When I interviewed Season Ciechanowski about the Red Brick Poetry Box, she talked about how much she enjoyed memorizing Emily Dickinson. Since then, Dickinson has been on my to-memorize list. I flipped through the collection my daughter gave me a few years ago titled I’m nobody! Who are you? and found a poem Tweetspeak highlighted in a video a few years ago: “I Started Early—Took my Dog—.”
In the video Dickinson is wearing her traditional clothes as she visits the sea. In the third stanza the poem lists her items of clothing in the reverse order of the way they are listed in Robert Herrick’s Delight in Disorder, which we learned By Heart last month.
I Started Early — Took My Dog —
I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – upon the Sands –
But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Bodice – too –
And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –
And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –
Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –
— Emily Dickinson
When I started learning this poem by heart, outside on my turquoise bench, with my afternoon tea, one line caught my eye: “And made as he would eat me up.”
Does that sound familiar ? It should, if you’ve ever read Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak:
“and Max said I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
“But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go— / we’ll eat you up—we love you so!?
Was Maurice Sendak quoting Emily Dickinson?
Sendak passed away in 2012, and I’m not sure if anyone ever asked him that question. But I have found interviews where he mentioned his love for Dickinson. He even carried around a pocket-size copy of her poems. Once I learned Sendak was a Dickinson fan, I found the poem easier to memorize.
But even after spending a month with Dickinson and her unnamed dog (there is an unnamed dog in Sendak’s story too), I still don’t know what the poem means. And I did not go looking for an interpretation of it. I simply enjoyed the poem, dashes and all. They seem to propel the poem forever forward, like the sea itself.
Here are a few things I noticed:
• The sea is a he, which surprised me because a lot of poetry describes the sea using feminine pronouns.
• Early in the poem Dickinson writes the word “shoe,” then later, it’s “shoes,” plural.
• She started eight sentences with the word “And” (to the chagrin of English teachers everywhere).
• I wonder what made her think to put a dandelion in the poem — it doesn’t fit, logically, but poetically, it does.
• At the end of the poem the sea is “bowing with a Mighty look.” I’d never think to use those two almost-opposite words in juxtaposition, but it does seem an apt description of a wave.
• I like the rhyme within the final line: “At me, The Sea withdrew.”
After I recorded myself reciting the poem, I discovered my collection contains an introduction to Dickinson by author Virginia Woolf. It’s everything I want and nothing I don’t want in a preface to a poet as great as Dickinson. Woolf’s essay acknowledges Dickinson’s genius while being comfortable with not always understanding it. Woolf concludes her introduction this way:
Go into these poems for the adventure of them. Burrow in and find a word or a phrase that intrigues you. Try beginning to piece it together with its neighboring words. Be Miss Dickinson’s companion. Emily’s companion. You’ll find yourself making meanings that surprise you.”
So, with Woolf’s permission, that’s exactly what I did with. What if we threw facts into the deep blue sea and imagined that Max is Emily Dickinson’s son.
Let’s pretend, shall we?
We never see the mother in Where the Wild Things Are, and Dickinson was famously reclusive. We only have two words from Max’s mother: “WILD THING!” and I would venture a guess that if Dickinson had been a mom, she would have used words sparingly when rebuking her children. The other thing we know about Max’s mother is that although she did send her mischievous boy to bed before he ate dinner, when he returns from his adventures, he finds his supper waiting, and it is still hot.
Besides writing poems, Dickinson loved to bake, both breads and desserts, and was well-known for sharing them. Sendak’s illustrations show a meal of soup and a glass of milk for Max.
But there’s something else on the table too. I think it might be cake.
Did you memorize “I Started Early—Took My Dog—” this month? Join our By Heart community and share your audio or video using the hashtags #ByHeart and #MemoriesWithFriends and tagging us @tspoetry. We also welcome photos of your handwritten copy of the poem.
By Heart for April
For the next By Heart gathering, April 26, we’ll memorize The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Browse more By Heart
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro