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.
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.
“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,...
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