‘I Started Early – Took my Dog’ is probably known for Dickinson’s solitude almost as much as she is known for the poems she has written. Most who have read Dickinson or know anything about her life know that as she got older, she kept to herself more and more. She held onto a few friends with whom she corresponded regularly, but she very rarely came into physical contact with anything.
Thus, ‘I Started Early – Took my Dog’ seems to reach into the depths of the author that she rarely expressed herself. Though she was clearly a very deep and philosophical human being, she also experienced the physical desires that every human encounters. This speaker, however, much like the author, seems to have a fear of fulfilling those desires. For this reason, the speaker uses the Sea to personify a man fulfilling her sexual desires.
In this way, she believes that she can see the outcome of such an encounter without an actual sexual encounter with a man. This reveals a lot about the author and her fear of being close to people. The author was afraid of being known, and she was afraid of knowing others. Although she had intense desires to know and be known, her fear trumped those desires, and though she was able to express her desires through this poem, her readers may never know whether she was able to fulfill these desires in reality.
I Started Early – Took my Dog Analysis
I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
With the opening stanza, the speaker provides a calm, yet mystical setting. The reader can imagine an early morning walk by the ocean. The speaker is alone, save for her dog. She creates the mystical factor of the setting when she introduces “the mermaids in the basement” that swam up to look at her. The reader immediately gets the sense of the mystical and tranquil all in one short description of the speaker’s walk by the sea. She presents the idea that she is being watched by the mermaids as if she is an object of fascination to them. This foreshadows what the rest of ‘I Started Early – Took my Dog’ will imply. The speaker feels worthy of being looked at. This reveals the speaker’s desire to be admired.
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –
With this stanza, the speaker combines the mystical with the realistic when she describes the “frigates- in the upper floor”. A “frigate” is a type of warship often used in the U.S Navy. The description of a warship suggests that the speaker is aware of the mystical and tranquil parts of her life, such as the sea and the mermaids, but she is also aware of reality, such as war. The juxtaposition of the realistic and the mystical offers insight into the speaker’s feelings and thoughts. She believes in both. While she clearly sees the warship on the sea, she also sees the mermaids at the bottom of the seafloor. This reveals her desire to know and understand both the practical and realistic side of life and the mystical and unseen.
Next, the speaker describes the sea as having “extended Hempen Hands”. “Hempen” suggests that the hands are rope-like in nature, and they are outstretched toward her. The speaker continues to personify the sea by giving it the human-like quality of being able to presume. She sees the ocean as “presuming [her] to be a Mouse”. This suggests that the speaker feels very small and insignificant next to the vast sea. She feels that to the sea, she must look like nothing more than a mouse “aground- opon the Sands”. The continued description of the sea as a man suggests that the speaker will leave behind the realistic, for the time being, and focus on the mystical.
But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –
The speaker has already personified the sea, but with this stanza, she describes the sea in more specific human terms, referring to him as a man. She makes it clear that “no man” has ever “moved [her]” before. Here, the speaker reveals her own virginity. While she stands looking at the sea, she sees it as a man whose hands are extended toward her, and she admits that she has never known a man. But here, the sea does not seem to respect nor acknowledge that. It moves toward her, “till the tide went past [her] simple shoe- and past [her] Apron- and [her] Belt And past [her] Boddice- too-”.
With this description, the speaker compares the rising tide of the sea to a man. As it rises higher and higher, it first wets her shoe, and then moves higher until she is soaked through even her bodice. The speaker imagines that this is what it might feel like to be with a man, that he would slowly take her body, one part at a time. It seems as though the sea has brought the speaker to think of her own sexuality and her desires as a woman. Her personification of the ocean as a man with outstretched hands reveals her desire to have someone reach for her in that way.
Her continued description of the way the ocean “took” her suggests that she has underlying sexual desires she has not yet indulged in. Although she is still clothed, the sea was able to penetrate her clothing with the movements of the tide. With each wave, the sea swallows up more and more of her, penetrating her clothing through the shoes, working his way up toward her breasts until she has been entirely taken by the waves of the sea and the rising tide.
And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –
With this stanza, the speaker says that as the sea made his way up the length of her body, he eventually ate her up completely, “as wholly as a Dew Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve”. This reveals the speaker’s fantasy of being taken completely by a man. While she walks by the sea, she personifies the sea as a man, and then describes the way he has penetrated her clothing and soaked her from toes to the tip of her head just as completely as the dew covers a dandelion.
Then the speaker shifts the focus to her own actions, rather than those of the sea. She says, “And then- I started- too-”. This suggests that the speaker played a part in giving herself over to the sea. She did not simply stand by and allow herself to be taken. Rather, she engaged with the sea as well. This clearly symbolizes her desire to sexually active with a man, and to respond sexually.
And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –
With this stanza of ‘I Started Early – Took my Dog’, the speaker moves from her initial encounter with the sea, to the aftermath. The sea, having symbolized a man, and her interaction with the sea having symbolized her first sexual encounter, she now describes what happens after she has been taken sexually, and after she has given of herself sexually.
She describes herself as walking away, and he follows closely behind. The sea itself is rescinded as the tide goes back down, and this symbolizes that man as he tries to follow the speaker, but cannot. She feels in “Opon [her] Ancle” and then it is only on her shoes. The speaker ends this stanza by explaining that her shoes would “overflow with Pearl”. The precise meaning of this line is somewhat ambiguous, but it would seem that the sea has not left her without anything by which to remember him. He has left her with some of his most precious possessions, pearls.
Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –
In this stanza, the speaker continues to walk away as the sea continues to rescind. She teaches the town, where no one seems to know Him, the sea. So he leaves. The use of the word “solid” to describe the town suggests that the speaker is leaving the mystical and entering back into reality. Both the “solid town” and the “frigate” mentioned at the beginning of the poem suggest that the speaker has always had an underlying understanding that she would have to return to reality even after her indulgence with the sea.
The speaker then describes the sea as he departs from her. She says, “And bowing- with a Mighty look- At me- The Sea withdrew”. This encounter with the sea marks her leaving the mystical world and returning to reality, but it also symbolizes the speaker’s belief about how a sexual encounter with a man would end. She clearly longs for this kind of encounter, but she does not believe that she could keep it anymore that she could keep the tide on the seashore.
She believes that whoever he might be, the man to whom she would give herself would shrink away after the encounter. He may leave her with a treasured possession, but she does not believe that he would be with her permanently. By the end of this poem, it is clear that the speaker does not believe that a relationship between her and a man could work.
She equates a relationship with the mystical portions of ‘I Started Early – Took my Dog’, such as the mermaids and the sea as a man. The two realistic portions of the poem, the town and the warship, are like the speaker’s inability to be in a romantic relationship. As she walks away from the sea, she leaves the mystical behind her and walks toward reality.
Emily Dickinson Background
Though most of what is known about Emily Dickinson suggests that she was always a recluse, there is evidence that Dickinson did not always want to be left alone, particularly when it came to Lord Otis Phillips. Phillips was a friend of Dickinson’s father, and when her father died, he sought after her health and well-being. When Phillips’ wife died sometime later, the two began a romance. However, Dickinson eventually refused his offer of marriage. Though by her letters to him, it is clear that she often fantasized about a sexual encounter with him. Senior researcher Lyndall Gordon explains his conclusions about Dickinson’s refusal to marry a man she apparently loved dearly.
He says, “Her ‘No’ to marriage was never final. She ‘lies near’ his ‘longing’; she ‘touches’ it but then wills herself to move away. Emily likely had epilepsy, and it would have been natural to hope that her condition would lessen as she grew older. But she’d had a blackout, perhaps a seizure, in April 1881, brought on by a nearby fire, with a wind blowing the burning shingles. Afterward, she had lain on her pillow for more than a week.
At that time, marriage for epileptics was discouraged” (Gordon). This, perhaps, can give some insight into ‘I Started Early – Took my Dog’. Dickinson, like the speaker, imagined a sexual encounter and longed for one, but would not allow herself to actually indulge in such a relationship. Perhaps her fear of being known was one of the reasons. Perhaps her intense desire to hide her epilepsy was another. Either way, from what is known about Dickinson, she never did indulge in such a desire, other than perhaps to allow the tide to wash over her as she imagined being taken by a man in such a way.
- Gordon, Lyndall. “Emily’s Secret Love.” Boston.com. The New York Times, 20 June 2010. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.