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 – With Thee!
“Wild Nights” can be interpreted several different ways, but the most obvious interpretation is that the poem expresses love, passion, and sexual desire. The opening stanza certainly gives the modern reader the image of a passionate encounter between two lovers. The second and third stanzas are far more obscure, creating a metaphor for the ardent experience with ocean images and nautical terms. Emily Dickinson was masterful at being able to describe life’s mysteries in imaginative ways with an economy of words.
While Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of Dickinson’s mentors, was preparing the first edition of her poems in 1890, he wrote to Mabel Loomis Todd, the co-editor: “One poem only I dread a little to print — that wonder ‘Wild Nights,’ — lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. . . . Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.”
The use of the word “luxury” in the first stanza probably refers to an old use of the word, meaning lust and gratification. The phrase “heart in port” in the second stanza can be interpreted as a lover’s embrace. The marine terms used in each line of the second stanza create the nautical metaphor. They also create the feeling that control has been given up.
The third stanza completes the amorous, watery imagery. “Rowing in Eden” and “moor . . . in thee” can be interpreted as sexual passion. “Ah! The sea!”
Each stanza of the poem is a short quatrain, four lines. Each line has a dimetric rhythm, meaning that there are two poetic feet in each line. Most lines have iambic feet, such as in the first stanza. Each line in the first stanza has two groups of two syllables with the second syllable of each group being accented. In the second and third stanzas there is less regularity. Several lines start with a trochee, a two syllable group with the first syllable being accented. The line, “To a heart in port,” begins with a three syllable group, called an anapest. Despite the several irregularities, the poem flows smoothly and is easily recited.
The rhyme scheme in “Wild Nights” is typical of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. In each stanza the second and fourth lines rhyme, though in the second stanza the rhyme is a good example of a near rhyme.
Characteristics of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry
Emily Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, gathered Emily’s poems and had them published in 1890. Editors changed some of her words, punctuations, and capitalizations to make them conform to a certain standard. Later editions restored Dickinson’s unique style and organized them in a roughly chronological order.
Emily Dickinson’s poems have many identifiable features. Her poems have been memorized, enjoyed, and discussed since their first publication. Many critics consider her to have been extraordinarily gifted in her abilities to create concise, meaningful, and memorable poems.
The major themes in her poetry include Friends, Nature, Love, and Death. Not surprisingly, she also refers to flowers often in her poems. Many of her poems’ allusions come from her education in the Bible, classical mythology, and Shakespeare.
Dickinson did not give titles to her poems, an unusual feature. Others have given titles to some of her poems, and often the first line of the poem is used as a title.
She wrote short lines, preferring to be concise in her images and references. A study of her letters to friends and mentors shows that her prose style was composed of short iambic phrases, making her prose very similar to her poetry.
Dickinson’s poems are generally short in length, rarely consisting of more than six stanzas, as in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Many of her poems are only one or two stanzas in length. The stanzas are quatrains of four lines. Some poems have stanzas of three or two lines.
The rhythm in many of her poems is called common meter or ballad meter. Both types of meter consist of a quatrain with the first and third lines having four iambic feet and the second and fourth lines having three iambic feet. The iambic foot is a unit of two syllables with the first syllable unstressed and the second syllable stressed.
In her quatrains the rhyme scheme is most often abcb, where only the second and fourth lines rhyme. Such a rhyme scheme is typical of a ballad meter.
Many other poems are written in a meter that is typical of English hymns. This rhythm pattern is characterized by quatrains where lines one, two, and four are written in iambic trimeter and the third line is written in iambic tetrameter.
Often her rhymes are near rhymes or slant rhymes. A near rhyme means that the two rhyming words do not rhyme exactly. They only make a near match.
In Dickinson’s poems, capitalizations and punctuations are unorthodox. She regularly capitalized the nouns but sometimes she was inconsistent and a few nouns were not capitalized. For punctuation, she frequently used a dash instead of a comma or a period, and sometimes she used a dash to separate phrases within a line. Some editions of her poems have attempted to correct the punctuation of her poems.
A dozen or more composers have set Dickinson’s poems to music, including Aaron Copland who produced “Twelve Songs on Poems of Emily Dickinson” in 1951. 0ne of the interesting ways to treat some of Dickinson’s most famous poems, often learned in school, is to sing them to the tune of “Amazing Grace,” or “The Yellow Rose of Texas, or most humorously, the theme to “Gilligan’s Island.”
Emily Dickinson’s Life
Emily Dickinson was an innovative and talented American poet who wrote nearly 1800 poems during her brief lifetime from 1830 to 1886. Dickinson became publicly well known as a poet only after her death because she chose to publish only a very small number of her poems, somewhere between seven and twelve, during her lifetime.
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a well known family. Her grandfather helped to found Amherst College and her father, a lawyer, served for numerous years in the Massachusetts legislature and in the United States Congress. Dickinson had a one year older brother and a three years younger sister.
As a young girl and teenager Dickinson acquired many friends, some lasting a lifetime, received approval and attention from her father, and behaved fittingly for a girl during the Victorian era. She received a classical education from the Amherst Academy and was required by her father to read the Bible. Though she attended church regularly only for a few years, her Christian foundation remained strong throughout her life.
Dickinson attended nearby Mount Holyoke College for only one year, due to numerous reasons, and then was brought back home by her brother, Austin. The Dickinson family lived in a home overlooking the town’s cemetery, where she is buried, for a few years before moving into the home her grandfather had built, called “The Homestead.”
At home in Amherst, Dickinson became a capable housekeeper, cook, and gardener. She attended local events, became friends with some of her fathers’ acquaintances, and read a number of books given to her by her friends and her brother. Most books had to be smuggled into the home for fear that her father would disapprove of them.
Emily Dickinson enjoyed the writings of an impressive list of contemporaries such as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. She also read from the Victorians, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thomas Carlyle, and George Eliot, and the Romantic poet Lord Byron. She also loved “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. When she discovered Shakespeare she asked, “Why is any other book needed?” In her home she hung portraits of Eliot, Browning, and Carlyle.
Dickinson grew more reclusive into the 1850’s. She began writing poems and received favorable response from her friends. Throughout the rest of her life she adopted the friendly practice of giving poems to her friends and bouquets of flowers from her garden. Her garden was so varied and well-cared that she was better known as a gardener than a poet.
During the Civil War years of the early 1860’s, Emily Dickinson wrote more than 800 poems, the most prolific writing period of her life. During this period Dickinson saw the death of several friends, a teacher, and the declining health of her mother who she had to tend closely. These unhappy events saddened Dickinson and led her to treat the subject of death in many of her poems.
Following the Civil War and for the remaining 20 years of her life, Dickinson rarely left the property limits of The Homestead. Her father, mother, and sister Lavinia all lived with her at home, and her brother lived next door at The Evergreens with his wife, Susan, a longtime friend to Emily, and their children. She enjoyed the company of her family and wrote often to her friends, but residents of Amherst only knew her as the “woman in white” when they infrequently saw her greeting visitors.
After several friends, a nephew, and her parents died, Dickinson wrote fewer and fewer poems and stopped organizing them, as she had been doing for many years. She wrote that, “the dyings have been too deep for me.” Dickinson developed a kidney disease which she suffered from for the remaining two years of her life. The final short letter that she wrote to her cousins read, “Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily.”