I started Early - Took my Dog -
And visited the Sea -
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me -

And Frigates - in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands -
Presuming Me to be a Mouse -
Aground - upon the Sands -

But no Man moved Me - till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe -
And past my Apron - and my Belt
And past my Bodice - too -

And made as He would eat me up -
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion's Sleeve -
And then - I started - too -

And He - He followed - close behind -
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle - Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl -

Until We met the Solid Town -
No One He seemed to know
And bowing - with a Mighty look -
At me - The Sea withdrew -

This poem is simple enough at the literal level. A young girl walks to the sea with her dog; she enjoys herself until the tide catches her; she becomes frightened and runs to the town for safety. The metaphors "His Silver Heel" and "Pearl" describe a wave breaking and the foam. She realistically describes the feeling of being unexpectedly engulfed by a wave ("would eat me up"). The dog offers companionship but not protection.

The poem also has a symbolic level. What is clear is that initially the speaker is welcomed by the Sea, then attacked and frightened by it. Less clear is what the Sea represents and what the meaning of her experience is. Several possibilities suggest themselves: the Sea represents (1) sexuality, (2) the unconscious, (3) death, or (4) nature.


The speaker is female and innocent whereas the sea is male and aggressive. She chooses to go to the Sea; "visited" indicates the Sea was her destination. She is initially attracted to the Sea, which is admiring; the mermaids "came out to look at me" from the ocean bottom. Ships offer her help ("Hempen Hands" are ropes) because she is perceived as a "Mouse"; what qualities do we associate with a mouse, and would any of them be appropriate here?

In stanzas one and two, Dickinson uses the metaphor of a house to describe the Sea; the ocean bottom is the "Basement" and the surface is "the Upper Floor." Is a house ordinarily a threatening or dangerous image? Is there any hint of menace in these stanzas?

With stanza three, the Sea is personified as a man. The speaker is sexually innocent ("But no Man moved Me"), though she presumably has felt secure up to this point. Now, she is sexually moved; she states no man "moved Me--till the Tide" engulfed her. The Tide moves up her body, higher than her bodice or chest. Engulfed and threatened by sexual feeling, she "started." Is she having an orgasm? You can decide by thinking about the text. In this interpretation of the poem, "His Silver Heel" and the overflowing "Pearl" have sexual meanings.

She fears the sexual experience and orgasm because of the possible loss of identity and sense of autonomy ("would eat me up"). She fears her identity would be consumed as completely by sexual experience as "a Dew" is consumed by the ocean. The repetition and emphasis of "And He--He followed close" betrays how strong her fear is; this phrasing calls particular attention to itself because it is the only repetition in the poem. "Close" suggests what a close escape she finally has if you think she does not have sex with him; alternately, you may read this as a reference to her sexual experience and orgasm.

She is protected from the Sea's sexual advances by the town. What is represented by the Town? why is it presented as an alternative to the Sea or nature? Solid can mean (1) resistant to pressure, not easily changed in shape, (2) substantial, firm, and (3) matter, opposite of liquid. Which meaning or meanings are appropriate?

The Sea departs, "bowing" and "with a Mighty look." Is he acknowledging a worthy opponent, someone who outdid him? or is his acknowledgement ironic? Has she reached safety and overcome his threatening advances? (How aggressive was He? in how much danger, if any, was she?) Or has she rejected her own sexuality and the possibility of sexual fulfillment? Is the end of this poem life-affirming or life-denying?

Dickinson wrote in a letter, "The shore is safer...but I love to buffet the sea." Does this assertion have any relevance to this poem? The answer is going to depend on how you read the poem.

The Unconscious and Death

As you know from reading her poetry, Dickinson was aware of our inner world or unconscious and the havoc that the eruption of the unconscious might bring. The unconscious is often compared to the ocean; its overwhelming an individual or its potential for overwhelming an individual is commonly compared to being buried in a wave.

The unconscious and death have a close connection. Being swamped by the unconscious involves a loss of sense of identity and control; thus, it can be seen as a death, even if only a brief death. Of course death is the ultimate lapsing into unconsciousness or non-being.

Sex is connected with the unconscious and with death. I have already discussed the orgasm as involving a temporary loss of identity and consciousness. Because of this experience, the sixteenth and seventeenth poets referred to orgasm as "dying," a usage that survives in modern poetry; and the French still refer to orgasm as "the small death."


The Sea as a symbol of nature is obvious, and all of us are aware of how deadly nature can be.

A Final Interpretation

Essentially my discussion of the Sea as sexuality applies to an interpretation of the Sea as death and/or as the unconscious or as nature. So please do not be influenced by my developing the sexual interpretation in detail. Try reading the poem with the sea as death or as the unconscious or as nature. Or you may develop an interpretation which differs from any that I have suggested. See which interpretation you prefer. Be clear about why you prefer it. What is important is that you think about the poem and reach your own conclusions, based on your understanding.

Dickinson Syllabus

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

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