I Started Early - Took my Dog -, Emily Dickinson
FULL POEM - SCROLL DOWN FOR LINE-BY-LINE ANALYSIS
I started Early – Took my Dog –
The poem, like many of Dickinson’s work, is written in the first person to form a dramatic monologue, creating a connection between the reader and the speaker and an insight into the psychology of the latter.
And visited the Sea –
The first two lines taken literally appear quite dull and unremarkable; quite a disparity from much of Dickinson’s other poetry which often features dark and/or supernatural imagery.
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
If the first two lines of the poem were unremarkable then this use of imagery is the opposite! The speaker describes the ‘Sea’ as having a ‘Basement’, transforming the sea into a metaphor for a building or house. The ‘Mermaids’ are a mystical, supernatural symbol with a combination of sexual but also sinister associations in other art forms. Those that ‘came out to look at’ the speaker, however, seem calm and peaceful. The ‘Basement’ adds to the sense of mystery surrounding the ‘Mermaids’ as it is often the least visited, most neglected room in a household and, due to its position underground, is devoid of any natural light.
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
A ‘Frigate’ is a type of warship which the speaker describes to be on the ‘Upper Floor’ of the metaphorical house (the surface of the sea). It’s a literal image that connotes danger and conflict, juxtaposing with the seemingly peaceful supernatural ‘Mermaids’. This has the effect of emphasising the disparity between literal and metaphorical entities in the mind of the speaker – implying her psychological instability.
Extended Hempen Hands –
The sea is personified as reaching out with ‘Hempen (or roped) Hands’ towards the speaker, inviting, luring her into its grasp. It’s the first instance in the poem where the sea can be interpreted as a metaphor for masculinity – with the man attempting to entice the female speaker towards him, perhaps for sex.
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –
The sea (representing a man metaphorically) presumes her ‘to be a Mouse’, small and insignificant compared to the vastness of the sea. In a metaphorical sense, the man believes she can be easily overcome (similar to how the sea would overcome and drown a mouse) and enticed towards him. This a sexist view, referencing the patriarchy present in 19th Century American society.
But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
‘No Man moved Me’ is a reference to the speaker’s virginity – having never previously experienced the embrace of a man in such a way. The sea is personified as a man, with the incoming ‘Tide’ (capitalised to represent its humanity) advancing on her like male hands.
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –
The incoming ‘Tide’ moving past her ‘Shoe(s)’, ‘Apron’, ‘Belt’ and ‘Boddice’ (an old-fashioned article of women’s clothing that covers the body from the neck to the waist) is a metaphor for the man’s hands gradually reaching and removing parts of her clothing. The caesura of the dashes perhaps represents shortness of breath, due to the excitement and adrenaline prior to sex.
And made as He would eat me up –
The personified sea approaches her at such a rate, engulfing her, or eating her up in the words of the speaker – an image with pronounced sexual undertones.
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
The simile ‘as wholly as a Dew Opon A Dandelion’s Sleeve’ emphasises the extent to which the sea, a man in a metaphorical sense, is surrounding her, in quite an overwhelming manner. The image of the dew covering the dandelion, however, is a natural, rather delicate, tranquil image implying that she is welcoming of it.
And then – I started – too –
The speaker then goes on to say that she was not only receptive of this male attention but reciprocated it. Her feelings shift from being willing to lose her virginity with the man that the sea personifies, to proactively seeking it.
And He – He followed – close behind –
The sea following her closely behind is a metaphor for the man being captivated by the speaker joining in their sexual relations. He takes pride and pleasure from her actions, becoming more enthralled by her as a result.
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –
‘His Silver Heel’ and ‘Pearl’ are metaphors for sea foam (foam which is formed by the breaking waves). These beautiful, elegant and expensive images signify the pleasure that she takes from their intimacy. She experiences this pleasure throughout her entire being – all the way down to her feet.
Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
Their sexual encounter appears to have climaxed, with the speaker retreating towards ‘the Solid Town’ and, with it, transitioning from the mystical environment described in the rest of the poem to the real world. Here, no one seems to know the man – implying that his existence is solely metaphorical and confined to her imagination.
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –
As the speaker returns to the real world, her and the man that the sea personifies must part ways and the sea must withdraw. The situation is akin to a one-night stand – although the speaker is keen to explain that the man’s conduct is gentlemanly towards her, ‘bowing’ as he leaves.