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Essay/Term paper: I started early-took my dog

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Poetry

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April 25, 1999

To Die or Not To Die

Suicide was not a widely discussed topic in the 1800's although, it commonly appeared as a theme in many literary works of that time. The action of killing one's self is not a classified psychological disorder, but there are many disorders where suicide is the end result. This is why suicide is a commonplace subject within the psychological field in present day society. The poem "I Started Early- Took My Dog," by Emily Dickinson, can be interpreted as making strange reference to a suicide. Freud says, "Suicide is a response to loss (real or symbolic), but one in which the person's sorrow and rage in the face of that loss are not vented but remain unconscious, thus weakening the ego."(Freud p.246). Dickinson uses several elements in her poem to relate this theme such as tone, imagery and rhyme. It is told through the first person point of view of an unknown speaker.

Dickinson begins the first line of her poem by writing in iambic tetrameter. In the second line she switches to iambic trimeter and proceeds to alternate between the two. This rhyme scheme proves to be particularly effective in complimenting the subject of the poem-- the ocean. When a reader looks at the poem it is easy to see the lines lengthening then shortening, almost in the same fashion that the tide of the ocean flows and ebbs.

I started Early- Took my Dog

And visited the sea-

The Mermaids in the Basement

Came out to look at me. (Dickinson 1-4)

The waxing and waning action of the text might symbolize the constant cycles of life. The fact that the text recedes then elongates in rhythm make the reader think the speaker of the poem is not sure what steps to take in their life. The speaker might not have convinced him or herself about the suicide attempt. Many suicidal thoughts are stopped short of action and then thought about later. Dickinson writes in this style to show the opposing forces of every situation. Suicide would likely be the most contemplated decision the narrator has ever had to make.

Through metaphors, the speaker proclaims of her longing to be one with the sea. As she notices The mermaids in the basement,(3) and frigates- in the upper floor,(5) it seems as though she is associating these particular daydreams with her house. She becomes entranced with these spectacles and starts to contemplate suicide. She reflects upon these ideas, with thoughts of leaving reality and theoretically part of the ocean. She is very mesmerized by the thought, that no man moved [her]- till the tide went past [her] simple shoe.(9,10) It is at this point that the speaker is drawn back into reality with time to see the tide go past [her] apron- and [her] belt and past [her] bodice. (11,12). This perhaps, is an attempt to show the narrator becoming one with the environment. The words might also symbolize someone drowning or possibly a 'washing-away' of the ego. The fact that the water level is slowly rising around her can make the reader visualize a person with their feet stuck in the wet sand, not willing to move when the tide comes in.

The speaker appears to have abandoned all thoughts of suicide. Her focus is now turned to the tide that made as he would eat [her] up,(13) as she seeks to find sanctuary on dry land. The poem takes a suspenseful twist as the speaker describes the ocean closing in on her.Suicide would likely be the most contemplated decision the narrator has ever had to make. This would describe her feeling of being suffocated by the sea. Dickinson's use of imagery is especially prevalent in the fifth stanza, when she uses words such as silver heel(18) and pearl(20), to describe a foamy surf.

The speaker uses a reflective and whimsical tone in recounting her experience. This is a crucial factor in gaining the reader's interest. It helps set the mood and it clearly expresses the speaker's frame of mind. The tone, like the rhyme scheme, seems to lend itself leisurely thoughts of the ocean. With an 'a-b-c-b' rhyme scheme the reader , again, feels the constant push and pull of the tides on the beat of the poem. The author uses a "sing-song" rhyme scheme in this poem for many reasons. One of these reasons seems to emphasize the yin and yang of life. Another reason for the rhyme is to comply with the tidal flow of the alternating line meter. The 'ups and downs' of this poem best describe the indecisiveness of a depressed individual.

Psychologically speaking, the narrator of the poem is experiencing clinical depression. Freud says that, "depression was not a symptom of organic dysfunction but a massive defense mounted by the ego against intrapsychic conflict."(Freud p.255). This means suicide, a most considered option of 'relief' of depression would be the only mentally cleansing decision. Many times the pain of depresion seems far worse than taking your own life; that is why many people try. Suicide would likely be the most contemplated decision the narrator has ever had to make. The theme and symbols of any given work are usually left to the interpretation and imagination of the reader. In order to fully appreciate and understand poetry, these elements must be identified. The symbols in Dickinson's poem are so obscure, it is left to the individual to elicit what they can.  

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