Emily Dickinson, “As if the Sea should part” (695)

As if the Sea should part (695)
Emily Dickinson

As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea —
And that — a further — and the Three
But a presumption be —

Of Periods of Seas —
Unvisited of Shores —
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be —
Eternity — is Those —


Great pains do cause distance from the world. They put us in positions where we feel we need visions, revelations. This need not be a bad thing, and some may find a clarity so helpful it cannot be but divine. Still, this lyric seems more secular, and it should recall the recent post on “Erratic Facts.” There, I discussed in detail the egglike rocks Ryan thought the product of glaciers (textual) and considered briefly the notion that Ryan’s speaker was at the shore (not at all textual). I mused about the latter because I wanted to emphasize where the speaker’s vision was before it fell on a specific object. Sometimes, we do try to look beyond, as if something inside us has been shattered, releasing a force which drives us where it will.

Here, Dickinson’s speaker stands at the shore and challenges her sight. She wants to see beyond, and a revelatory thought hits her. “As if the Sea should part and show a further sea:” it’s like the horizon, the limit of her vision, is the beginning of a new sea. It sounds a ridiculous thought, but it is exactly the kind of thing one might feel if one needs clarity. “Should part” stands out. If the sea were parting, pointing to a further sea, then her own seeing is a sort of miracle. Quietly, she has introduced to herself what could be a comforting logic. What I typically see is only my world; there is so much elsewhere. Maybe there is more to explore, maybe my pains are not the end.

And then she undoes it. She undoes it by thinking it through: “And that — a further — and the Three / But a presumption be.” So maybe there are other seas, other worlds to explore. So what? It’s all “presumption;” for her, this is no way to believe. The second to last poem of Heaney’s “Squarings” sequence, Squarings xlvii, provides an instructive comparison.

She’s awake now, ready to undo her presumption and find a knowledge that might actually help. The seas are not merely other places, as they are periods. Periods of grief, periods of time. If one is to take comfort in their infinitude, one acknowledges that the other seas imply other, unvisited shores: “Of Periods of Seas — / Unvisited of Shores.” Periods of seas beget more seas, “themselves the verge of seas to be.” She’s not really seeing other worlds, she realizes. She’s looking at time itself, “Eternity,” and seeing innumerable, lonely possibilities.

It’s no good for her. “Eternity – is Those” is the turn back to the land, away from staring into the distance. In “Erratic Facts,” Ryan plausibly introduced us to the possibility of wholeness after great loss. Even though Dickinson here is starker and harder, I don’t know that their conclusion is essentially different. Dickinson turns to the world, dissatisfied with where her wonder is taking her. It’s leading her to a vision of the infinite which generates uninhabited realm upon realm. The loss Ryan feels in “Erratic Facts” is palpable. She needs to know there is rebirth, even in the hardest things. Her wonder, I realize now, is not so impersonally directed.

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