What is the tone in Emily Dickinson's poem "I Like to See it Lap the Miles--"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The tone of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I like to see it lap the miles –” might best be described as “playful.” The poem is literally a kind of riddle, in which the speaker compares a train to various animals in a light and whimsical way. By speaking directly and simply, by including herself in the poem, and by beginning by emphasizing a small pleasure, the speaker helps create a familiar, friendly tone.  Certainly the tone is not stiff, serious, or pompous. It is as if the speaker is inviting readers to engage in an imaginative game, jovially testing them to see how quickly they can guess the identity of the object the speaker describes.

A playful tone is also implied in much of the work’s specific phrasing, such as “lap the Miles” (1) and “lick the Valleys up” (2), where the verbs seems especially vivid, energetic, and light-hearted as well as being linked by a kind of musical alliteration. By the third line, with the reference to “feed[ing] itself at Tanks” – many readers will already have begun to guess that the poem is describing a train, while the fact that the speaker plays with the animal metaphor for the first three lines again contributes to the deliberately witty tone. It is as if the speaker is playing a game with herself as well as with the reader – testing her own ingenuity and her own ability to sustain the animal metaphors.

Also contributing to the playfulness of the tone is the use of enjambment at the end of line 4, so that the sense of the first stanza does not end at the conclusion of the stanza but makes a kind of leap – a kind of “step” – into stanza two. By making the form of the poem imitate its meaning in such a playful way, the speaker again creates a kind of humorous tone. Little if anything in the poem suggests that it is meant to be read or interpreted in any especially serious way.  The poem does not, for example, seem a warning about encroaching modernism, nor does it seem to imply anything dark about runaway technology.  Instead, by describing the train as if it were alive and had feelings and attitudes, the speaker treats it as something familiar, approachable, and non-threatening. Certainly none of the verbs used in the first stanza sound in any way menacing, and while the reference to “peer[ing]” into “Shanties” might conceivably sound invasive or condescending, the effect on most readers is more likely to seem comic than disturbing.

As the poem develops and the identity of its focus (a train) becomes clearer and clearer, the reader increasingly begins to enjoy the speaker’s cleverness in sustaining  and elaborating the comparisons. Even the description of the train

Complaining all the while
In horrid — hooting stanza —  (11-12)

seems light and playful, partly because of the alliteration of “horrid” and “hooting” and partly because of the way the second adjective cancels any menacing connotations of the first. Clearly this poem is simply a piece of good fun, meant to entertain rather than to be deeply thought-provoking. (In this sense, of course, it differs from many of Dickinson’s other, darker, more seriously meditative poems.)

The playful tone established at the beginning of the work continues until the end, especially in such vigorous verbs as “chase” (13) and “neigh” (14) as well as in the playfully abrupt and heavily emphasized “Stop” (16), which once again mimics the very action (or non-action) it describes.