On this wondrous sea – sailing silently

White Salt Boat, 1800 - 1820, Unknown
Background Image: White Salt Boat, 1800 – 1820, Unknown

This poems continues the metaphor from “Adrift! A little boat adrift!” and “Whether my bark went down at sea” of being in a boat with that of the journey of life and of faith to the world after death.

Formally, the poem is broken up into two stanzas separated with a line break and seems to consist of two different speakers. In the first stanza it could be Emily asking the “Pilot” if they know where the “shore” is and how to avoid the “breakers” from the “storm” so that landing will be made easier. The second stanza is the reply from presumably the pilot who will “pilot thee” to the “silent West”. But beyond just separating speakers, this line break is a gulf between worlds: one one side the the person on the journey and the other is the guide who knows the way to the destination. This separation resembles a river and this “pilot” resembles the boatman Charon who carries people to Hades, though here she uses the imagery of the sea rather than the river Styx.

In the first line she refers to her current situation as being on “this wondrous sea – sailing silently”. Here death is “wondrous” and the soft “s” alliteration resembles the soft breeze that is filling her sails as she makes her journey, ghost-like, to the next world. Yet in lines three thru five, she seems concerned with navigation and bad weather. Though the “sea” may be “wondrous”, she seems aware of potential dangers and requires a guide to help her the rest of the way. Thus perhaps she is saying that when we die we still need a little help making the journey to the afterlife and that those of us who are unable to secure such help might wind up being lost forever.

In the “West”, however, there are no storms: it is “silent” and all “the sails [are] at rest” and she has been granted a guide because she asked for one. In the first line of the poem she had been “sailing silently” but in the second she breaks the silence and calls out for help. Perhaps she is alluding to prayer in which one calls out for help from God, or perhaps she is saying that in life a person cannot attain their destination alone and that we all require help from each other.

And the final line of the poem, “Ashore at last” can be read as not just being that she has been guided “ashore at last”, but that she has been assured that she will be guided and that she will find “Land” in “Eternity”. The paradox here, however, is that she uses “Eternity” but then speaks of a finality with “at last”. This is an interesting image to contemplate in that eternity could be a definite place with a definite shore, but when it’s compared to the image in the first line of someone in a boat in the vast “wondrous sea” which is a dreamlike image of being in a definite place surrounded by an eternity of nothingness (sea and sky all around such as in her poem ‘“Lethe” in my flower‘) she seems to be saying that life after death is assured and that our place in eternity is secured if we allow ourselves to reach out and ask for guidance when upon the treacherous seas of life.