Emily Dickinson’s poems lend themselves to Freudian psychoanalysis as they are full of psycho-emotional posturing and insight. The poem in question ‘I Started Early, Took My Dog’ is subject to various interpretations as it is abstract and lacks a concrete meaning. The poem is thus rich in its interpretive scope across both literary and psychological dimensions. Sigmund Freud, who was a pioneer in the field of analytic psychology, placed a lot of importance on unconscious cognitive processes and behaviors exhibited by individuals. He posited that the unconscious cognitive patterns have a greater control over an individual’s actions and perception compared to conscious reflection and volitional behavior. Likewise, sexual symbolism, especially as manifest in imagination and fantasy, holds profound significance for the entire psychological makeup of the subject.
In the poem I Started Early, the author Emily Dickinson uses imagery and symbolism at various places. The lines ‘The mermaids in the Basement/ Came out to look at me’ is quite interesting when one considers Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle. She was notorious for her aloofness and withdrawal from normal social life and is said to have lived the last decade of her life in isolation at her home. It was also during this period that her poetic output turned prolific. In this backdrop, the symbolism of the mermaids in the basement coming out to look at her is possibly an unconscious interposition of the writer and the object she’s describing. In other words, the myth of the mermaid and the impossibility of such an event actually happening is a statement on Dickinson’s own social elusiveness. Further, the very act of the writer taking her dog out early in the morning is perhaps born of a subconscious urge to escape the confines of her house, whose darkness is associated with that of the night. In so far as art serves to substitute for real life, Dickinson’s depiction of the narrator’s action is a projection of her hidden psychological tendencies which did not materialize in her own life.
Other key aspects of Freudian theory observable in the poem are that of fear, insecurity and death. Fear is always attendant upon a human being’s insecurity. That the sea represents powerful forces is highlighted by the narrator’s perception of herself as a mouse (‘Presuming Me to be a Mouse/ Aground’). Fear of death is alluded to indirectly through the overpowering rise of the wave, which rises above the narrator’s bodice.
A cornerstone of Freudian analytic framework is the power of hidden sexual urges and conflicts in the human psyche. In this regard, the masculine references in the poem give away Emily Dickinson’s repressed sexual feelings. The usage of “No man moved me” and “And Made as He would eat me up” referring to a sailor and the sea respectively both suggest physical/emotional strength associated with the masculine. These lines can be interpreted to stand for Dickinson’s unconscious feelings of sexual repression, something that is not surprising given her total isolation from society. The stanza ‘And He- He followed – close behind – / I felt His Silver Heel/ Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes/ Would overflow with Pearl’ hint at emotional and physical intimacy between the masculinised sea and the feminine narrator.