I started Early – Took my Dog – (656)

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion's Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –


“I started Early—took my Dog” reprinted electronically by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed. J520, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)

Writing Ideas

1. How does looking at the ocean make you feel—overwhelmed and insignificant, or part of something larger and full of possibility? Write a poem exploring those feelings.

2. In her poem, Dickinson uses a house as a metaphor to describe the sea (with “Mermaids in the Basement” and ships in the attic). Write a poem in which you use a different metaphor to describe an encounter with nature.

3. Try your hand at a ballad. The form uses four-line stanzas and words that rhyme at the ends of every second and fourth line. For other examples, see:

     “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall
     “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Discussion Questions

1. What is the speaker’s attitude toward the sea in the poem? Does it change? Which words or images suggest a shift in her thinking?

2. Dickinson’s poem loosely adapts the ballad form.  Like a song, it uses rhythm, rhyme, and repetition to tell its story. What effect do the rhymes (and later on in the poem, the slant rhymes) have on the story she tells here?

3. How does Dickinson’s use of dashes and capitalization help to create a sense of suspense in the sea’s growing danger?

4. What makes the sea, which seems to threaten to drown the speaker, recede at the poem’s end?

Teaching Tips

1. Give students several minutes to generate at least three interpretive questions about the imagery of the poem. They might ask, for example, Why did the speaker take a dog? Why are there mermaids in a ‘basement’ of the sea? Assure them that any question is fair game. Debrief in a large group, having students share their questions and possible answers.

2. Have students explore the poem’s rhythm by clapping along. Simply begin with a group reading of the poem, asking students to read the first stanza or two in unison two or three times. As they read, ask them to begin clapping to the rhythm. After modeling this process, have students explore the connection between changes in rhythm, rhyme, image, and idea, have students discuss how the meaning of the poem, as it is shaped by these formal elements.

3. Show students the animation of Dickinson’s poem and discuss the animator’s choices. How do these choices affirm or challenge student ideas about the poem’s meaning?