Whether my bark went down at sea

Ship at Sea, 1895, Ivan Aivazovsky
Background Image: Ship at Sea, 1895, Ivan Aivazovsky

I wonder if Wallace Stevens had this poem in mind for “Fabliau of Florida“? Both deal with magical / “mystic” images that is dreamlike and borders on the edge of reality and (perhaps) the supernatural. Both poems seem to exist near “isles enchanted” where “sultry moon-monsters / are dissolving” (Stevens). Both end with power of the sea: Emily’s “eye” of storm / Stevens’ “droning of the surf”.

Many of Wallace Stevens’ poem deal with the liminal spaces between land and sea, reality and unreality, and this is a theme Emily Dickinson also seems intrigued by. She often writes about being a part of nature, but also the world beyond, a world of perhaps faith, or God, or just somewhere more perfect where death no longer stalks us.

This poem begins with a sinking, perhaps even a drowning, when her ship (a barque, or here she calls it a bark) “went down at sea”. She most likely talking about a storm being responsible since she not only uses the wordplay of “whether” to open each of the first three lines – which has the effect of the poor craft being battered over and over by the bad ‘weather’ – and she also refers to the “eye” at the end of the poem which could refer to the eye of a storm, or a hurricane.

Yet what Emily does here is wonderful because she combines the image of the storm bending the sails of her ship and the reference to “isles enchanted” as that place in the great beyond, with the journey where “docile” sails have previously taken her to “isles enchanted” on her ocean adventures.

Stevens refers to this liminal place of imagination as moving “outward into heaven” where “foam and cloud are one”. It’s a magical image and is similar to that “mystic mooring” where Emily’s ship now rests. And we sense her trying to use her imagination to see where her “bark” has gone with the image of the eye not only being that of a storm, but her own eye, as if she is looking down from the sky (what she describes as “the errand of the eye”) into the sea of her imagination to find where her little boat has gone which can again grant her passage to new “isles enchanted”.

Stevens describes his little bark / barque as lit with “phosphor” and filled with “white moonlight”, a dreamy image of a boat that can only sail on the seas of one’s imagination, a boat that travels not of this world, but one between heaven and earth and where the “droning of the surf” never ends. Emily’s bark too is “out upon the Bay”, but not an actual bay, but the bay of her imagination.

Yet for Emily there is more desperation than for Stevens. Stevens gives himself over to the dreamlike quality of the image where the surf drones him to sleep and into the realm of imagination, but Emily’s use of the word “Bark” to open the poem and “Bay” to close it, gives this poem the feeling of someone hunting desperately for what they seek, the way hunting dogs “bark” and “bay” when they are on the trail of their prey. Combined with the image of the “gales” and the “eye” of the storm, Emily seems to be describing the state of her mind. These “isles enchanted” could be the dreams or places in the imagination where she likes to go, but this storm could also be her own mind – perhaps even a depression – that has sunk this craft which had before sailed so peacefully upon the sea. In other words, she could be describing the storm of her mind when it rages and does not give her the peace she previously sailed in when she was in her little boat upon the sea of imagination.