Adrift! A little boat adrift!
And night is coming down!
Will no one guide a little boat
Unto the nearest town?
So Sailors say -- on yesterday --
Just as the dusk was brown
One little boat gave up its strife
And gurgled down and down.
So angels say -- on yesterday --
Just as the dawn was red
One little boat -- o'erspent with gales --
Retrimmed its masts -- redecked its sails --
And shot -- exultant on!
I first read this poem sometime in college, and it reminds me of the loss of someone that I knew. When she passed away, everyone seemed to assume that they knew exactly who she was and what her fate was. It was this view that she had lived alright until an event or series of events, and then things happened and made assumptions. In many ways, it was one of those pitying things where everyone tries to say something but can't think of much to say that isn't downright rude. There were much deeper parts that most people never knew. And honestly I believe there were things she could not control. Yes, this is vague but there is a point...
That point is that so much of life exists in parts that we don't see, in things that are private and beyond us. The perceived dusk may well be a dawn waiting to be recognized. There is hope and there is potential even in the most dire situations. At least I would like to believe that, and perhaps it is a naive belief. At times it is a downright impossible belief.
This poem echoes Dickinson's recurring theme of time and eternity and what is temporal versus what is everlasting. The poem seems to be deceptively simple, with an almost nursery rhyme regularity the ABCB DEFE GHIHJ scheme. Always ready to invert our expectations, we find ourselves lulled by the rhyme into very clear expectations as the words gently rock us into a familiar pattern-- thought perhaps a dark pattern. The little boat flounders, sinks, and the seamen watch it go down. Simple, yes? But it isn't, for in the third stanza Dickinson twists perspective, reaching a whole new level of perception and launching her audience into the celestial realm.
Our perspective in life is so finite and limited, governed strictly by the rules of life and death and without any more control than the floudering ship. And while the storms and devastation of the sea, perhaps a metaphor for life, are beyond our control, we do control how we view and react to the situations we face. We can sit back and do nothing but say "how sad" and watch the ship sink. Why did those sailors not try to save anyone who could be saved? Or we can accept what happens and find joy in the situation and celebrate with the enduring soul. This isn't to say that we are not deeply affected by grief, and I don't mean to imply that mourning should be avoided or is wrong. Nor do I mean that we should not do all we can with whatever means we have to help those struggling. But perhaps more to Dickinson's point, we need to look deeper in the first place, beyond our limited view of the situation and find what lies at the heart of the matter, what endures or could endure.