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James Reeves, in his introduction to his selection of Emily Dickinson's poetry, says of this 'extraordinary and tantalizing poem' (as he describes it): 'It is evident that here the sea represents some overwhelming force, of great destructive power. . . .What begins in a playful vein concludes as a pursuit to the death. It is only when she reaches the solid familiarity of home, the reassurance of the town she knows so well, that the pursuit ends.’

I am not sure about the appropriateness of the term ‘playful’ as applied to the beginning of the poem. The lightness of the opening (light rather than playful) is an integral and calculated part of the serious purpose of the whole, and introduces several essential properties of the poem. Perhaps we can interpret the 'Mermaids in the Basement’ as the deluding phantoms or sirens of the deep, luring to destruction; and the ‘Frigates in the Upper Floor’ as the great masters, a Dante, a Shakespeare, who have plumbed and mastered the depths of human experience and can safely ride the deep, extending 'Hempen Hands' to the small isolated figure caught up in the destructive elements. Even the dog, which enters the poem only to disappear from it immediately, has its significance -- the significance is perhaps in the disappearance itself, the breakdown, when the situation begins to get serious, of the substitute companionship ('no Man moved Me') demanded of the dog in the absence of the real human companionships and support that the town might provide.

'The solid familiarity of home, the reassurance of the town she knows so well' -- yes, but of course the poet's real relationships with the 'Solid Town' were more complex than that; it is not a mere homesick child who is heading for the town after receiving a bad fright which any sympathetic adult can help to dispel, though the poem does seem to be cast in that familiar mould. The 'Dog', the 'Mermaids', the 'Frigates', the 'Mouse', the 'Apron,’ 'Belt' and 'Bodice', the 'Silver Heel', the 'Shoes' overflowing with 'Pearl', the bad fright and the race for home -- all these seem to form a familiar age-old pattern, though given a new content and depth of meaning. If the relics of childhood are still present though transcended in the poem, that only adds to the poem's profound insight, expressing an abiding reality of the human consciousness. . . .[T]he picture presented in the poem, of the poet alone with her dog outside the town's limits, pursued by the rising tide of consciousness or (to change the metaphor to that of another of her poems) by 'That awful stranger Consciousness', the presence whom she is trying to exorcise or master through the return to the town.


From Emily Dickinson and the Modern Consciousness: A Poet of Our Time. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the estate of Kenneth Stocks.