“The Sea of Sunset”, Poetic Language, and Dickinson’s Authorship

“The Sea of Sunset” by Emily Dickinson

This is the land the sunset washes,

These are the banks of the Yellow Sea;

Where it rose, or whither it rushes,

These are the western mystery!

Night after night her purple traffic/

Strews the landing with opal bales;

Merchantmen poise upon horizons,

Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.



I decided to close read a poem by Emily Dickinson called “The Sea of Sunset”. I chose it at random, and I had never read it before. The poem is only eight lines and two stanzas long, but its language is not abrupt or staccato, but flowing and a little flowery. First I read the poem a few times and jotted down notes, then I read Stanley Fish’s article about poetic language from his “Reader-Response Theory” and recorded my thoughts, then I read it out loud and did the same.

My first thought was that the poem has color. I couldn’t read it without seeing the “Yellow Sea” (line 2), “purple traffic” (line 5) or “opal bales” (line 6) in my mind’s eye. The poem reminds me of a fish’s scale, or a beautiful phosphorescent shell. You could probably find both of these items on “The Sea of Sunset”, even though she never explicitly mentions fish or seashells.  Dickinson’s words expand upon themselves in the mind without her having to use more than 8 lines to elaborate on the scene. The colors in the poem are given an ethereal sheen by her word choice, such as “fairy sails” (line 8) and the words “dip, and vanish” in the same line evoke an ephemeral feeling, as though this moment is simultaneously otherworldly and fleeting. This perfect moment on the beach can’t last forever. Even if she hadn’t named the poem “The Sea of Sunset”, I probably would still have pictured sunset as the setting. It’s perfectly evocative of the yellow and purple hues of the poem, the fairy-like fluttering of sails, and the sense that this feeling won’t last, that it will soon be dark.

Even though the language evokes a fairy tale, she uses some particular words that ground the poem in our reality. For example, the speaker says, “merchantmen poise upon horizons” (line 7).  Referring to humans sailing upon this effervescent sea anchors the otherworldly poem to the world in which we live. Additionally, she names the sea “the Yellow Sea” (line 2), capitalizing “Yellow” and “Sea”. If she had not capitalized it, I might have glossed by it as another colorful and picturesque phrase, but since she did choose to capitalize it, she named it. This grounded the scene in real life, even if she did not mean to refer to the actual Yellow Sea. The “real” Yellow Sea is the northern part of the East China Sea. However, I do not believe she meant to refer to this sea, because a couple lines down, the speaker wonders “where it rose, or whither it rushes, These are the western mystery!” (lines 3-4). The word “western” really sticks out to me. This “sea of sunset” could fathomably be anywhere; why is it a western mystery? “Where it rose, or whither it rushes” seems to be questions of origin, how it got there, and how far it flows to. Either the speaker is saying that the sea is itself geographically western, or that the questions of how the sea got there and where it flows to are specifically “western” questions. I’m not sure about which one the speaker means. Additionally, the question of “whither it rushes” forces us as readers to imagine the size of the Sea of Sunset, expanding our minds horizons as we imagine the vast and glittering sea.

After reading the Fish article, I wondered, what poetic qualities does it have? Fish says, “…you know a poem when you see one because its language displays the characteristics that you know to be proper to poems”. Immediately, the punctuation comes to mind. She uses commas and semicolons liberally, as do plenty of poets, but Dickinson specifically uses exclamation points in almost all of her poems, which is not as characteristic of a poem as are commas and semi-colons. The exclamation points give her poems a child-like, straightforward quality. This reminded me of the intentional fallacy. I think poems, by their nature, are probably especially susceptible to the intentional fallacy, because they almost always use “poetic language”, words with multiple meanings, or have meaning hidden in their form. However, I do not find this to be true with Dickinson’s authorship. I could be (and probably am) wrong, but I think a lot of her poetry is straightforward, or about what it seems to be about. After reading the poem out loud, it’s clear that it doesn’t all rhyme perfectly, but I think the length of the poem allows for that.

In the future, I want to examine the significance of the fact that she is a successful American female poet, perhaps in conjunction with Fetterley’s article about American female writers.

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