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Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights–Wild Nights!” is as enigmatic as it is condensed. Most critics agree that it is an essentially erotic poem, but interpretations vary widely within that shared recognition of its eroticism. There is disagreement as to what motivated Dickinson’s eros, toward whom or what she directed that motivation, and even as to what feelings she attempted to convey. With criticisms which run the gamut — from saying the poem evokes “the quiet, even regressive aftermath of orgiastic release” (Pollack, 185), to labeling it “homoerotic” (Farr, 223) — it is impossible to imagine a definitive reading upon which everyone can reach a consensus. Still, to anyone who has felt the underlying emotional tension in Dickinson’s “Wild Nights!” it seems incongruous to hear James L. Dean describe the poem as “less-provocative” (92) simply because the final “Thee” may be addressing the metaphorical sea rather than a particular lover. To come to that conclusion would require one to suppose that an anticipated tryst between individuals is somehow more provocative than a seething sexual tension that springs from nature directly into the human psyche. It suggests a reader more concerned with voyeuristic imagery than with the deeper questions of desire, and one who ultimately might be better served reading bawdy limericks than by pondering the words of Dickinson.
James L. Dean is not unfamiliar with Emily Dickinson or “Wild Nights!” In fact, in his essay in the Winter, 1993 Explicator, Dean tells us that he has thought about the poem enough over the years to “have been of eight or nine minds about it” (91). This is probably why he asks such good questions to help us with analysis, and why his insights into various aspects of the poem are so compelling. It is all the more confounding, then, when his words lead almost precisely to the emotional nerve that drives the poem’s voice before he veers off and crashes into one of his own fantasies. Dean makes important points — he identifies the metaphorical sea, examines the speaker’s relationship with Eden, and discusses what he sees as a paradox of mooring within the wild sea — but in each instance, his analysis suffers from a kind of myopic march toward a conclusion the poet never intended. While Dean has his eye firmly fixed on a wild sexual liaison which will happen “Tonight”, Emily Dickinson’s gaze stretched farther. “Wild Nights–Wild Nights!” is an expression of an erotic desire so integral with human nature that the poet connected it to the larger natural world out of necessity. Instead of humming along in hungry contemplation of an imminent rendezvous, Dickinson’s poem expresses a quality of unquenched passion that no earthly Eden, nor any single “Tonight”, can ever satisfy.
Dean sees the “sea” as passion’s source and siren, therefore concluding it is the place where “passionate nature unleashes itself” (92) — this is partly right, but somehow he never makes the connection between the sea’s potential for unreasoned tumult and the chaotic need in the speaker’s voice. There is a jerkiness in the poem as it veers from the first stanza’s cry for luxury, to the second stanza’s seeming departure and respite, and finally back to desire in the second line of the final stanza. This conveys a corresponding jerkiness of emotion — the speaker cannot even hold constant for the final stanza as she looks from Eden suddenly back to the sea. When Dean looks at the sea only as a place of unleashing the wild heart, he fails to inform our sense that the speaker is intimate with its underlying tumult, that in fact, all the forces which work to throw a sea into fits are the same forces which act likewise within her heart. Dean points to the poem’s symbolic parallels between the human heart and the sea’s passionate nature, but ascribes them only to the latter — he sees “the anarchic, the dark, the threatening, and the wild” (93), but merely as things which the speaker seeks, not as aspects of her own being which are inseparable from her nature. Blinded by his own imagined goal of a particular sexual “Tonight”, Dean misses the bolder image here, the one which shows us a female passion that is fundamentally wild, that is as endlessly rich and powerful as the sea which Dickinson uses as its metaphor. Far from being the less provocative, this reading has implications that strike at the core of sexual notions in our culture, and which certainly ignored the Victorian attitudes of the poet’s time.
Dean’s reading of line 9, “Rowing in Eden”, includes the thought, “there could even be mild disparagement of Eden as tame, depending on the tone that we sense” (93). If we take into account the first stanza’s ebullient speculation, and then read line 10 as a sudden musing away from Eden and toward that anarchic sea, Eden seems not only tame, but stifling and oppressive. Viewing the poem through Dean’s eyes, it is understandable that he would see the tameness rather than the oppression — tameness fits into his shallower idea of a speaker yearning for a particular diversionary tryst to soothe her hunger, while to sense oppression would require Dean to feel the internal conflict of a limitless passion held prisoner by someone else’s idea of paradise. Where Dean believes “rowing in Eden may imply great bliss [but not] danger or substantial expense of energy” (93), he misses the boat entirely by not fully acknowledging the irony he initially suggests. The speaker is not satisfied in Eden, it is not a paradise of her making, and more, the act of rowing is anything but blissful and effortless — in fact, most rowers will find that what was originally splendid and full of adventure soon becomes a tedium of the most heart-numbing kind. The speaker in “Wild Nights!”, because her emotions are reaching elsewhere, sounds almost chained to her oars, and the image is one of a galley-slave looking toward freedom. “Futile the winds / To a heart in port” (Dickinson, Lines 5 – 6) is surely true when the port is a place where the passionate heart is anchored, being held by whatever means such things are done. To a heart that longs to dance and celebrate upon the buffeting waves of its own wilder sea, there is oppression in shelter, the dancing replaced by monotonous repetitive motion within closed boundaries. The heart that longs to exult in wildness is held prisoner for the sake of safety, something, the poet seems to say, which is anathema to human, or at least female nature. While Dean sees “Eden [as] not enough” (93), Dickinson sees Eden, at least in this poem, as the antithesis of the wild heart beating relentlessly within. She thus provides a much more provocative notion for those who search for truth in the voices and images of art.
It is in discussing the seeming paradox of mooring within the sea that Dean concludes his reading of “Wild Nights!” Because he does not associate the poem’s tone and symbols with the statement Dickinson is making about female nature, it is inevitable that he ends up with a paradox. Were it true that the speaker was laboring under an “intensity of desire [while moving] from a general wish for wild nights to an intensely desired, specific ‘Tonight'”, as Dean says (Dean, 93), while also rowing in a blissful Eden, then yes, it would imply a paradoxical desire for both safety and wildness. But when one feels the deeper roots of desire, those which stretch from the churning depths of nature’s sea to the pounding unrest of the passionate heart, and an imprisoned heart at that, there is no paradox whatsoever. There is only the most understandable of sentiments in the words “Might I but moor — Tonight — / In Thee!” (Dickinson, Lines 11 – 12) — it is the need to be whole, the craving for a synthesis that will finally make sense to a heart which feels its own nature is tied inexorably to universal, or infinite forces. If this were paradox, then Dickinson would be falsifying her own transcendentalist notions, admitting that no such connection between the human and the higher realm of nature was possible. It is doubtful that she would have chosen to write a poem as voluptuous as “Wild Nights!” in order to announce a break from a philosophy that was more about the sensual than the rational. Instead, this poem is an eloquent lyric which incorporates an unsettled and unsettling sexual desire within Dickinson’s own vision of a transcendent human existence.
Whether it is because of some androcentric tendency to equate the erotic with a specific sexual action or object, or simply because he has never looked upon the wilder nature in the women he knows, James L. Dean has deprived himself of the essence of Dickinson’s poem . Reading the word “Tonight” as an implicit reference to a desired sexual coupling diminishes its power as a breathless expression of immediacy, making it a mere referent to the supposed physical act to follow. It is possible that had he read the fascicle copy of the poem in Dickinson’s own handwriting, and seen that she put “Tonight” on a line all its own, and with a spirited horizontal flourish topping both T’s simultaneously (Smith, 65-66), Dean might have sensed the agony of enduring urgency in the speaker’s voice, an urgency that never abates because it is integral to the speaker’s nature. But given that Dean consistently underestimates the feelings at work in the poem, that he is content to ascribe them only to the physical longing for uninhibited sexual release while ignoring the image of natural desire which animates the speaker, one concludes that he would not. Instead he seems doomed to inhabit a more mundane world where “separation enlarges desire [and] intensity feasts on absence” (Dean, 93), a world defined by linear sexual attraction rather than an alinear longing for an integration between nature and the sexual self. If so, that’s too bad, because Dickinson offers much more to those who can look beyond conventional patterns of thought and hear the beating sound of her unconventional, but very real heart.
List of Works Cited
Dean, James L. “Dickinson’s ‘Wild Nights.'” Explicator, 1993 Winter, pp. 91-93.
Dickinson, Emily. “Wild Nights — Wild Nights!” In The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Judith Farr. Cambridge, Ma. and London: Harvard University Press, 1992. 229.
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Ma. and London: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Pollack, Vivian R. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984.
Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
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