Emily Dickinson's "On this wondrous sea"

Updated on April 16, 2018
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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.

Emily Dickinson

Source

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"

Emily Dickinson

Source

Commentary

First Stanza: A Sea Metaphor

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

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: Ceasing the Constant Struggle

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

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 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.")

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.

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.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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