I like to see it lap the Miles— Analysis

  • Dickinson lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, throughout her life. “I like to see it lap the Miles” was likely inspired by the arrival of the first railroad line to reach Amherst: the Amherst and Belchertown Railroad. “I like to see it lap the Miles” can be read as Dickinson’s poetic reflection on this great change.
  • The poem is composed of rhymed ballad stanzas, a typical mode for Dickinson.
  • Dickinson uses a variety of natural metaphors to render the mechanical train more familiar and characterful.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

As the title given to it by the first editors of Emily Dickinson’s poem suggests, “I like to see it lap the Miles—” is about a train. It was not unusual for Emily Dickinson to write short descriptive poems of this kind, although she more often wrote about natural objects than mechanical ones. In this poem, she uses natural images to describe a thing which is only nearly named in a pun.

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Dickinson first describes the thing as if it were like a cat, lapping and licking so many miles like so much milk. When it stops “to feed itself at tanks,” however, one must adjust one’s image from a household pet to something much larger. The next line reinforces this impression, as this thing is something “prodigious.” It is big enough to go around not only one but many mountains in a single “step.” When in the second stanza the reader is told that it looks into the windows of houses, one might even imagine a giant leaning down with his eye to a window. In line 8, however, the poem shifts focus from size to power: This thing can “pare” or carve a “quarry” out of rock.

In the first line of the third stanza, one’s impression of the largeness of the thing shifts from height to length: It is something that “crawl[s]” and is noisy. In lines 10 and 11, the reader is told that its “complaint[s]” are “horrid” and “hooting,” but because its noise is referred to as a “stanza,” it is known somehow also to have a poetic or musical quality.

In the last line of the third stanza, the thing once again takes on a kittenish, playful quality—it “chase[s] itself down hill” like a kitten chasing its tail—but then, in the fourth stanza, it takes shape as a horse that “neigh[s]” and returns to its “stable.” Here, Dickinson makes a pun: In the nineteenth century, because the railroad had only recently replaced transport by cart horse, the railroad was referred to as the “Iron Horse” and its storage buildings as “car barns.” Rather than being a reference to horses, “Boanerges” in the fourth stanza is a name applied to the disciples James and John, who were called “sons of thunder” when they cursed the Samaritans for not believing in the mission of Jesus. Presumably this reference in the poem is to the fearfulness of the thunderous “neigh” of the “Iron Horse.”

The movement of the train is like clockwork. A natural image serves to communicate a sense of the mechanical: The train’s movements are as regular as those of stars. The image of the shining star also suggests the metallic shininess of the train. At the end of the poem, the train abruptly ends its headlong journey with a “Stop—.” When it is still, it seems “docile” and without aggression, but its force is only dormant, because it is still “omnipotent.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

The poem’s four stanzas are quatrains (they are four lines each). The pattern of beats, syllables, and rhymes in each stanza is called ballad meter, because this form is found in most traditional musical ballads: four iambic feet in the first and third line, three iambic feet in the second and fourth line, and a rhyme scheme of abcb.

It is difficult to analyze exactly what causes Dickinson’s poems to have what one of her editors called a “strange cadence of inner rhythmical music,” but one way to approach the matter is to trace the pattern of sounds in her poetry. For example, the consonance that begins with the repetition of certain letters in the first line carries through the entire poem. The repeating l of “like,” “lap,” and “miles” continues through the stanza with “valleys” and “itself”; one also finds it in “pile” and “supercilious” in the second stanza, in “crawl,” “all,” “while,” and “downhill” in the third, and in “punctual,” “docile,” and “stable” in the fourth.

In each stanza, the words that have approximately the same sound at the end of the second and fourth lines—up/step, peer/pare, while/hill, star/door—are called near-rhymes; they are characteristic of Dickinson’s poetry. Moreover, the pair of near-rhymes in the second stanza forms a near-rhyme with the pair in the fourth stanza: Both pairs end with r but have different vowel sounds.

Both of these consonants, l and r, are also part of internal near-rhymes in the second and third stanzas. In line 6, one finds a near-rhyme formed by the second syllable of “supercilious” (per) in the middle of the line and “peer” at the end of the line, and in line 5, by the first syllable of “quarry” (quar) with “pare.” In line 10, there is an internal near-rhyme of “all” with “while,” and in line 12, of “-self” with “Hill.” The internal rhyme of “lap” in line 1 with the end rhyme of the stanza, “up”/“step,” is repeated again with “stop” in line 15. The end consonant of those words also appears at the beginning of the end rhymes of stanza 2.

One finds this same kind of extended repetition with certain vowel sounds (that is, assonance), particularly with the long i that appears with the first word in line 1, “I.” This sound reappears throughout the poem, with “like” and “miles” in line 1, “pile” in line 5, “sides” in line 9, “while” in line 10, “like” again in line 13, and depending upon how one pronounces it, possibly “docile” in line 15.

The question of how a word is to be pronounced is behind the elusive musiclike quality of the poem. Following a certain sound pattern may call for words to be pronounced one way, while another calls for the same words to be pronounced differently. These various sound patterns pull at individual words—for example, the word “docile”: The i sound begun in line 1 calls for the second syllable to be pronounced with a long i, but the nearer sound of “Hill” calls for the i to be short. At the same time, the end sound of “punctual” in the preceding line presses for a schwa sound for the vowel.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147

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Pollack, Vivian R. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Vendler, Helen Hennessey. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

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