Emma Donoghue: My mother was a teacher of English, and is a book lover, and she used to quote Emily Dickinson to me. I think she remembered Dickinson because the poems were short, easier to recall than something with big wodges of text. The first one I can remember was “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” but there were others. I was even meant to be called Emily, at first, before I was born. That’s what my father [the literary critic Denis Donoghue] wanted—he was working on a book on Dickinson that year. But my mother held out for Emma, even though she was a huge fan of Dickinson the poet.
I think we should have gone with Emily, personally—I’d have preferred that. But what can you do? Emily Dickinson was not exactly known for her personal happiness and fulfillment. Maybe my mother thought it would be like naming me Sylvia, after Sylvia Plath.
One of the poems she used to recite to me, “Wild Nights - Wild Nights!”, became very important to me in my teens. I probably sought it out again once I knew that I was in love with a girl myself at 14—because there I was, in 1980s Ireland, realizing that I was a lesbian and couldn’t tell a soul. It was as if there was nobody around in Irish culture at the time who I could see myself in. So I used Emily Dickinson. On the basis of her poems and letters, it seemed like she had strong passions for women in her life as well as for men. I remember thinking, “Well, I may be a freak in my social context, but I can be like Emily Dickinson. Who needs to be normal?”
Most of the writing I did at the time was lyrics addressed to a “you” beloved, the way this poem is. They weren’t all love poems, but when they were it was always “I” addressed to “you”: it frees you from the necessity to specify the gender of the person you’re speaking to, so it’s a closeted lesbian’s best friend, this pronoun. The lack of specificity makes it a really attractive form, and the intimacy of the “you” helps draw the reader in directly. (That’s one reason the “you” form is used all the time in pop songs.) It allows readers to imagine someone speaking to her beloved, but to use their own imagination about who the beloved might be.
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden –
Might I but moor – tonight –
I find the poem to be viscerally expressive of romantic and erotic love. What comes across most is this sense of overwhelming yearning. It’s actually quite a demanding overture: she’s saying she wants to “moor in” somebody, a very physical and intimate image.
At the same time, you don’t know who she’s addressing—it’s very unspecific, and not just in terms of gender. It’s hard to determine the relationship between the narrator and the object of affection. Is the speaker someone who has experienced a cozy life with the beloved, and has been sadly parted from that person? Or is the narrator pining for an acquaintance from afar? “Were I with thee”—that could even be a stalker talking. It’s very ambiguous.