Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

One of the many enigmas surrounding the life of Emily Dickinson concerns her relationships with the opposite sex. It is commonly held, despite scant evidence for it, that Emily Dickinson fell in love with a married clergyman, Charles Wadsworth, pastor of Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. At the time, he was forty and she was twenty-three. In 1862, Wadsworth announced that he was assuming a church in California. According to the tradition, this news came as a lifelong blow to Dickinson and in her loss, she turned to poetry as her consolation.

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This is speculation only, however, for there were a number of men in Dickinson’s life. One can reasonably assume that in the years 1859-1860 she had indeed fallen in love. It is known that toward the end of her life she had passionately fallen in love with Judge Otis Lord. What is important is that Dickinson celebrates love and its consummation as one of the few glories in a world replete with God’s indifference and the specter of mortality. In Dickinson’s life there seems always to have hovered the fear of abandonment, most likely a legacy of her childhood experiences with a passive mother and overbearing father. Consequently, she clung to her friends and sometimes employed exaggerated language, adopting the pose of Romantic dreamer. Still, there is no reason that one should doubt the genuineness of the love spoken of here. The poem speaks universally for lovers, whose security is their love for one another.

There is more than meets the eye in “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” In its impassioned tones, the poem fantasizes sexual abandon when lovers are present again and are joined. Few poems have captured the power of anticipatory love as well as this one. As if to make no mistake about her meaning, Dickinson repeats the phrasing and assigns an exclamation mark. “In Port” in stanza 2 is similarly replete with the hint of physical intimacy, as is the reference to mooring.

In another ironic undertone providing tension within the poem, there is a hint that love may be a beautiful illusion. The reference to Eden in the last stanza represents the transfigured state of love’s fancied weaving, its ability to transcend the banal opposition. Yet Eden is only the projection of fantasy—hence the Fall from Paradise in the following line, with its return to the sea of this world, where drowning threatens. Yet love has not lost its wager. Whatever love cannot do to render a genuine return to Paradise, it does offer sanctuary to its exiles.

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