Analysis

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Last Updated on July 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 336

In this poem, the wealth of figurative language and the conceit, or extended metaphor, of the storm at sea combine to offer a complex work that is open to multiple interpretations. Emily Dickinson’s poem can be read as referring to a deeply personal, sexual longing through an abstract, metaphysical comment on spiritual union with a higher power in life or even in death. Because the marine references are so well developed and constant, the poem also stands equally as a straightforward evocation of an actual tempest.

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The poet moves from an exciting, uncertain opening to the likelihood of security at the end. The distinction in the qualities of the night, between the wildness at the outset and the steadiness of being moored, can be understood as a journey to safety. Another way to look at this change is as a reversal of original sin. “Luxury,” an archaic term for “lust,” appears at the beginning, with “Eden” at the end. The speaker is moving away from carnal pleasure toward ignorance of the flesh. In the center of the poem is the “heart” through which this transition is effected. A complete and pure love does not need passions, that is, bodily expression: “Futile - the winds - to a Heart in port.”

The idea of completion, which could mean sexual or spiritual fulfillment, is emphasized by repeating the word “done” and completing the phrase with two closely related terms for navigation. Once the speaker and their addressee arrive at their destination, they will no longer need those aids: “Done with the Compass - / Done with the Chart!”

The use of the conditional in several places emphasizes, however, that the desired outcomes are not a certainty: “should be,” “might I.” The speaker also moves from a more general desire, in the “wild nights,” to a specific situation, “tonight.” This change offers a paradox, as it moves away from the hypothetical passion to the more concrete secured love that “moor” also implies, but the uncertainty of “might” also remains.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

“Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” contains no narrative plot to report; there is no story to tell. The poem is sustained exclamation, an extended expression of agitated yearning for reunion with a lover. In the first stanza, a storm seems to be raging, the seas in ferment from the winds. Were the speaker with her lover, there would be stormy nights of their own making, born of passionate indulgence and privilege (“Our luxury”).

In the second stanza, the persona remarks that the winds cannot avail against “a Heart in port”—that is, a lover can transcend life’s buffetings, given the stability provided by love. As a parallel to this thought, no longer does a lover require compass or chart on troubled seas, since in finding love, the voyage is done, the “port” reached.

In the third stanza, where Emily Dickinson typically employs ellipsis (word omission), she compresses her articulation sharply. Consequently, readers must fill in the missing thought, which seems to be that love’s formulative power makes everything like “rowing in Eden,” or into a paradise where life’s swells are leveled. The allusion to Eden turns menacing, however, reminding the persona of the tossing sea of the present night and propelling anew an anguished longing for the anchorage of her lover’s presence on this night of storm.

“Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” may come as a surprise to readers who have thought of Emily Dickinson as the Amherst recluse, purposely rejecting life, including thoughts of romance, for the “higher calling” of art. Moreover, the poem proves decidedly up-to-date in its erotic celebration of love by way of imagery easily understood by a generation exposed to Freud. Even at the time it was published, Dickinson’s friend and editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, expressed anxiety lest unscrupulous minds should read into the poetry more than the sexually innocent Dickinson had intended. Yet the fact is that “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is but one of many poems Dickinson composed on the subject of love, several of them equally explicit.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413

“Wild Nights—Wild Nights!”(poem 249) begins with the unusual rhyme scheme of abbb, only to abandon rhyme altogether in the second stanza, then assume it again in the final stanza, though in a pattern differing from the initial stanza. Throughout there is a heavy employment of trochees and a sustained pattern of dimeter line length, an unusual feature in a poet greatly indebted to the quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines of the church hymnals of her day. Clearly, Dickinson appropriates rhythms conducive to the persona’s anguished mood in the poem.

This poem shows a fierce independence of conventional norms typical of all of her poetry, whether in form or subject matter. There is a fondness for the dash to isolate words and to imitate oral language. Here the dashes halt the pace of language and suggest the mind’s tendency to redefine continually. Concurrently, the resulting interruptions coerce readers into a more diligent reading and pursuit of interconnection.

Capitalization of nouns occurs similarly as a typical Dickinson feature. This makes one note the “thingness” of life around one (by definition, a noun is whatever exists), or the individuality of what one often takes for granted or sweeps away with abstraction. Throughout, the style is a plain one, nearly all of its diction stemming from the Germanic roots of the language.

Except for her biblical reference to Eden, there is an absence of reference to the world of conventional society. In style as well as outlook, Dickinson was determined to assert her own identity.

The poem shows affinity with a type of poetry practiced in seventeenth century England and later dubbed “metaphysical” by the renowned Samuel Johnson. In this kind of poetry, startling analogies, often highly extended (and therefore called “conceits”), were the hallmark of an intensely intellectual argument set in a dramatic context. Metaphysical poetry became the staple of Puritan poetry in the New World. Among its chief practitioners were Edward Taylor and Anne Bradstreet.

Dickinson exhibits ties with her Puritan antecedents, whatever her troubled relationship to their faith. She employs the same tight construction, love of ellipsis, preference for the meditative, and striking employment of analogy, as in the subtle association of the stormy sea with tumultuous passion and the juxtaposition of the stormy sea voyage and the port of love where compass and chart are no longer needed. This analogy continues into the last lines, in which the persona exclaims, “Might I but moor—Tonight—/ In Thee!”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147

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.

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