What is the main idea of Emily Dickinson's "Wild Nights—Wild Nights!"? What figurative devices does she employ?
In Emily Dickinson's "Wild Nights—Wild Nights!", the speaker expresses the loneliness of having no one to love. The poem contrasts the speaker's desire with its fulfillment.
Without a lover, the speaker's heart is metaphorically stuck in port. This metaphor, or explicit comparison, indicates that even the winds cannot move this heart in harbor. The speaker imagines the exhilaration that might be experienced with a lover, "rowing in Eden." This phrase, which also uses nautical imagery, perhaps refers to a sexual union or perhaps simply to two lives joined in a common purpose in life. The line contains an allusion to Eden, the biblical paradise, to indicate the idyllic experience of love.
The speaker uses other imagery related to boating as well. The heart that waits in the harbor like an unused boat has no need for a compass or chart, both tools...
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“Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” by Emily Dickinson is most popularly interpreted as a poem about desire, longing, and the physical and emotional union between two people. However, it has also been read as an exclamation of religious spirituality, with “thee” referring to God. In the context of the late 19th century, this interpretation makes a lot of sense - Emily Dickinson was supposedly a “virgin recluse”, and a seemingly erotic poem about desire and lust didn’t exactly fit with that image. Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited the poems for publication after Emily’s death, acknowledged this contradiction themselves, even considering omitting it from their collection. In a letter from Higginson to Loomis Todd, he wrote:
“One poem only I dread a little to print - that wonderful 'Wild Nights,' - lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there.”
Whilst this poem can be read as referring to religion, the most popular interpretation is that “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is an expression of desire; specifically, sexual desire. It contains erotic overtones and imagery which establish that the narrator longs to be together with an unnamed person again. One of Dickinson’s most famous poems, “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is undoubtedly an exclamation of longing to be with someone, and the sense of protection and security that comes from that relationship.
The poem is written as one person addressing another, with “thee” addressing an unnamed subject. There is a sense of distance between the narrator and this person, however, established in the first stanza:
“Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
“Were” and “should” highlight that the narrator yearns to be with this other person, and Dickinson goes on to describe what it is like when she is with them. She uses the second stanza to highlight the extent to which outside forces cannot impact upon their relationship, using the image of “futile winds” against a “heart in port”. Wind is often used to symbolise change, and the fact that is is “futile” against the narrator’s heart and lover means that their feelings for one another are unchanging and stable in the face of adversity. Similarly, the guidance which the “compass” and “chart” would provide are useless and unnecessary - the lovers only need each other and their hearts to guide them on their journey. That she desires to be “Rowing in Eden” and “moor in thee” - often interpreted as an allusion to sexual intercourse - further solidifies the narrator’s sense of longing and passion for this other person, with whom she feels in Heaven.
In terms of figurative devices, nautical imagery clearly plays a prominent role in this poem. Dickinson also uses enjambment - where one line rolls onto another without punctuation to break them up - which can be seen in the first stanza, and adds to the sense of unfiltered longing by creating a confessional and almost stream-of-consciousness tone. The majority of “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is written in free verse - poetry which doesn’t follow a particular rhyme scheme. Stanzas two and three fit into this category, giving the overall poem a sense of ‘wildness’ and adding to the confessional tone established by the enjambment in the first stanza. Dickinson’s use of imagery and structural devices such as free verse contribute to the overall sense of unfiltered and brazen desire in “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!”.