For their second exercise in dialogic minimal interpretation Attridge and Staten (The Craft of Poetry, 2015) chose Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early.” Attridge Remarks (p. 21): “It’s a poem that has produced many examples of the kind of unmoored readings you and I are keen to combat.” Their discussion is fascinating, especially toward the end, where they credit Dickson with proto-modernist technique (pp. 35-37). I think they are right to see the poem as a challenge to their objective of a minimal interpretation, which has them searching for a more specific and conventional narrative than the poem willingly supports.
Consequently I’m going to skip much of that commentary. After presenting the poem itself I’ll present some of their remarks about the overarching narrative and then enter into my own investigation of the poem’s techne.
The Poem: I started Early
Here is the text, which they’ve taken from R. W. Franklin’s edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Harvard 2001).
1 I started Early – Took my Dog –
2 And visited the Sea –
3 The Mermaids in the Basement
4 Came out to look at me –
5 And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
6 Extended Hempen Hands –
7 Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
8 Aground – upon the Sands –
9 But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
10 Went past my simple Shoe –
11 And past my Apron – and my Belt
12 And past my Boddice – too –
13 And made as He would eat me up –
14 As wholly as a Dew
15 Upon a Dandelion's Sleeve –
16 And then – I started – too –
17 And He – He followed – close behind –
18 I felt His Silver Heel
19 Upon my Ankle – Then My Shoes
20 Would overflow with Pearl –
21 Until We met the Solid Town –
22 No One He seemed to know –
23 And bowing – with a Mighty look –
24 At me – The Sea withdrew –
For what it’s worth, it was the fifth stanza that first took hold of me: What’s this about heel, ankle, shoes, and pearls all jammed into a single stanza? I managed to come up with an answer, an unexpected one, but only late in my own investigation.
A Minimal Narrative
Attridge leads off the discussion (p. 22):
As with “The Sick Rose” the poem presents a little narrative, and the most minimal reading of all would be to treat it as the story of a woman’s visit to the seaside, and of her hurrying back as the tide advances and threatens to engulf her – just as we might read Blake’s poem as the story of a flower and bug.
He wonders about possible sexual undertones in the sea’s progression from Shoe to Apron over Belt and Bodice (p. 23) and then points out (p. 24): “...the oddness of a woman wading into the ocean fully clothed until the sea is up to her neck? Perhaps this part of the poem represents a fantasy, while the rest is a somewhat simple event told in fantastic terms.”
Staten wonders whether or not suicide is the underling motivation (p. 26):
No one can get covered by the tide unintentionally, unless they’re unconscious. So if the tide is rising up her body, item by item (again indicating slowness), she must must at least semi-purposely be allowing it to happen. […] the speaker has come close to suicide, in a dreamlike mode that at times verges on whimsy.
And he notes that human society frames the poem, fore and aft (p. 27):
The ship and town evoke human society, to which the speaker returns at the end of the poem, but from which she had become momentarily attached or alienated. And in that case, “Man” in “no Man moved Me” sounds more like a reference to humanity than virility. It’s only the solidity of human society that dissipates the last of the sea’s threat – a threat that was never anything other than the woman’s own willingness to be engulfed.
After worrying a bit about just how long it takes the tide to come in Attridge gets around to a sensible suggestion about what’s going on (p. 30):
Now one doesn’t have to read the desired experience of being moved as a sexual one; it could be some other form of bodily and emotional rapture, some other way of being carried away, swept off your feet, inundated with feeling. One of Dickinson’s favored words in “transport,” which nicely captures both senses of “moved.” The various interpretations critics have come up with – not only sexual attraction but the force of nature, or the imagination, or the unconscious, or death – are not alternatives among which one has to make a choice but various manifestations of the same general narrative of desire, a near overwhelming, an escape, and pleasure.
Yes. Such narrative as the poem presents is rather abstract and general in character despite being floated on imagery so specific one can almost imagine the scene unfolding in the mind’s theater as you read the poem. Abstract, yet concrete–that’s worth thinking about, no?Techne: A Three Part Poem
“I started Early” has six stanzas that can be grouped into three movements of two stanzas each. The first stanza takes us to the beach and presents us with a variety of actants, both animate and inanimate, variously deployed in space (e.g. Basement, Upper Floor, the Sands). The second movement focuses upon the sea as it engulfs the poet. In the third movement the sea and the poet separate to establish a differentiated relationship between them.
Before saying a few words about each of these movements I note that they show up in the rhyme scheme. The rhymes are on the second and fourth lines of the stanza, which I have indicated below:
1 Dog –
2 Sea –
4 me –
6 Hands –
7 Mouse –
8 Sands –
10 Shoe –
12 too –
13 up –
15 Sleeve –
16 too –
17 behind –
20 Pearl –
21 Town –
22 know –
23 look –
24 withdrew –
The first movement has rhymes in both stanzas, as does the second. But the rhymes are the same in both stanzas of the second movement, tying it strongly together in a sonic grouping. The third movement has a slant (weak) rhyme in its first stanza and no rhyme within its second stanza. However, the final line rhymes with lines 10, 12, 14, and 16; that is, it rhymes with the middle movement. Closure?
* * * * *
The poem opens by deploying the furniture of the seaside. As Attridge and Staten have noted, the presentation is a bit whimsical. Mermaids a viewing? Hempen hands?–they’re a bit of a mystery–personification of a ship’s rigging, sailors in the rigging? The poem doesn’t say nor, I believe, does it ask us to figure it out. And while one can wonder just why the frigates presume the poet to be a mouse, the point, it seems to me, is that that image puts the poet definitely into the scene before us.
The second movement (stanza three) finds us once again in the first person, but this time in the objective case (me) where the first line was first person subjective (I). If we think of the dog in the first line as a proxy for the poet, then garments become proxies in this third stanza. What happens in the fourth stanza? Just as the poet became and actant in the first movement scene in the second stanza (a mouse), so she becomes an actant in the second movement scene in the form of “a Dew/ Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve.” Now she can act: “I started.”
I’m thus suggesting that the first two movements employ the same tactical moves: First present a scene involving the poet but where she is not explicitly before us in the scene but exists in it only through proxies (her dog, her clothes). Then you introduce an image the places the poet into the scene (mouse, dew) where we can see her. Just why that move should trigger the transition to the next movement is not clear to me–the inner workings of technical mechanisms are by no means perspicuous–but that seems to be what’s going on.
Once the poet gets started, that is, initiates movement, at the end of the second movement, the third movement can open with the sea following behind – and in the third person, He. The two are clearly differentiated, and both are present in the scene before us, he through his heel and she through her ankle. In the second stanza of the movement, the last in the poem, they meet the “Solid Town” together. It is an entity there, before them, and both it and they are entities, there, before us. The sea bows, looks, and then withdraws.
Staten offers a remark that hints at the underlying ‘logic’ of this movement (p. 34): “To me, as I said, the bow and the mighty look give a courtly touch to the relation between the sea and the woman.” And one of the things they do in courts is have dances, couple dances where the men and women circulate among one another, execute specific figures, and then bow when it is over. The third movement is a (figurative-metaphorical) dance between the poet and the sea in the presence of the town.
That accounts nicely for footwork in the fifth stanza and even gives us a way – if we want it – to think about the odd juxtaposition of his heel and her ankle. If he were walking behind her, that makes no sense; it would be his toe to her heel. But if they are dancing, then they could easily be turned back-to-back where his heel might well touch her ankle. This still leaves us with those overflowing pearls, but perhaps we can gloss them as a figure for the riches of dance.
The overall pattern, as Attridge has asserted, is one of transport. At the risk of being overly literal, let me ask: Transport from where to where? To which I summon Staten’s observation (p. 33): “...the woman imagines herself as so fully witnessed in her adventure on the beach.” In the first stanza those “Mermaids in the Basement” observer her while in the last stanza the sea bows to her. These are, of course, very different kinds of acknowledgment. Whatever those mermaids are, they aren’t the sea. My point is simply to link Attridge’s minimal narrative, that of transport, with Staten’s observation, acknowledgment by others. Moreover, to the extent that transport implies dissolution of boundaries, it is at odds with social acknowledgment, which necessarily occurs across boundaries.
What the poem achieves through that transport is a realignment of actants, from their scattershot deployment in the opening stanza to their measured relationships in the last. That initial scattershot deployment is spatial, while the concluding measure is thoroughly social – even if the sea did not seem to know anyone in the Solid Town. Just how that comes about, well, that’s a matter of technique, technique whose means are as yet poorly understood.
* * * * *
I may have more to say about this poem and the methodological issues it raises. But I want to let things settle a bit in my mind before going on.