A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘My River runs to thee’

‘My River runs to thee’ is a short poem, even by Dickinson’s brief, telegrammatic standards, but as with so many of Dickinson’s poems, it carries an arresting opening line, and reminds us that the river and the sea are endlessly linked in one great cycle.

My River runs to thee –
Blue Sea – Wilt welcome me?

My River wait reply.
Oh Sea – look graciously!

I’ll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks –

Say Sea – take Me?

A love poem – perhaps even an erotic poem? Yes, but with a difference, since it’s also a nature poem, and casts the river as both speaker and courtly lover, wanting to be ‘taken’ by the sea. That final question – ‘take Me?’ – calls up the idea of ravishment and possession, but also acceptance: the sea literally ‘takes’ the river into myself, incorporating it, but it also takes possession of it. Yet the river itself remains, since the cycle ensures that more fresh water comes into the river, which in turn flows down into the sea, and so on.

We say ‘courtly lover’, as though this were an example of a courtly love poem, because the sea never replies: we do not know whether the river’s wish is granted. That is, in the context of the poem itself we don’t; but knowing how the natural world works, we also know that the sea will take the river’s waters in as its own. The river offers to ‘fetch’ the sea some smaller ‘Brooks’, as if these smaller water-channels are a sort of dowry which the river is proposing to bring to the union.

Structurally, ‘My River runs to thee’ is slightly different from Emily Dickinson’s usual quatrains: instead, we get three sets of rhyming couplets, and then a single, standalone line, which is not granted a second line to pair with – aptly, since this is the point at which the fluvial speaker poses her question and makes her proposal, ‘wait[ing] reply’. But then it is not as if this final line is entirely matchless either, since it contains an internal rhyme of ‘Sea/Me’, echoing the same internal rhyme found in the second line of the poem.

Is Emily Dickinson drawing on a poem by Percy Shelley here? The opening stanza of Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’ sees him offer river-sea pairing as a synonym for human relationships, and ends with a question, too:

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—

Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems is well worth getting hold of in the beautiful (and rather thick) single volume edition by Faber. You might also enjoy our analysis of her classic poem ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ and her poem about madness, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’.