The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 528 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877.

Brantley, Richard E. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ferlazzo, Paul, ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, ed. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

MacNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

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.