Wild Nights--Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
To a Heart in port--
Done with the Compass--
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor--Tonight--
As do many of Emily Dickinson's poems, "Wild Nights" first dazzles by virtue of its arresting images and powerful passions. Later, its complexities and ambiguities tease our attention. Over the years I have been of eight or nine minds about it. Its meanings are slippery, a fact to which the great divergence in critical opinion eloquently testifies. What follows is my latest effort to understand a poem whose meanings are complex and elusive. The third stanza, particularly, requires close examination, for it offers quite divergent interpretative possibilities.
The questions below are easier to ask than answer, but without more or less satisfactory answers to them, a reasonable reading of the poem is less likely. Some of the answers I provide will involve judgments about contrasts, antecedents, tone, and the sequence of ideas.
The questions, then:
1. Is the "Thee" in line 12 the same "thee" found in line 2?
2. Is "Rowing in Eden--" (line 9) an activity wholly commended?
3. Does "Rowing in Eden--" complete the idea of safe harborage begun in lines 5 and 6: "Futile--the Winds-- / To a Heart in port"? Or does the line initiate a new idea and action?
4. Does "Ah, the Sea!" (10) imply that the speaker is moving from sheltered paradisical waters toward the sea, by rowing? Or does the speaker simply see the sea and exult in the sight? Or does she long to leave Eden behind and go to sea (the proper place for Wild Nights and the sort of moorage she desires)?
The answers I prefer will be evident presently. First, however, a cautionary note given us by Ruth Miller, in The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Miller believes that critics have done the poem a disservice by emphasizing its eroticism while ignoring its witty use of "strands of navigation metaphors" (92). Perhaps Miller too literally defines what the navigation metaphors mean (for example, she sees the "Sea" of the last line as synonymous with a "wild roadstead," a place where ships are moored in safety outside a harbor). Still, her caution has the merit of making us look carefully at the poem's nautical language.
The primary contrasts in the poem are between port (suggesting safety, the heart in repose, Edenic certainty, and inertia) and the sea (about which cluster ideas of wildness, darkness, winds, danger, and motion). These contrasts prepare us to find two different hearts: the first is secure and has no need of compass and chart; the second requires danger and ecstasy. When we come to the final line, where the speaker expresses a desire to moor in "Thee," the contrasts, and how we feel about them, determine which heart we see and where we think it desires to be moored. Most readers take "Thee" to be the beloved. A few see the pronoun as ambiguous and conclude that sea and beloved are synonymous. A third possibility is that "Thee" refers only to the sea, and it is this latter that I would like briefly to discuss.
If we take "Sea" to mean something like "high seas" rather than "roadstead" and assume that at sea passionate nature unleashes itself--then we have an interesting paradox to deal with. The speaker desires something at once impossible and possible. Ships do not moor at sea, unless, of course, they are under command of an extravagant adventurer who delights in the paradox of mooring where it is impossible to do so. Such an extravagant statement is typical of Dickinson, as, for example, in the well-known line, "I taste a liquor never brewed." Certainly the poet relished finding the possibility that resides in impossibility.
This reading of the line requires that the "Thee" of line 12 and the "thee" of line 2 be different. Two pieces of evidence suggest the likelihood. The most obvious one is that the "Sea" of line 10 is the nearest referent to "Thee." Second, the sequential actions of rowing in Eden, beholding the sea, then wishing to be safety attached to its wildness are a more logical progression than rowing in Eden, beholding the sea, and desiring to moor in the lover. It is possible, I suppose, that the second sequence, in its abrupt shifts, may suggest a soul in spasm, seeking rapturous release, a condition which has little to do with logic, However, since the metaphoric sea and vessels upon it (or safely protected from its dangers) are more the focus of the poem than the longed-for lover, one can hazard a conclusion that the final two lines are at least as much concerned with the possibility of wildness as with desired union. The poem closes paradoxically more than erotically. Admittedly, this reading of the last lines makes for a less-provocative poem, but not a less-interesting one.
Perhaps the line most crucial to the meaning of the poem is line 9, "Rowing in Eden--." It functions both to conclude the argument advanced in the second stanza (that a safely harbored heart has no need of winds or an instrument that provides direction) and to provide transition by moving the reader toward the image of the Sea (rowing in Eden may imply great bliss, but it does not suggest danger or substantial expense of energy). Rhythmically, the line repeats the rolling rhythms of the preceding four lines, but it may also suggest movement away from harborage. The line, in its sexual suggestiveness, tempts one to see the rowing as desirable; however, Eden is a place from which one is banished, and the line may suggest the speaker's movement toward another condition. And there could even be mild disparagement of Eden as tame, depending on the tone that we sense in the line. The speaker's final wish is given intensity by her knowledge that whatever bliss may be available in Eden, it is not where she most wishes to be. Eden is not enough. It offers no risk, no opportunity for discovery. Rowing where only bliss and surety exist is not an attractive prospect for one who sees greater benefit in experiencing the anarchic, the dark, the threatening, and the wild. Paradoxically, Dickinson suggests, only in danger is safety ensured, only in wildness can the heart be firmly moored.
Finally, however, it is not the poem's verbal ingenuity or the boldness of its assertion that moves us. Rather, we feel the intensity of longing and desire as the speaker moves from a general wish for wild nights to an intensely desired, specific "Tonight." Dickinson shows us how separation enlarges desire, how intensity feasts on absence, and, finally, how wit and passion work to create memorable verse.
Miller, Ruth. The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan U P. 1968.