Emerson’s Water

Here’s another post in one of our National Poetry Month series: The Roots of Emily Dickinson. We’ve already touched on Emily Bronte, who’s fierceness inspired the American Emily; and Helen Hunt Jackson, a childhood classmate who encouraged Dickinson to publish her work.*  Today we look at a poem from the foremost public intellectual of her region and era, Ralph Waldo Emerson. We’ll see how it connects to Dickinson, and you may be surprised at how current Emerson’s thoughts about water are.

It’s difficult to think of a modern analog to Emerson. It’s not an exact fit, but Oprah Winfrey could be put forward—but that understates the level of Emerson’s pioneering in the mid-19th century when America was still seen as a backwater. Like Winfrey, Emerson’s approval or endorsement could do much to help a new writer come to the fore. Emerson’s opinions, not just on the arts, but on public culture in general, about how best to live and shape one’s own life, were widely distributed and read by a broad readership. But even if similar in fame and broad impact, Winfrey has never pretended to be a philosopher herself, while Emerson was viewed as a central figure in a movement called Transcendentalism. What is Transcendentalism is a book-length subject, but there are, within its core, beliefs in the powers of individual insight over religious authority and the desirability of a close reading of the book of nature.


If it was the middle of the 19th century, the guy on the right might be your Oprah.


When I would read Transcendentalist writings more than a hundred years after they were written, in my 1960s, I would be struck with how often (if one gave some allowances for language changes) they sounded like a hippie critique of 20th century culture,** and in the half-century and more since, if I dip back into them, I find some of their focus surprisingly contemporary.

Was Emily Dickinson a Transcendentalist? I can’t say for sure, but it’s near certain that Transcendentalist ideas, particularly as expressed by Emerson, were familiar to her. His thoughts were in the newspapers and magazines she read in her lifetime. We know she had been given a book of his poems by a friend, and we know she read them, and even copied at least one of them in her own handwriting. It’s possible that she attended one of Emerson’s popular public lectures.

Emerson Poem Sacrifice copied by Dickinson2

Part of Emerson’s poem “Sacrifice” copied in Emily Dickinson’s own hand.


Emerson’s poetry rarely works well, and Dickinson is a great poet, yet in poems like today’s Emerson selection “Water”  I can see similarities between them. Emerson punctuated his poem as one purported sentence, but its syntax is impossible to follow, and so “Water”  is as fragmented as one of Dickinson’s heavily dashed poems. Incredible leaps occur from line to line with no attempt to bridge them with explanatory connections in either poet’s work. Emerson begins his poem with a striking phrase, similar to many of Dickinson’s great first lines: “The water understands/Civilization well;” but we soon meet a strange homey image of sticking a toe (or foot) in it, and Dickinson too loved to mix the universal and the mundane. Emerson’s poem develops with water personified as not having or having certain feelings, and then with little preparation we’re warned it can be the destroyer.

I think Emerson is making a very modern point here, one that he expressed also in his essay “Civilization.”   When water is respected and harnessed appropriately for its utility *** we are in harmony with nature’s nature. But, if we ill-use nature, we literally go against the tide, and water will be our destroyer.

If Dickinson was influenced by Emerson’s ideas and outlook, and if she picked up his individualist style that dares to be somewhat obscure to stay true to the individual’s perceptions, why is she so often a great poet while Emerson isn’t?

I think Dickinson makes better word choices both for sound and impact. Having “decketh,” “adoreth,” and “doubleth” as three wet dish-rags in a four-word stretch is enough to make Emerson’s poem soggy. And Dickinson has a talent for intriguing mystery that pulls us along even to places we don’t fully understand. She does that partly with her hymn/ballad rhythms which Emerson doesn’t use. Dickinson is usually more immediate too. A few posts back I stated that a poem is not about ideas, but the experience of ideas. In an Emily Dickinson poem, I’m more often able to feel I’m experiencing those ideas as the are perceived, where I feel Emerson is summarizing his thoughts after the fact.

Unafraid, I waded through the -eth words and performed Emerson’s “Water”  with my own music, and you can hear it with the player below. And here’s the text of Emerson’s poem if you’d like to follow along on the page.




*With the exception of one poem, which was published anonymously while Dickinson was alive, Jackson failed at that. Still, I think it possible that having some knowledge of her friend selecting poems for publication could have been motivation for Dickinson to create her hand-written booklets of poems which were found after her death.

**This is for good and ill. Idealistic critiques of society are important, but adventurers often take wrong turns. And idealists have a hard time figuring out viable new structures.

***Emerson’s Massachusetts led the nation in using water power for small to large industry in the 19th century. So, when the city of Minneapolis was founded largely due to it’s exploitable water power, a good portion of the city fathers had New England backgrounds. Many Minneapolis streets still bear the name of 19th century New England luminaries, including Emerson. Alas there’s no Dickinson Avenue, as Dickinson’s poems were not published until close to the end of the century.

The Pool

With a poem, mystery and ambiguity can be often served best alongside brevity. H. D.’s “The Pool,”  which supplies today’s words, is a fine example of this. It’s a condensed tale of an encounter that takes seconds to read, but longer to absorb.

We last met H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) here with her tiny but fierce poem “Oread.” In that case, the title let us start off the poem knowing the main character of the poem. “The Pool”  offers us no such clue with it’s somewhat generic title, and it throws us in the deep end by beginning with a question: “Are you alive?” Five spare lines later it ends still listing questions: “What are you..?” It’s called “The Pool,” but the unnamed thing in the pool seems the subject.

Hilda Doolittle Fashion

H. D. with a more timeless look than her spouse.


Go ahead, listen to the musical performance of “The Pool”  now (the player is below), because encountering it in mystery is important. The poem is so short and yet multi-faceted, I repeat some of its words, extending the listener’s experience of the words a bit longer, encouraging you to not let go of them too fast.

H. D. must have intended this to be mysterious. Various “solutions” have been suggested, though they would reduce the poem to a riddle. When I first read it, I assumed the object the poem’s speaker is questioning in the pool was a fish, taking the metaphor of it quivering “Like a sea-fish” literally—but would someone describe a fish as “like a fish?” Over at the always “Interesting Literature” blog a commenter suggested it could be H. D.’s unborn child, an ingenious solution, consistent with the quivering and the water and possibly with the “banded one” epithet for the object, if one thinks of the womb as a band. H.D. was pregnant for the first time in the year the poem was published, and if this is part of the poet’s intent, the opening question is achingly poignant, since that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. But if that is the largely intended experience to be drawn from the poem, H. D. has given us no internal clues in the words to lead us there without knowing now obscure biographical details regarding her life and the poem’s publishing date.

Is that meaning there unintentionally? That’s certainly possible. The New Criticism writers assumed intent, honoring the artist, but modern Deconstructionists would find this a moot point. It wouldn’t even matter to them if H. D. had written the poem a year or more before it was published, before her pregnancy, as a reader could choose to experience the poem as about pregnancy with no intent on the part of the author.

My second reading of the poem takes from another context, H. D.’s love for classical Greek lyric poetry. Any situation involving looking into a pool and becoming entranced with what one sees suggests strongly the myth of Narcissus. At the very least from H. D.’s other work, we can assume that H. D. would have recognized the likelihood of this reading. But if this was her intent, why not call the poem “Narcissus?”

In the tiny amount of words in this poem, the net and the “banded one” are all that lead us away from Narcissus. Is this poem in fact a representation of a modern experience stated directly with no excess words in the manner of the Imagist credo? If so, what could one see in a pool that is banded and is like a fish. Some crabs have banded leg markings, that possibility exists, and the “I touch you” line takes on a new context if one imagines the crustacean strangeness and pincher-claw danger of touching a crab in a tide pool to see if it is alive.

red banded hermit crab

“I touch you”—or not. A banded hermit crab.


Or the modern, direct experience could be intended as an echo of Narcissus, a moment when the speaker of the poem sees their reflection in water and assumes, as Narcissus did in the myth, that this thing in the pool is an entrancing other. And the net then, an expression of the inability to capture our selves. Interesting Literature suggests that the “banded” could be the net interrupting the reflection with its strands. An echo then of a Narcissus’ reflection, and Echo is the name of the nymph who tricked Narcissus into the reflection lock.

That would explain why the poem isn’t called “Narcissus.” In this modern encounter, the speaker doesn’t lock forever in contemplation of the unknowable reflection, spending five lines there, aware of Narcissus’s plight. The net becomes the thing that, this time, breaks the spell. And what of the “banded one?” Is there a pun there? I didn’t see it reading the poem on the page, but my overlapping voices in the performance made the phrase sound like “abandoned one.” Narcissus wouldn’t abandon the entrancing reflection, and by extension, is bound by his attraction to his perception of himself.

Perhaps H. D.’s “The Pool” is all of these things, perhaps even something else as well. Mystery and ambiguity is sometimes best served by brevity. Go ahead and listen to my performance of “The Pool” again, it may reflect something else.