and tossing back and forth that the rough sea causes. The sails can be lowered and remain in that position because the journey has reached its destination.

The piloting Creator then assures His traveling, storm-tossed child that, in fact, He is taking her there as she speaks. The words, "Thither I pilot thee," must ring in the ears of this supplicant as a true balm of heaven, comforting her every nervous inclination; she knows that she is safe with this "Pilot," Who knows where to take her and is piloting her there now.

Then suddenly, the coveted land is in sight and the land is "Eternity." The speaker now knows she is being guided safely and surely through her life by the One, Who can take her "ashore" and keep her secure throughout eternity. Immortality is hers and peace will be her existence in this eternal resting place where the soul resides with the Divine Over-Soul.


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