Russell Reising: From "Emily Dickinson's Lost Dog"

Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry. --Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Emily Dickinson's poem "I started Early -- Took my Dog --" presents us with another kind of loose end altogether by announcing the presence of a dog in the high-visibility position of the final word in the poem's first line, only to abandon the dog immediately thereafter. While I take poem #520 to be one of Dickinson’s most compelling and certainly one of her most complex feminist works, the fact is, however, that the overwhelming majority of critics, including those who investigate Dickinson's postromantic or posttranscendentalist poetics of nature, do not discuss the poem at all. Those who do read "I started Early -- Took my Dog --" (as opposed to those who merely mention it) tend to stress its negotiation of a variety of themes--sex; death; Dickinson's supposed renunciation of life; or an encounter with nature, the unconscious, or some unspecified overwhelming force. Most critics, moreover, synthesize a number of these analytical paradigms within their interpretations. Even those critics who do discuss poem #520 tend not to grapple with the structurally (and, I will contend, thematically) significant question of what happens to her dog. Unlike other loose ends that emerge at or near the conclusions of the works we have been examining, this lost dog presents a different kind of absence, one which is conspicuous throughout a work in which its presence is only fleetingly alluded to and then simply dropped. I would like to pursue this textual enigma doggedly, so to speak, as a strategy both for reading poem #520 and as an occasion to pursue some of the implications of important feminist approaches to Dickinson's poetry and its responsiveness to pressing issues in literary history and feminist thought. Margaret Homans suggests that "Dickinson derives her unique power from her particular way of understanding her femininity, and ... her work is as complex and profuse as it is ... because she is able to put behind her problems of identity that make Dorothy [Wordsworth] and Brontë linger over the same theses and issues in poem after poem." Homans's argument is tempting, but, I feel, optimistic; I don't read Dickinson as ever having put any fundamental question "behind her." In fact, I would go so far as to argue that in "I started Early -- Took my Dog --," a poem which Homans does not engage, Dickinson's work is so complex and so fraught with loose ends that it demonstrates little if not the impossibility of resolving questions of gendered identity.

The text begins "I started Early -- Took my Dog -- / And visited the Sea --," but, while important enough to be mentioned as the speaker's companion in the poem's first line, the dog simply disappears from the narrative of this work, which has been read variously as adventure, as trauma, and as initiation rite. In one basic, literary respect, this loose end, the vanishing of Dickinson’s dog, problematizes the privilege of poetic beginnings which initiate not only poetic but narrative schemes of importance. As Peter Rabinowitz argues,

our attention during the act of reading will, in part, be concentrated on what we have found in these positions [beginnings and endings], and our sense of the text's meaning will be influenced by our assumption that the author expected us to end up with an interpretation that could account more fully for these details than for details elsewhere. (59)

We may, of course, be puzzled by various narrative details or ensembles of data--by the possible meanings of the "mermaids" or "frigates" in this poem--but, according to Rabinowitz’s calculus, our perplexity at the disappearance of Emily Dickinson's dog conflicts with important structural imperatives of poetic interpretation and, by virtue of so flagrant a violation of Rabinowitz’s "rules of notice," should generate a commensurate hermeneutic gesture on our parts as readers. To be sure, Dickinson's poems frequently transgress ordinary poetic conventions, leaving loose ends not quite accommodated by the expansiveness of her verse narratives. The issues and images of her beginnings, however, tend to persist as central concerns for her poetic texts. Dickinson's beginnings establish contexts, locate scenic environments, address interlocutors, pose questions, raise issues, articulate problems, declare fractured identities, assert certainties, suggest ironies, but virtually all introductory moments in Dickinson remain thematically operative for the duration of the poem, and are usually generative of those poetic worlds. For example, the bird in "A Bird came down the Walk --" remains the center of that poem's focus, and in "I know that He exists" the existence or nonexistence of God drives this problematic meditation. Her poems rarely provide total (frequently even satisfactory) closure, but the nature of Dickinsonian ambiguity hinges predominantly on provocative, resonant, and problematic terms--either on an excess of meaning, detail, and allusion or on the absence of certitude or finality--but rarely on amputation, fragmentation, or disappearance, although the disappearance or absence of God (in one case the amputation of his right hand), of tradition, of self, of lover, or of hope often provides the thematic core for Dickinson's poetic interrogations.

How do we figure the significance of the dog’s capitalized presence in the poem's first line? What breed of dog is it, and male or female? is this one of the few poetic excursions on which Dickinson allows her beloved Carlo to accompany her? And, if so, how could a dog which Dickinson described in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson as "large as myself" (Letters 2: 404) simply vanish? Is this hound as fluffy and lovable as my keeshond, Cubby-Bear? How do we understand the identity of the speaker to be modified, qualified, strengthened, or in some other way constructed with reference to the dog (that is, is Emily Dickinson's dog her best friend and/or "man's best friend")? How do we account for its absence (or at least for Dickinson’s silence about it) by the conclusion? When and how does it vanish, if vanish it has, within the narrative of the speaker's encounter with a masculinized and aggressive sea? And why is the disappearance of the dog not reported as a dilemma? The poem seems blithely and disturbingly unaware of its vanishing. I think that all these questions can be answered to the satisfaction of those concerned with animal as well as with human rights. In fact, the problematic status of Emily Dickinson's dog may well provide us with an angle for approaching both one of Dickinson's most aggressively feminist poems and her thinking about nature, culture, and sexual identity. My reading of "I Started Early -- Took my Dog --" will deal most directly with the question of Dickinson's pet near its own conclusion, but traces of the dog will everywhere inform its progress and concerns.


This poem begins with a two-stanza statement of the speaker's announcement of her visit to the sea followed by what seems to be the sea's reaction to her presence, at this point apparently on the shore. The first two lines,

I started Early -- Took my Dog –

And visited the Sea --

provide the only occasion for a declaration of motive, goal, or rationale for the "visit," and, of course, no such declaration appears. Rather than clarification, the speaker provides only a statement of enigmatic fact, recalling the earliness of this venture, but not a specific point of departure, although we might assume that the terminus of the poem, the "Solid Town" of the concluding stanza, doubles as a point of origin. I would offer that in this poem Dickinson enacts what Myra Jehlen calls "America's primal scene, Columbus arriving on an unknown shore" (2), though with the crucially gendered difference that her female persona elicits. Here we have no confident conquistador, no rapacious army of voyagers hungry for material gain, but a young woman testing the waters of one of her culture's dominant tropes. More tentative than the invincible male explorers driven by dreams of glory and gold, the speaker in this narrative provides no information concerning the exact nature of this "visit," though the possibilities the reader can construct for this poem's speaker include such scenarios as a casual early-morning walk accompanied by her dog, an excursion of some ambiguous nature on which the dog might accompany her for protection, and, in an Emersonian or Thoreauvian vein, a latter-day examination of or experiment with nature, perhaps even Dickinson's problematic consideration of "where she lived and what she lived for"; that is, her Walden. In fact, two possible definitions of the word "visit" invite the latter reading, incorporating the sense of "an instance (or the action) of going to a place, house, etc., for the purpose of inspection or examination" along with the verbal form "to go to (an institution) for the purpose of seeing that everything is in due order; to exercise a periodic surveillance or supervision over, or make a special investigation into (management or conduct)" (OED). The poem gives no indication in its earliest stanzas that this range of the term "visit" seems operative, but the more we pursue this work’s conundrums both within its textual boundaries and within several cultural contexts, the more this reading of Dickinson’s "visit" reveals about her poetic work.

What does happen as soon as the speaker reaches the sea is that, far from maintaining any objective distance from the ocean, she becomes associated with, even identified as, actual or mythical creatures of nature.

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 --

The ambiguity in these lines is forbidding, and critics have reached little consensus concerning the nature of the mermaids or the frigates and their hempen hands. We can observe, however, that both images cast the speaker as a creature of nature, diminished and not fully human. The image of the mermaids evokes the mythical half-woman, half-fish, and, while the mermaids come out to look at the speaker and, hence, cannot easily be identified with her, they usher into the poem the possibility that, as woman, this Dickinson speaker is strongly identified with this subhuman element. The next stanza intensifies this possibility when the speaker is explicitly naturalized as "a Mouse" by the frigates. In other words, we can trace a descent from the human to the animal in these first two stanzas, with the figure of the mermaids functioning as a pivotal and transitional image, suggestive, perhaps, of some mutation in the original human presence of the poem's beginning. As she nears the sea, the speaker, we might argue, loses her specifically human identity and begins a process of diminution, of bestial transformation.

The shifting terms of this poem's articulation of the relationship of the human (or the cultural) and the sea (or the natural) also informs the poem's architecturalization of the sea, organizing it conveniently into the common domestic units of ordinary housing structures. So, while the speaker's human identity erodes, the sea and its creatures take on human characteristics. It is important, also, that both the mermaids, by virtue of being half-human, and the mouse (as in the deprecatory adjective "mousey") can suggest human diminishment or insignificance. Furthermore, the connotation that the frigates are "presumptuous" in their diminution of the speaker highlights the arrogance and dominating perspective attributed to them. To return briefly to Myra Jehlen's argument, Dickinson's poem might actually invert Jehlen's notion of "Columbus arriving on an unknown shore" by casting herself as a metaphor for those native-peoples victimized by colonial appropriation. In fact, while I will be pursuing a reading primarily concerned with Dickinson's thinking about gender and sexuality, Jehlen's image enables us to maintain a colonial and racialized subtext for Dickinson's poem. What begins as an apparently ordinary walk on the beach becomes very quickly an ontologically threatening event in which the speaker perceives her humanness slipping into a subhuman form commonly regarded as a nuisance or insignificant and, in this specific instance, threatened. The poem intensifies this level of threat through mutually canceling images of mermaids and frigates. While both are, of course, human constructions, one imaginative and the other material, mermaids function in traditional mythologies as partial explanations for the loss or destruction of ships and the madness of sailors, who, rather than remaining in control of their ships, drown while swimming to join the mild and tormenting half-women, half-fish. On the other hand, both moments--the undefined gaze of the mermaids and the presumptuous groping of the frigates--do not actually constitute the speaker's identity, but stand as her hypotheses concerning the Others perception of her being, imposed constructions of female identity from some yet unspecified locus of discursive energy. The imposition of these constructions gains significance throughout the rest of 'I started Early -- Took my Dog –" and constitutes a major source of thematic conflict.

We can accept the ultimate ambiguity of these images while still granting a powerful sexual subtext inherent in them. In both cases the speaker of Dickinson's poem is situated in a potentially weakened (or perhaps covert) sexual position. The coming up of the mermaids from their basement quarters could signal the rising of a subordinate group (they live below the stairs while the frigates are in the "Upper Floor"); while normally "kept down," these mermaids rise up in this instance. Furthermore, their gaze, their "looking at" the speaker on the sand, is at least partially homoerotic, especially if we read the "coming out" of the mermaids as a declaration of sexual rather than simply of social emergence and if we read the speaker's early starting in the poem's first stanza as a youthful, perhaps prodigious or premature, gesture of some initiatory importance. The frigates' assumption of the speaker's vulnerability further constructs her as a weakened self, in this case one to be groped for with hempen hands, at least partially suggestive of fettered bondage or the strangling grasp of a hempen noose. The act of "extending" these hempen hands fuses the potentially violating intentions of these frigates with their equally possible and decorous "extending" of courtesies to the speaker imagined to be weak or in need of assistance. Whether "extended" out of concern, decorum, or predatory opportunity, these hempen hands carry at least an implicit threat of restriction and bondage, especially since there has been no indication of the speaker's being in any actual danger at this point in the poem.

For both the mermaids and the frigates, then, the speaker on the sands is translated into an object for visual or physical appropriation, though it is important to contrast the possibly liberatory implications of the mermaids with the potentially (or at least partially) demeaning and inhibiting gestures of the putatively masculinized "Hempen Hands." Whether the object of the female gaze or of the male grope, the speaker has suddenly entered a realm quite beyond the ostensible "walk on the beach" ease of the poem's opening. But the difference in these modes of objectification and possible appropriation needs to be remarked as well. We should recall that the gaze of the mermaids is more integrally and less threateningly recounted by virtue of its relatively intimate placement with the emergence of the poetic speaker. It need hardly be said as well that, while not utterly without demeaning o objectifying potential, the gaze, even that of the voyeur, is objectively less damaging than would be the physical violation or bondage potential in the extending of the "Hempen Hands."

One advantage of working through this line of thinking concerning both mermaids and frigates is that it better prepares us for the opening line of the third stanza:

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 --

Unless we grant some sexual dynamic to the initial vision of the mermaids and frigates, the contrast and the intimate personal impact of this line makes little sense. It would contrast with nothing, regardless of whether we stress "Man" as the agent or "moved" (or both) as the focus of the line. Whereas the sexually charged symbols of the first two stanzas function at an oblique and, perhaps, merely potential level, most of this poem's readers have focused on the sexual overtures inhering in the heightened physicality and nearly pornographically fetishistic specificity of the poem beginning in the third stanza. Here, the rising of the water is measured with relation to the speaker's body as coded in the culturally significant semiotics of clothing: shoe, apron, belt, and bodice, with each accessory demarcating a specific and fetishized position on the speaker's body. Furthermore, the hypnotic repetition of the word "past" in three consecutive lines ("the final two using the conjunctive "And past") suggests a paralyzed and static subject whose only recourse is to gaze at her own body being overwhelmed. This shift contrasts with the early stanza's casting of the poem's speaker as the object of the Others' hypothetical gaze, but it also heightens the poem's drama of seduction and violation. In either or both scenarios the speaker is again rendered a passive victim in a scene of intensified aggression relative to the voyeuristic drama the first two stanzas.

The escalating tide functions more threateningly, than this inventory of sexually charged accoutrements would indicate, however. The potential of the sea entirely to engulf the subject is clarified in the next stanza:

And made as He would eat me up –

As wholly as a Dew

Upon a Dandelion's Sleeve –

And then -- I started -- too --

The threat in these lines of the speaker's total absorption culminates the logic of the poem up to this point. Imaged as a drop of dew, the speaker is rendered even more minuscule than in the earlier moment as a "mouse," and her total engulfment by the sea finalizes the gradual rising of the seawater in the previous stanza. However, the gargantuan proportions of this opposition--ocean versus drop of dew--suggests that no metaphor for the speaker's self at this point could plausibly oppose the encroachment of the ocean. She might as well be Lake Superior; the outcome would be the same annihilatory absorption into the immense forces of the ocean. The visual and physical specificity of this drop of dew (using the article "a") similarly recalls the parataxis of the previous stanza and echoes the hypervisuality and implicit paranoia of poem #328 ("A Bird came down the Walk --"), in which the puzzled onlooker can note with great and, as I read it, disturbing precision, "And then he drank a Dew / From a convenient . . ." (my emphasis). In this poetic world, the incredibly large threatens the incredibly tiny.

But the addition of "Dandelion's Sleeve," with its echo of the catalog of the speaker’s clothing and accessories, contributes to the metaphorical instability of the poem. Whereas the speaker could be metaphorized as a mouse in the first stanza and a drop of dew in another, here also the flower/weed is represented in terms which, while botanically correct, also imply the "sleeves" of human clothing. The poem's human subject can be metaphorized in natural terms while constituents of nature can simultaneously take on attributes of human worlds of architecture (basement, upper floor), apparel, and trade or war (frigates). The trafficking between human and natural worlds foregrounds an important facet of the poem's work through its first four stanzas and up to its concluding two. We will return to this slippage after finishing our initial summation of some of the poem's dynamics.

This fourth stanza concludes, not with this image of a comparatively infinitesimal drop of dew, however, but with the line "And then -- I started -- too --," echoing the poem's first two words by isolating the "I started," and freeing the subject from the static and immobile state she has seemingly been in since her arrival at the sea. But to what extent does this repetition of "I started" merely repeat its sense from the first stanza, and to what extent might its repetition depart from that initial register? These two moments share important ranges of meaning. The initial "I started" signals the poem's genesis and, to that extent at least, indicates a moment of initiatory movement, a beginning before which no poem existed, although that silence prior to the poem's first line remains unexamined and, perhaps, unexaminable. Both occurrences signal a beginning of sorts, but, while we can argue that the poet's inaugural articulation "I started" brings that subjectivity to life out of some unspecifiable state prior to verbalization, only the second such "start" seems to be a response to some specific, because examined, ontological threat. This responsive moment also constitutes an important difference between the two. Whereas the first "I started" signals the poet’s apparently unprovoked and unproblematic desire to undertake a visit, the second moment clearly is a response to some external threat and carries the further connotation of "start," as in to be startled or "to discover [something] suddenly, to wake up, [or] to escape" (OED). The 1862 composition date for this poem also enables us to read "started" within a context capable of highlighting its responsiveness to the confinements and oppression peculiar to a slave culture, in this case reimagined by Dickinson to include the oppression of American women, even in the North. Frederick Douglass, to cite just one example, refers to his and his companions' planned escape from slavery as their "intended start" (94) in his 1845 Narrative. Whichever of these ranges we attribute to Dickinson's "start," another important difference between these repeated phrases resides in their demarcation of action and direction. The first initiates a journey toward the sea, the second a retreat from the sea, now newly perceived as a threatening Other rather than the scene of a pleasant stroll.

We might also read this as an additional variation on the poem's psychosexual dynamic. Following the fairly explicit sexual maneuvering attributed to the sea in the poem's central stanzas, gestures in response to which the poem's speaker can only look on in motionless passivity, the poem's second "I started" could also signal the speaker's own sexual awakening, the first moment of her active response to the sea's overtures. This possibility, then, suggests an alternative beginning to that of the speaker's retreat, especially since the details clarifying that this second start is, in fact, an escape or retreat from the sea are not disclosed until the final two stanzas. The poem's punctuation--the fact that the fourth stanza is closed with a final dash--strengthens this suggestion, though, given the vexations of Dickinson's own punctuation scheme as well as the stylistic normalization of the Johnson edition, we can only hazard guesses of this nature. On the other hand, we might not force ourselves to choose between these two incompatible ranges and, instead, link them to construct a highly ambivalent moment in which the speaker, once fully aware of the sexuality implicit in her rendering of the sea's advances, is caught between and committed to both possible inclinations: terrified flight and responsive participation, refusal and acquiescence. That this ambivalence responds to and mirrors the structural instability of the poem's metaphorical trafficking between the human and the natural indicates the thematic consistency of Dickinson's meditation on the condition of women in nineteenth-century American culture.

However, the poem does not itself negotiate, much less provide the semantic clarifications necessary to resolve, these alternatives. They remain mutually possible, perhaps mutually constitutive of the speaker's riven subjectivity up to this moment in the poem. That the final two stanzas imply rather strongly (though not at all definitively) that the speaker indeed rejects the sea's advances and escapes to safety nevertheless does not clarify or guide our reading experience through the first four stanzas. When we return to this discussion, however, I will qualify, if not reject, the readerly relativity implied in this scenario. Despite the value we tend to attribute to the "freshness" of our reading experience, any first reading is exploratory, but our "reader response" would be pathetic indeed if our interpretive procedures remained limited to the infinite ignorance that accompanies our first encounter with the narrative. Every subsequent reading reads with foreknowledge of the poem's entirety, and, especially in the case of so focused and limited a work as this brief poem, the tensions, turns, ambiguities, and structural and thematic twists aren't nearly as surprising as in initial readings, though this is not to imply that they are less vexing.

The ambiguities proliferating in the poem's central stanzas carry over to the concluding eight lines. The penultimate stanza functions as a transition from the middle stanzas' representation of the sea's advances in highly sexualized terms to the final image of separation, withdrawal, and the speaker's refuge in the "Solid Town":

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 --

The stutter at the beginning of the fifth stanza resituates the source of the ambiguity embedded in the speaker's "starting" within the sea's movement and her response to it. That the sea "followed" the speaker might, as in the case of her "starting," indicate that it continued its pursuit of her. The speaker's repetition of the pronominal "He," then, alerts us to her continuing terror even as she escapes the immediate site of her vulnerability. However, that the sea's sexualized motions now follow those of the speaker can also signal a transformation on the part of the sea from sexual aggressor to responsive partner. This development confronts us with the possibility that the speaker's sexual urges and energies, once awakened or started, outstrip those of the previously aggressive sea and exceed them in desire and enjoyment. In this case, the repeated "He" serves to discriminate the speaker's state of arousal from that of the sea; that is, whereas the speaker "started," the sea could only "follow" her lead. The sea's following "close behind" similarly supports both possible readings, again tending to cast both speaker and sea in symbiotic intimacy.

The speaker's potential dominance of these lines, even in the midst of her retreat, produces a revision of the poem's initial fetishistic imaging. Previously it was the speaker and her apparel represented as isolated accessories—"Apron," "Belt," "Bodice"--not to mention the poem's initial staging of her as the object of the voyeuristic gazes of both mermaids and frigates. Here, while the speaker defines herself in terms of her "Ankle" and "Shoes," she also domesticates and limits the previously irresistible and overwhelming force of the sea within the phrases "His Silver Heel" and "Pearl," both of which transfer the fetishistic specificity previously reserved for the representation of her own body to the body of the sea. Even with the final image of her shoes "overflow[ing] with Pearl," suggestive of the ejaculatory culmination of the sexual act begun in the third stanza, the appropriation of the male emission as an object of female ownership (pearls or jewelry) recasts the entire drama of the poem within terms more compatible with, or at least potentially less hostile to, female desire and fulfillment. Even if we read the image of her shoes overflowing with pearl as one of male sexual climax, the speaker nonetheless represents that climax as equally female--it is her shoes that overflow, suggesting the possibility that her desire, however generated, culminates in its own dripping fulfillment.

The first word of the poem's final stanza delimits the entire ensemble of these possibilities. The finality implied by "Until We met the Solid Town" can simultaneously terminate the speaker's escape, the sea's continuing pursuit of the speaker, and the apparently mutual moments of sexual climax hinted at in the image of her shoes overflowing with his pearl. The sea's suddenly traversing whatever distance separates the poem's two locales poses a spatial problem, but, however one accounts for the sea's new ability to extend up to the boundaries of the solid town, the final stanza polarizes the poem's world into two realms, the one natural, fluid, surging, and surprising (though inhabited and characterized by the appurtenances and rituals of culture) and the other significantly "Solid" and civilized. The stability implicit in this image of the "Solid Town" as a barrier beyond which the sea does not extend, however, weakens as the poem performs one final set of ambiguous twists. The boundary of the "Solid Town" may appear daunting and absolute, but the poem carefully designates the sea's departure as a result, not of some impenetrable boundary, but of unfamiliarity: since the sea seems to know no one, it departs. The boundary between culture and nature in this poem, as it was in the trafficking between nature and culture in the poem's beginning, is itself fluid and variable, not in any way stable or inherent. The sea's final departure further strains the ambiguities established throughout the poem's final four stanzas. The "Mighty look" of the sea is tempered by its apparent conformity with social niceties represented in its "bowing" upon departure. Again, an image from poem #328, "A Bird came down the Walk --," provides a useful intertext. In that work, the perception of the seemingly incompatible and contradictory actions of the bird, who in one moment eats a worm raw only to hop out of the way to allow a beetle to pass in the next, puzzles and almost paralyzes the onlooker. The sea's power and rapacity in "I started Early -- Took my Dog --" exists simultaneously with its courtesy and conformity with the ritual codes of the speaker's culture.

The culmination of the poem's sexual drama resides in the final word. Suggestive both of the sea's ultimate departure from the speaker and of the terminal gesture of a completed sexual act, the term "withdrew" (along with the politeness implied by the sea's "bowing") complicates our final understanding of the sea, although both of these possibilities cast the sea in the role of active participant, if not of aggressor. Either of these possibilities needs to be reread within the poem's designation of the motivation for the sea's withdrawal. That departure responds not to any expressed wish or desire of the speaker's but rather to the sea's discovering itself on alien and unfamiliar territory in the "Solid Town." Even the "bowing" of the sea, while potentially an act of courtesy, could conceivably indicate the arched-back posture of sexual rapture so common to visual representations of both male and female orgasms. The poem's conclusion represents the sea's "withdrawal," in other words, as an act in no way necessarily concerned with or responsive to the desire of the speaker. In fact, the "Mighty look" cast by the sea upon the speaker in this final withdrawal slants the poem in the direction of representing the sea as aggressor. This mighty look returns us to the other looks directed at the speaker early in the poem. In every case, those gazes fixed the speaker as an insignificant and objectified Other for visual appropriation (as oddity to the mermaids and as mouse for the frigates). The mightiness of this final gaze, furthermore, recapitulates the act of diminution and presumption characteristic of the frigates by asserting its power and the speaker's passivity Whatever responsive gestures and whatever the pleasures the poem implies the speaker may have enjoyed, this final moment reasserts her body as an object for consumption, not her potential equality (perhaps superiority) as fully involved participant.

Up to this point, I have focused on the poem as a drama of significant, perhaps life-determining, human and sexual experience in which the speaker encounters the sea (and its personified inhabitants). The terms of this drama begin in apparent innocence, and move through the mysterious encounter with the mermaids and ambiguous grasping of the frigates to the protracted and highly sexualized exchange with the sea. The ambiguities informing each of these episodes prevent us from arriving at any certitude with regard to their precise register, but the play of these ambiguities remains fairly consistent, casting the speaker in what is always a two-sided and at times mutually constitutive dialectic of passivity and action, complicity and resistance, participation and violation, courtesy and hostility. It is difficult, if not impossible, in other words, to determine whether the mermaids' gaze is friendly or demeaning, whether the frigates' extended hands intend violation or rescue, whether the sea's rising over the speaker's body implies sexual opportunism or mere naturalistic process, whether the speaker's starting (and the sea's following) implies fear, surprise, or response (and courtesy, pursuit, or response), or whether the sea's final bowing and withdrawing indicates acquiescence to the speaker's wishes, retreat from alien territory, or satisfied culmination to an act of sexual aggression. It is equally problematic to determine just where the speaker comes from, what significance her starting early has for the poem, what her return to the solid town represents, and what impact this experience has or her life. The latter may be especially important if, as the first line suggests, this poem records some early, perhaps formative, experience. We can't even reach a degree of relative interpretive certainty that the poem is anything other than the record of a child's vivid memories and hyperbolic account of a walk on the beach. With respect to the sexualized action of the poem in particular, we can't be sure whether whatever sexual drama the poem represents stages the speaker's violation, her erotic participation, or her successful resistance of the sea's unwelcome and seemingly traumatic threat. However, any reading we may attempt must certainly address the poem's generative loose end: where, amidst all this activity and all these ambiguities, is her dog?


Given the potential irreducibility of many of the poem's images and the rampant circulation of its contradictions, we might examine the conditions of this poem's possibility, the conditions of its production, the generic and thematic parameters that render it nonetheless producible and readable. I would suggest that there are at least two decisive sets of generic circumstances that we need to bring to our reading of this poem. The most local of these generic and cultural ensembles involves Dickinson's place within American literary discourse and the "authorization" of her poem by preexisting narratives--specifically, the ways in which the work of this poem draws on and generates images and tensions common to nineteenth-century American literary production. Broader, and not absolutely (or desirably) separable from the first, are the ways in which Dickinson's poem stages the crucial and recurring concerns of women's lives and literary work. I would like to emphasize the interrelatedness of these two concerns by tracing the important connections between this poem in which a woman is nearly engulfed (and we assume drowned) by the power of the sea and texts such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance and Kate Chopin's The Awakening, both of which drive inexorably toward the drowning death of women, or texts such as Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons and Harriet Beecher Stowe's The Minister’s Wooing, in which women's responses to powerful sea surges serve to test the limits and possibilities for women's thought and conduct. In these instances, as in the case of Shakespeare's Ophelia, the waters which claim their female victims function as dual metaphors, for the desires pursued by the female characters and for their cultural construction as bodies of water, fields of fluid desire for entry and appropriation by opportunistic males who both define and subjugate women as flowing and malleable territories for colonization.

[. . . .] [See Resing’s Loose Ends for the balance of section 3 of this essay]

Furthermore, by personifying the sea as male in this poem, Dickinson recasts one of her culture's most common assumptions: the association of women with nature and the corresponding attribution of men with the civilizing work of culture, the "solid town" of social practice. In dismantling and exposing the masculinist logic of this common ensemble of cultural metaphors, however, Dickinson also reveals the insidious power relations inscribed within them. In other words, the cultural work of "I started Early -- Took my Dog --" both clarifies the semiotics of masculinist hegemony from within the terms of the culture and, in the course of this clarification, stages Dickinson's repudiation of those culturally constructed hierarchies. From this point of view we can begin to recover some of the cultural work of Dickinson's poem, and to unpack the semiotics of gendered power issues encoded within it.


Dickinson's poem represents the problematic status of woman figured as a fluid field by her culture, and both recovers and anticipates an ongoing crisis in the construction of female identity. While we have just examined the specific context of cultural production in Dickinson's own era, we now turn to the recent and vital examination of similar stereotypes by those working in the fields of feminist cultural studies, sociology, and anthropology. In fact, we might now reread the omnipresence of male interests in many writers of the American renaissance, their representation of male travel, expansion, surveillance, and conquest of nature as well as of culture, as a historically and geographically specific version of a much larger, gendered sociopolitical dynamic. In a study that has determined much of the trajectory of recent inquiry into the subordination of women, Sherry B. Ortner has offered the following influential anthropological perspective:

woman is being identified with--or, if you will, seems to be a symbol of--something that every culture devalues, something that every culture defines as being of a lower order of existence than itself. Now it seems that there is only one thing that would fit that description, and that is "nature" in the most generalized sense.(72)

Ortner's formulation "that women are seen 'merely' as being closer to nature than men," accounts for what she refers to as the "pancultural devaluation of women, for even if women are not equated with nature, they are nonetheless seen as representing a lower order of being, as being less transcendental of nature than men are" (73). While Ortner's hypothesis has been challenged from a number of perspectives, specifically those citing cultures in which her thesis does not have the explanatory force that it does in most Western cultures, her position continues to determine much of the debate concerning the oppression of women in many cultures, even those which tend simultaneously to glorify and to devalue the social and cultural practices of women. Ortner isolates three interlinked relationships constituting this cultural construction:

(1) woman's body and its functions, more involved more of the time with "species life," seem to place her closer to nature, in contrast to man's physiology, which frees him more completely to take up the projects of culture; (2) woman's body and its functions place her in social roles that in turn are considered to be at a lower order of the cultural process than man's; and (3) woman's traditional social roles, imposed because of her body and its functions, in turn give her a different psychic structure, which like her physiological nature and her social roles, is seen as being closer to nature. (73-74)

Ortner's hypothesis helps situate some of Dickinson’s work on woman in and as nature in "I started Early -- Took my Dog --." Specifically, it enables us to understand the motivation, or rather the absence of motivation, of the poem's speaker. That no reason is given for her "visit" to the sea suggests the "naturalness," or at least the inevitability, of such an eventuality, though such a "natural" phenomenon needs to be grasped as cultural belief, not as biological imperative. Similarly, the designation of this visit as "early" assumes that such a visit would occur by implying that the only unknown is its timing. Whether we emphasize the initial "I," which would single out the speaker in relation to when and how other women started; or whether we emphasize the "Early" which, again, designates the timing of the speakers visit, the poem's initial line grants a looming expectation, if not necessity, to the eventual visit of the speaker to the sea. In other words, all women, we might read the first line as implying, make this journey, perhaps as an initiation into this culture's construction of female identity This particular journey, then, does not depart from some rite of passage; it is only that this speaker, this particular woman, embark prematurely. Such a journey, if indeed it does embody a cultural tradition of projecting specific characteristics onto women, represent something like a woman’s confrontation with her destiny, or, more correctly, with the destiny her culture has designated for her.

There are other possibilities for this first line. Should we emphasize "started," we can grasp the poem as a rejoinder to a hypothetical warning to the speaker not to be out too late, after dark perhaps. Acknowledging the danger facing a woman out alone, Dickinson's speaker might be defending her conduct, as in "I did start early." The same may be true if we emphasize "Took," and the speaker might again be responding to a reprimand that she should have taken a dog or merely reminding her audience that she did take her dog for protection, Bu where did her caution--her early start, her dog for protection—get her? The convergence and proliferation of these possibilities suggest that no woman can safely explore the already masculinized territory of nature. The terrifying conclusion that such a reading leads to is that no woman, however circumspect her demeanor, however careful her preparations, however cautious her proceedings, or however firm her resolve, is safe alone.

The physicality of this speaker's confrontation with the sea and its inhabitants corresponds with another of the constituents that Ortner posits as merging into a larger set of assumptions concerning the subordination of women. From the initial gaze of the mermaids and grasp of the frigates' hempen hands to the gradual and bodily gauged rising of the sea, Dickinson's poem renders its speaker primarily as a body either on display or available for appropriation (by frigate or by sea). That the speaker's body is diminished and bestialized as that of a "Mouse," or dismembered and fetishized as individual and specific bodily zones, merges with the overarching diminution of women once constructed in accordance with the hierarchy of men=culture=privileged and women=nature=subordinated. The representation of the speaker's body via specific objects (shoe, apron belt, bodice) also suggests the saturation of the poem by the logic of pornographic representation. Murray S. Davis formulates a helpful definition in Smut: Erotic Reality/Obscene Ideology. Drawing implicitly on the work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, whose Psychopathia Sexualis remains a standard resource in the field of fetishism, Davis posits that

Fetishism is the term for activity in which a person seeks sexual satisfaction from things rather than from beings. Not just any thing can be a fetish, however; only those things associated with, but dissociated from, beings. Fetishistic sex objects are the sub-vital slices of vital wholes, whether inorganic segments (like shoes) or organic segments (like feet). (134)

In a note to the above passage, Davis adds,

Many men regard [garter belts] as sexier than more modem female underclothes because they appear to cut the genital region off from the torso and legs, transforming it into a stage set that draws the attention to where the action will take place. (272)

Most legal statutes against pornographic materials, in fact, include some variation of the following prohibitions: "women's body parts--including but not limited to vaginas, breasts and buttocks--are exhibited, such that women are reduced to those parts" (quoted in Pornography and Sexual Violence 3) . Linda Williams adds that in hard-core pornography, the definition of women (and men) through sexually specific body parts "has operated in different ways at different stages of the genre's history" but stresses the centrality of the genre's tendency "to privilege close-ups of body parts over other shots; to overlight easily obscured genitals; to select sexual positions that show the most of bodies and organs.... The principle of maximum visibility operates in the hard-core film" (48-49).

The poem's offering up of its speaker's body as an object for visual appropriation and in disjointed sections, then, is tantamount to participating in the metaphorical dismemberment of women characteristic of pornographic representation as defined by these theorists. While not explicitly concerned with pornography as such, Krafft-Ebing's still authoritative Psychopathia Sexualis (drawn upon repeatedly by expert witnesses in the insanity trial of murderer-cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer) underscores the antipathetic nature of clothing and body-part fetishism, Noting that fetishism usually "occurs in the most various forms in combination with inverted sexuality, sadism, and masochism" (221), Krafft-Ebing devotes significant discussion to shoe and apron fetishes in particular, highlighting the violence and other criminal threats to women by virtue of the reduction and transformation of their beings to specific articles of apparel (218-80). The dynamic of the poem's violation of the speaker, thus, progresses from the mermaids' gaze casting the speaker as object of visual pleasure through the frigates' presumption of her as bestial and insignificant (perhaps in need of rescue) to the fetishizing of the speaker's body and, once the first three functions are performed, absolute domination of the speaker's body. Once dehumanized, the poem's speaker cannot but be victimized. That this victimization has gone unattended in Dickinson criticism is made the more remarkable by the persistence of feminist readings of the entire Dickinson corpus.

While Ortner provides a theoretical basis from which to investigate the psychosexual dynamics of Dickinson's poem, her thesis does not explicitly account for its suggestion of physical violence. This is not to say that we could not deduce violence, both physical and psychological, as inherent, perhaps even inevitable, within a set of assumptions that casts women in a manifestly subordinate, trivialized, and bestialized position, only that Ortner's essay does not specifically cross over into that inquiry. However, many thinkers have pursued such implications, whether from the perspective of the violence implicit in pornographic representations of women as fetishistic objects (see much of Andrea Dworkin's work, for example) or from that of the debasement of women's identity in the workplace and in the culture in general (the heavily covered legal/legislative vindications of William Kennedy Smith and of now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 on charges of rape and sexual harassment respectively being recent cases in point). In midcentury, Simone de Beauvoir, for one assessed the physiology of femaleness with conclusions that account more forcefully for the violence against women endemic in Western culture: that "the female is the prey of the species" (372) and that the female "is more enslaved to the species than the male, her animality is more manifest" (239). Neither Ortner nor de Beauvoir would validate the corresponding masculinist conclusions that women are in fact of a lower nature than are men, but both acknowledge that the physical traits which characterize and differentiate women from men can be and have been interpreted in ways that consolidate masculinist dominance in many cultures.

Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies: Volume1: Women Floods Bodies Histories (1987) investigates the cultural construction of women as bodies of water and the violence inhering within that image with far more emphasis on the persistence of male fantasies and male violence against women. While Theweleit specifically studies the fantasies of fascists between the two world wars, he proceeds in a manner that accounts for more diverse phenomena and a more diverse cross section of human behavior. Barbara Ehrenreich boldly clarifies the larger scope of his study in her foreword to Male Fantasies: far from isolated, historically and politically, specific acts of symbolic violence, "these acts of fascist terror spring from irreducible human desire" (xii). She continues:

For if the fascist fantasy--which was of course no fantasy for the millions of victims--springs from a dread that (perhaps) lies in the hearts of all men, a dread of engulfment by the "other," which is the mother, the sea or even the moist embrace of love . . . if so, then we are in deep trouble. But even as I say that, I am reminded that we who are women are already in deep trouble. As Theweleit says, the point of understanding fascism is not only "because it might return again," but because it is already implicit in the daily relationships of men and women. Theweleit refuses to draw a line between the fantasies of the Freikorpsmen and the psychic ramblings of the "normal" man.... Here Theweleit does not push, but he certainly leaves open the path from the "inhuman impulse" of fascism to the most banal sexism. (xv)

Theweleit understands the semiotics of women represented as fluid bodies of water complexly, stressing both physiological and mythical dimensions. What may have a partial biological determination reemerges in mythic form in the consciousness of men, who face the possibilities of the fluidity, the disorderliness, the expansiveness, and the chaos of life stripped of or prior to the imposition of boundaries, rules, and organizational regimentation with terror and who react to such threats to masculinist fantasies of order (banal or fascist) with unrestrained and sadistic violence. As Ehrenreich summarizes, whether in the political Other of communism or in the erotic other of boundless female sexuality, the fascist, and, by Theweleit's implication, the male, respond to the "joyous commingling" (xv) with loathing, with walls, with lonely dread. He needs to "occupy" both militarily and sexually the threatening space of female Otherness, reducing by his presence its flexible and fluid horizons. In Theweleit's study, male loathing and loneliness merge as the psychic basis for atrocities of unspeakable sadism. In a fully compatible manner, Dickinson's poem exposes the woman as nature construction as preliminary to subordinating and appropriating her both visually and physically.

Theweleit's anatomy of male fantasies furnishes a valuable perspective for Dickinson's reading of women's danger in "I started Early -- Took my Dog --." In several summaries of literary representations of woman as watery territory, Theweleit’s remarks provide important perspectives for our study. "Since around 1700 and the beginning of the Enlightenment," Theweleit postulates,

writers applied the name "woman" to anything that flowed, anything limitless; in the place of God, the dead transcendence, they set the female sex as a new transcendence that finally abolishes lack. The earth became a limitless woman: life, thy name is woman; woman, thy name is vagina; vagina, thy name is ocean, infinity.

In other words, they used, or misused, the fluidity--the greater malleability and as yet unspent utopian potential of femaleness, a desiring-production that is fallow, undirected, not yet socially defined, and thus remains in closer proximity to the unconscious; a life of emotion, rather than of intellect (that cruel, demarcating product of the constraints that beset men's bodies)--to encode their own desire, their own utopias, their own yearning to be free of boundaries, with the notion of an "endlessly flowing woman." (380)

One function of Dickinson's poem is to establish boundaries, breaking her world into flowing ocean and solid town. In so doing, Dickinson tests out the construction of ocean as woman and woman as ocean, a proposition which, while potentially liberating and at least partly responsive to anthropological and psychoanalytic theory, has become appropriated within masculinist hegemony over cultural space and boundaries, permeated by the exclusionary cast of male territoriality.

Theweleit also theorizes and globalizes the masculine colonization of land, sea, and women that Dickinson's poem responds to in American transcendentalist literature, especially those examples we have already discussed by Emerson, Melville, and Thoreau:

A river without end, enormous and wide, flows through the world's literatures. Over and over again: the women-in-the-water; woman as water, as a stormy, cavorting, cooling ocean, a raging stream, a waterfall; as a limitless body of water that ships pass through, with tributaries, pools, surfs, and deltas; woman as the enticing (or perilous) deep, as a cup of bubbling body fluids; the vagina as wave, as foam, as a dark place ringed with Pacific ridges; love as the foam from the collision of two waves, as a sea voyage, a slow ebbing, a fish-catch, a storm; love as a process that washes people up as flotsam, smoothing the sea again; where we swim in the divine song of the sea knowing no laws, one fish, two fish; where we are part of every ocean, which is part of every vagina. To enter those portals is to begin a global journey, a flowing around the world. He who has been inside the right woman, the ultimate cunt--knows every place in the world that is worth knowing. And every one of those flowing places goes by the name of Woman: Congo, Nile, Zambezi, Elbe, Neva ("Father Rhine" doesn't flow--he is a border). Or the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, the ocean that covers two-thirds of the earth's surface and all its shorelines, the irreproachable, inexhaustible, anonymous superwhore, across whom we ourselves become anonymous and limitless, drifting along without egos, like "masses of rubble," like God himself, immersed in the principle of masculine pleasure. (283-84)

While these male texts do not specifically articulate the sexual power suppressed by their covertly imperialistic appropriations of nature, they stake that territory (whether as Emerson's nature in the abstract or Melville's "watery part of the world") as literally a "woman's land." Dickinson's speaker confronts the mythical "woman in/as water" and discovers that this woman is actually a male construct carrying the sedimentation of male desire and rapacity. The woman, in other words, is already "occupied" by man. Dickinson’s work addresses and tries to extract woman from this equation. Once she is colonized by male desire, the "withdrawal" of masculinist ideology from woman doesn't leave her unaffected; in fact, for the woman, desire is always jeopardized by masculinist heterosexual construction.


But how do we resolve this level of critique, given the rampant ambiguities that characterize this poem? The narrative itself seems not to provide anything like unambiguous resolution to any of its numerous contradictions and paradoxes. Before searching in earnest for Emily Dickinson's lost dog, I would like first to return to Simone de Beauvoir and her writings about women's early sexual initiations. I have paid special attention to the sexual ambiguities rife within "Started Early -- Took my Dog --." While the poem stages an entire ensemble of contradictions and unresolved themes, I am operating under the assumption that the primary contradiction among them is that troubling the speaker's response to the sea. As we have seen it is difficult to argue decisively one way or the other whether the speaker responds passionately to the sea's erotic overtures. Just how the speaker is "moved" by this man, and just what she means when she asserts "I started -- too" are questions answerable in a variety of ways. While we can expose the poem as a rape scenario in which the speaker is violated or at least threatened with sexual violation, the range of readings for those critical scenes makes it equally possible that she eventually responds with some enthusiasm to this not-so-subtle seduction, that she "started" to enjoy and, in fact, to initiate sexual behavior ("He followed -- close behind").

De Beauvoir's The Second Sex offers some clarification for this vexing series of moments in Dickinson's poem. In her analysis of youthful sexual initiations, de Beauvoir argues that, given the manifestly subordinate position of women in Western culture, the initial sexual encounters of women tend to be fraught with contradictory impulses. According to de Beauvoir, whereas males tend to be the active, almost predatory, creatures in Western culture,

the young girl, on the contrary, is courted and solicited in most cases; even when she first incites the man, it is he who then takes control of their relations; he is often older and more expert, and admittedly he should take charge of this adventure, which is new to her; his desire is more aggressive and imperious. Lover or husband, it is for him to lead her to the couch, where she has only to give herself over and do his bidding. Even if she has mentally accepted this domination, she becomes panic-stricken at the moment when she must actually submit to it. (380-81)

De Beauvoir elaborates on the physicality involved in such encounters in terms strikingly appropriate for Dickinson's poem:

To be gazed at is one danger to be manhandled is another. Women as a rule are unfamiliar with violence, they have not been through the tussles of childhood and youth as have men; and now the girl is laid hold of, swept away in a bodily struggle in which the man is the stronger. She is no longer free to dream, to delay, to maneuver; she is in his power, at his disposal. These embraces, so much like a hand-to-hand tussle, frighten her, for she has never tussled. She is used to the caresses of a fiancé, a comrade, a colleague, a civilized and polite man; but now he takes on a peculiar aspect, egotistical and headstrong; she is without recourse against this stranger. It is not uncommon for the young girl's first experience to be a real rape and for the man to act in an odiously brutal manner; in the country and wherever manners are rough, it often happens that--half consenting, half revolted--the young peasant girl loses her virginity in some ditch, in shame and fear. (382-83)

In Dickinson's poem, the young girl might even lose her virginity on the beach. De Beauvoir's entire passage sheds valuable light on the dynamics and problematics of Dickinson's poem as well as on some areas of pornographic representation. As Linda Williams argues, the male dominance of the production of pornography results in the fact "that so much early hard-core fantasy revolves around situations in which the woman's sexual pleasure is elicited involuntarily, often against her will, in scenarios of rape or ravishment" (50). Moreover, de Beauvoir's distinction between being "gazed" at and being "manhandled" echoes the dilemma of Dickinson's speaker, who, gazed at by the mermaids and groped both by the frigates and the sea, undergoes both modes of appropriation.

De Beauvoir enables us to return to this poem's central conundrum, the stressed position of the speaker in "I started Early -- Took my Dog --." The complex dialectic between what I am calling her resistance and her compliance, her paralysis and her fascination with the sea's rising to cover her body, her repulsion and her attraction, her terror and her desire, may well point us toward the complications of women’s sexual experiences in a society in which males have consolidated their hegemony not only over social and political life, but over psychological, physical, and sexual practices as well. It is this vision of nature as construct that explains Dickinson's architecturalizing the ocean (the realm of nature in this poem) into "Basement" and "Upper Floor," and which accounts for fluid trafficking between human life and the naturalistic lives of animals ("Mouse" and, as we shall see "Dog"). "I started Early -- Took my Dog --" thus stages the arena of male cultural and social hegemony while simultaneously performing an immanent critique of it, exposing both the watery and unsubstantial foundation of her culture's subordination of women and the lordly domination and repressed hostility inherent in masculinist propriety ("And bowing -- with a Mighty look").

We still have the matter of Emily Dickinson's lost dog, the poem’s most significant "loose end," to address. What I would like to suggest is that the disappearance of the dog from "I started Early -- Took my Dog --" provides a perspective from which to extend these and other conclusions concerning this poem's sexual-political commentary. We should note that dogs are very rare in Dickinson’s poetry, mentioned in only six other poems. We might therefore argue for the importance of this dog simply by virtue of its presence, but, as I remarked at the beginning of this chapter, this particular dog appears only once in the poem and in a high-priority position at that. Both Ortner and de Beauvoir theorize woman's position in Western culture as one of diminishment and subordination to the level of nature, and de Beauvoir explicitly equates this subordination with bestialization . Dickinson's poem, as we have seen, revisits this scenario in two respects, first by diminishing its speaker as a mouse and then by assaulting its female protagonist with the cultural construction of woman as water, albeit in a form which exposes the male interests consolidated by such a construction. Dickinson's very composition of such a "nature" poem, then, requires that she enter into a dialogue with her culture about the nature of American nature, a dialogue in which the terms are, as we have seen, loaded against the case of women. Whether as mouse, as stranded maiden in need of help, or as victim of the sea's aggression, Dickinson's speaker everywhere registers the subordination of women not only within the parameters of the English language and the genre of American nature writing, but in American society as well. We might disregard the dog as mere anomaly in, the poem, as a creature whose disappearance is of little matter. We might equally posit the dog as an essential component of the speaker's identity, in which case her silence about its disappearance might represent her trauma over her experience by the sea. However, we might find the naturalization of the poem's human subject even earlier in the poem, in its initial designation of her starting with her dog. From its initial line onward, we might argue, this poem examines the cultural construction of woman under the sign of the dog; that is, woman cast as inferior and animalistic bitch. It stages the degradation of women in a culture that regards them as somewhere between nature and the male of the species, with specific focus on male sexual opportunism exercised over the bestialized woman.

If the speaker in "I started Early -- Took my Dog --"goes to the beach with her dog, she goes as woman constructed within her culture as bitch. And if she encounters there the degradation and violation inherent in a masculinist culture that so designates women, we might read her returning without this dog as her own personal and hard-fought transcendence over the construction of woman as animal. In this case, the disappearance of her dog is a sign of her having encountered and triumphed over the various ways in which nineteenth-century American culture subordinates and degrades women. She returns to the solid town, a place where the sea knows no one and must depart, a citizen in a community, albeit an imaginary one, beyond gendered prejudice and institutionalized sexism. The poem clearly differentiates between the "Solid Town" and the watery realm of violation and peril, and it equally clearly positions the speaker with that town at the poem's end. Given the number of women whose drowning concludes the many nineteenth-century American literary texts in which women actively seek out identities of their own invention and construction, women such as Hawthorne's Zenobia, Crane’s Maggie, Chopin's Edna, the very fact of this woman's survival is itself significant. The dog, once some index of her identity, vanishes, a Dickinson's speaker returns, in the manner of Cassandra Morgeson, fully cognizant of her culture's limitations and of her triumph. "I started Early -- Took my Dog --" could then be read as an examination and repudiation of the semiotics of gendered hierarchy and male domination, one of Dickinson's most forthrightly feminist poems, one rigorously critical of masculinist hegemony.

While I have been suggesting that this dog simply vanishes and have read the poem as a sign of feminist resistance to male domination, it is also possible to modify that position, arguing instead that Emily Dickinson’s dog doesn't disappear at all. More precisely, it undergoes a metamorphosis, merges with the sea in a powerful convergence of two of the poem's definitive symbols of the construct of cultural hierarchies. This amalgam of woman/dog/sea functions as an alternative index to Dickinson's thinking about sexual politics in "I started Early -- Took my Dog --." I refer specifically to the following lines from the penultimate stanza:

And He -- He followed -- close behind

I felt His Silver Heel

Upon my Ankle -- Then my Shoes 

Would overflow with Pearl --

Along with the sexual energies contained within this stanza may exist a representation of the sea reimagined as a dog obeying a command "to heel," which, as anyone who has a dog knows, means for the dog to "follow close behind," literally at one's heel.

Could we now read the poem as the drama of a woman who confronts and tames the very idea of nature within which her culture has subordinated her being? But casting the sea, once aggressive and potentially violating, as obedient dog doesn’t quite completely respond to all of the poem's difficulties. It does provide support for the reading I advance above, in which the speaker "visits" the sea, figures out the cultural dynamics of female subordination, and returns once she has shed (or at least "mastered") the degrading designation of woman as bitch. However, this pursuit continues, and the sea later withdraws and departs. I think this complication requires us to reproblematize our final reading, to recognize in the poem again the dialectic of mutually constitutive oppositions without resolution. In this reading, the speaker is still being dogged by her dog, plagued by the difficulty of ever fully escaping the construction of her identity by a male culture. Here "to dog" takes on a sinister meaning, suggesting a pursuit with the intention of harm, as an assassin might dog a victim or a detective might dog a suspect. Dog and ocean merge in one aggressive complex, a currish personification of the hostility and oppression common to patriarchal culture still pursuing and still threatening Dickinson's speaker. And since the poem’s voice is still enmeshed in whatever sexual drama the poem stages at this point, this dogging suggests, perhaps, the final inextricability of this woman and her culture's semiotics of gender subordination. Furthermore, the fusion of sea and dog in the poem's final stanzas calls our attention to the intimacy of this construction, its centrality to this culture's definition of woman.

Merged thoroughly with the speaker's beloved pet, the sea, a symbol of irreducible ambiguity throughout the poem, now figures even more intimately in this woman's life, figures as an image of the all-permeating cultural baggage she bears, as an index to the fractured identity of woman in a patriarchal culture. Both domesticated and wild, both friendly and hostile, this pet may dog the steps of the speaker, even as she finds refuge in the "Solid Town." A similar penetration of speaker by her cultures assumptions pervades the entire poem. As I remarked earlier, the many moments of personification and anthropomorphism in the poem are all generated by the speaker herself. They are not merely her passive record of some objective reality It is she who imagines the mermaids staring at her, she who imagines the frigates presuming her to be a mouse on the sands, she who documents the sea and its actions in sexually charged terms. That this speaker's very imagination constructs her world as a threatening arena of misogyny and violence against women testifies to the internalization of sexism and subordination nearly paralyzing American women. Like an anorexic gazing in horror at a mirror in which she sees herself only as a grotesque violation of what she takes to her culture's idea of svelte beauty, the speaker in "I started Early -- Took my Dog --" inhabits a world in which she figures primarily as prey of a culture characterized in its sexual (as well as in its business) dealings by rapacity and violence. The sea might choose to withdraw from her, but she, the poem suggests, cannot withdraw from her culture's definition of women. In all its gendered and sexual complexity Dickinson's poem thus exists as symptom of the bestialization and resulting domination of women in a patriarchal culture.

There is one final possibility to consider in the case of Emily Dickinson's lost dog. Perhaps there is no dog in "I started Early -- Took my Dog --," even at the beginning of the poem. Not, in case, a canine creature as the speaker's companion. The poem might recount the drama of the speaker going to the sea armed only with her poetic vision and sensibility, referred to here self-deprecatingly as her "doggerel." Once the poet's voice emerges out of the prenormative silence and once the poem announces her and its presence in the self-conscious first line, any subsequent references to her doggerel would be redundant. So imagined as the expression of Dickinson’s deeply felt and variously expressed ideas about her own femininity, the poem's articulation and continuing presence stand both as sign and as symptom of the status of women in patriarchal society’s literary culture. The terms of the poem's debate remain relatively constant--the speaker encounters and is assaulted by the sea, and terms of that encounter remain equally problematic at the stylistic, thematic, and cultural levels of signification. However, without whatever protective function a canine "dog" might have been intended to serve, the speaker embarks with her ability to resist the domination of her being by masculinist cultural values by virtue of her poetic vision--shrewd, penetrating, and fully capable not only of exposing the woman as nature construction for what it is, but of redressing the subordinate status of woman simply by coming into existence. Read in this way, Dickinson's poem challenges the legitimacy of the thematics and values inscribed within the works of writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville. She also challenges them generically; rather than Thoreauvian "bragging for humanity," or speaking in the lamentation of Emersonian jeremiad, the hyperbole of Melvillian metaphysics, or the "barbaric yawl" of Whitmanian rhapsody, Emily Dickinson poses only her "doggerel" as a subtle and self-deprecating, yet nonetheless powerful, countervoice to the various male constructions of the American Renaissance. This litotic gesture challenges the rhetorical bravado of the voices meant to silence her own by means of the apparent innocence and humility of its voicing.

I would like to extend this line of thinking for just another moment, and suggest an equally intimate relationship between Dickinson and her dog--one of virtual identity Indeed, many of Dickinson's allusions to her own Carlo indicate that she commonly projected her own intimate emotions into her faithful pet. As large as his mistress and, hence, a plausible double for some of her emotional states, Carlo was used as a vehicle for expressing Dickinson's embarrassment, and, quite revealingly, her sadness, as when she writes to her Norcross cousins that "Carlo is consistent, has asked for nothing to eat or drink, since you went away" (Sewall 634), or to Mr. Bowles that, after his sailing for Europe,

it is a suffering, to have a sea -- no care how Blue -- between your Soul, and you. The Hills you used to love when you were in Northampton, miss their old lover, could they speak--and the puzzled look--deepens in Carlo's forehead, as Days go by, and you never come. (Letters 2:416)

Indeed, while I grant that this is extreme, Dickinson's notorious and mysterious letters to "Master" might in fact consciously adopt the persona of a dog dutifully addressing her absent "master." These letters, which, as Richard B. Sewall rightly judges, provide "the seedbed, the matrix, of dozens of her poems" (520), communicate Dickinson's profound devotion to "Master" and her restless desire to hear "her master's voice," revealing, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff suggests, her "all-too-human discomfort in suffering love's insecurity" (409). As in the poem's earliest lines, Dickinson may, in the "Master" letters, offer herself up strategically in bestialized form in order more dramatically to communicate her dedication and loyalty to the hypothetical addressee of the three letters. Given the potential gender neutrality implicit in any dog’s devotion to its "alpha," such self-deprecating posturing on Dickinson's part would also eliminate the need for us to speculate on whether "Master" might have been a male or a female lover.

However we conclude our search for Emily Dickinson's lost dog, her encounter with the aggressive, potentially violating, force of the sea stages a powerful psycho-ontological drama that exposes the masculinist values encoded within her culture's constructions of nature and of the residual "male" and "female" identities inherent within that construction. To equate women with nature and natural process is already to encode them within terms and categories constructed from, within, and for the sociosexual priorities of American men. The sea, nature, or Walden Pond may exist as territories to be explored, conquered, colonized, and exploited in the service of masculinist hegemony. Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville may all discover ontological and philosophical revelations about the truths of their characters (whether essentially benign and conducive to human strivings or essentially contradictory, if not the "universal cannibalism" of Melville's sea) largely because American nature has been constructed and maintained as male turf. Male discourses have saturated "nature" with the sociopolitical and cultural desires of American males at least since the earliest European explorations and conquests and at least since the earliest promotional verses luring Pilgrims to a utopian terrain of unprecedented fertility. For Dickinson as American woman, on the other hand, to "visit" nature, to encroach--however tentatively--onto male territory, is to be ogled, groped, assaulted, attacked, and perhaps raped, by the full force of the psychosexual residue peculiar to the masculinized constructions of North American "nature." Her ostensibly simple walk on the beach turns very quickly into a threatening discovery that these waters run red with aggression and violence. From Dickinson's perspective, what Ishmael refers to as "the universal cannibalism of the sea" is not some abstract universal in "human natute" but rather the culturally specific denigration of and violence against women. This speaker may escape and return to the "Solid Town," but her survival may be counterpointed, not only to the drownings of the fictional women we have discussed, but also to the drowning of Margaret Fuller, the transcendental voice most irksome to Emerson, and of whose body (along with those of her husband and little boy) Thoreau, sent on a recovery mission by Emerson, was unable to find anything more than a button.

From Loose Ends: Closure and Crisis in the American Social Text. Copyright © 1996 by Duke University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.


Title Russell Reising: From "Emily Dickinson's Lost Dog" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Russell Reising Criticism Target Emily Dickinson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Loose Ends: Closure and Crisis in the American Social Text
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

No Data
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media