Throughout the short poem, Emily Dickinson uses an extended metaphor, creating the image of a relationship between a river asking to be accepted in and “taken” by the sea. Considering her broader collection of poems, one might find themselves between the image of the sea as God or as a lover.
Explore My River runs to thee
Depending on how one interprets this piece, the speaker is directing her words to a lover or to God. This grey area is something that appears in more than one of Dickinson’s poems. Is she asking for a lover to “take” her? Or is she asking for God to accept her into his arms in a religious sense? She uses the extended metaphor of a river flowing into the sea to get her point across in short lines.
In ‘My River runs to thee,’ Dickinson engages with themes of nature and relationships. The latter is up for interpretation, whether one sees the river and sea as a symbol for two lovers or for a faithful disciple and God. Dickinson uses something known as an extended metaphor to depict this relationship. The river, in all its power, asks to be taken in by the far more powerful sea. It will be absorbed, although it could never be absorbed completely.
Structure and Form
‘My River runs to thee’ by Emily Dickinson is a two-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD, with one rhyme, the second couplet of the first stanza, as a good example of a half-rhyme. Dickinson chose not to use a single metrical pattern within the lines of her poetry, something that’s unusual. Lovers of other poetry will be familiar with the ruse of ballad or hymn stanzas in which the lines alternate iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter. In this poem, the lines range ten lengths from eight syllables down to two.
Alternative versions of this poem arrange the lines slightly differently, with them separated out into couplets and a single concluding line, the effect is the same though, and just as unusual for Dickinson’s work.
Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘My River runs to thee.’ These include but are not limited to apostrophe, caesura, and alliteration. The latter is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “wilt” and “welcome” in line two of the first stanza and “river” and “reply” in line three of that stanza.
An apostrophe is a type of figurative language. It occurs when the speaker addresses something or someone that cannot understand or respond to them. In this case, the speaker talks to the “sea.” As with traditional examples of this technique, it is prefaced by “Oh!”
This same line is also a good example of a caesura, or a pause in the beginning, middle, or end of a line. Another example is in the second line of the first stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
My River runs to thee.
Blue sea, wilt thou welcome me?
My river awaits reply.
Oh! Sea, look graciously.
In the first lines of stanza one of ‘My River runs to thee,’ the speaker uses the line that later came to be used as the title of the poem. This was often the case with Dickinson’s poetry since she chose not to title the vast majority of it.
She speaks to the sea, asking if it will welcome her “River.” The “thee” in these lines who is also addressed as the “Sea” is clearly a metaphor. What it’s a metaphor for though is up for interpretation. As is the case with other Dickinson poems, one might decide the sea is a metaphor for a lover or alternatively, for God. Perhaps she’s asking that God accept her and look “graciously” upon her. Or, she’s asking a lover to do the same. Her “river,” she says, is waiting for a reply. She wants to be taken in by this person. Perhaps in a sexual way or a religious way.
I’ll fetch thee brooks
From spotted nooks.
In the next lines of the poem, the speaker says that she’ll do what she can to please the sea, whether this is fetching “brooks,” or taking them with her in her metaphorical flow, or anything else. The final lines are sometimes written as an exclamation and sometimes as a question. This version, which includes an exclamation point at the end, expresses the speaker’s desire to be taken by the sea, to be incorporated as a river flows into the ocean. It should be noted that while the sea can take in the river, the river is going to continue to flow. This is perhaps the source of Dickinson’s inspiration for this extended metaphor.
Readers who enjoyed ‘My River runs to thee’ should also consider reading some of Emily Dickinson’s other best-known poems. For example:
- ‘Fame is a Bee’ – is a short poem, but one that taps into Dickinson’s own dislike for fame.
- ‘I felt a Funeral in my Brain’ –Dickinson taps into her own struggles with mental health in a piece that uses metaphors and other types of figurative language.
- ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ – is one of Dickinson’s best-known poems. It uses personification to describe hope as a bird.
- ‘The Heart asks Pleasure-first’ – touches on death and depicts it as something that is in the end desirable.