She seems concerned with “Bewildered”, “puzzled”, and “troubled”, perhaps using Noah’s “Dove” as a metaphor for her own faith looking for “Land”? From the bird’s (and Noah’s) perspective it isn’t certain there is yet any land yet so she’s playing with uncertainty but also hopefulness in the act (she uses the word “Courage!”) of finding one’s faith.
I love her shifts in perspective; first it’s from the Dove’s POV, but the use of the word “flings” also paints a picture of Noah flinging the bird skyward – you can almost see the old “Patriarch” standing on the wet deck of the ark (“casement” “on the deep”) holding his arm skyward as he launches the bird off to look for land. It shifts again with “Columba” as if the Dove were like the Irish Evangelist who spread the gospel through Ireland and so the bird in motion searching for land is like Columba searching for a soul to land on and save.
The poem’s formal qualities are interesting. She uses an ABCB scheme for the first stanza, DBEB for the second, then goes to FGHHI in the final stanza where the final line, “And shot – exultant on!” mimics the action of the boat escaping from the poem on its continued adventure. Perhaps she is doing this because the stanzas one and two deal with the affairs of men, “sailors” who have gone “adrift” and “gurgled down and down” (notice how the word down shares a quality with the word drown). However, the final stanza deals with the “angels” who “retrimmed” and “redecked” the wayward “little boat” and sent it on its way and thus a new rhyme needs to be introduced (sort of like a miracle) to represent the saving of the ship, or perhaps guiding the drowned sailors to a new life in the afterlife. The rising action of the rhyme scheme does suggests a rising towards heaven.
One thing that is missing from the first stanza is a lighthouse. With “night” “coming” down, there is no guidance for the sailors and thus there is danger that they will run aground upon the rocks since they have lost control of their vessel. Is Emily suggesting that what she needs, perhaps in regard to her poetry, is guidance? The poem begins with a rather typical rhyme scheme and its central image is that of something that has gotten away from whomever is controlling it.
The second stanza continues the image of a sailor’s danger and in the first line she tells us that the “sailor’s say” there was an accident where a “little boat gave up its strife” which also shares the rhyme with the word life suggesting all hands were lost as they were spilled out into the sea. What’s clever here is she begins the stanzas with the sailor’s speaking, but ends it with them gurgling: they are unable to speak.
If Emily is writing about writing (which she does a lot), the third stanza is quite clever because it suggests another rhyme scheme from an old sailor’s saying: “red sky at night is a sailor’s delight, but red sky at morning the sailors take warning.” She suggests this with the line “dawn was red”, but since she can’t rely on mere sailors to guide her because what they say can lead to panic and ruin just as she can’t rely on mere novices to guide her poetry because what do they know, therefore she needs a lighthouse, a miracle of angles to set her, and her poem free.
Perhaps the end of the poem is her having once again found the inspiration she needs to keep writing poetry and its upward trajectory of the rhyme scheme FGHHI suggests inspiration is found in heaven.