Friday, February 18, 2011

Songs From Poems: Wild Nights

Brady Earnhart: Wild Nights


Wild Nights is a short poem by Emily Dickinson. There are three stanzas of four lines each, and no line has more than five syllables. But the poem has produced a great deal of spilled ink by those who have tried to interpret it. On the face of it, Wild Nights seems to be a burst of passion, but this does not jibe with Dickinson’s biography. So some critics attempt to explain that the poem is actually an expression of religious passion, while others theorize that Dickinson had a secret lover and debate his possible identity. I think it’s much simpler than that. Let me explain.

Emily Dickinson was not a very social person, and she became a recluse in later life. Far from having a lover, she did not even form close friendships. She grew up in the years before the Civil War, when various illnesses could claim a person’s life with startling suddenness. Dickinson lost an instructor at the academy she was attending as a teenager, and this seems to have affected her deeply. Dickinson seems to have resolved at that time, consciously or not, that she would not risk becoming to close to anyone, lest Death come for them. Some of the quotes I saw in researching this post suggest that Dickinson all but kept a tally of those she cared about who died as she grew older. Each death seemed to confirm for her the wisdom of not forming close bonds. So Dickinson’s relationships were mostly in the form of correspondence, and she was a prolific letter writer. What she knew of physical passion she read about in the works of Shakespeare and other authors. So, it seems to me that the poem Wild Nights is about the yearning for companionship. She mentions “wild nights”, but it’s not at all clear that she can imagine what they would be like. If anything, the wildness seems to be an external force, and the yearned-for companionship provides a haven from it.

I mentioned that the poem is a series of short bursts of words. One might expect a song made from Wild Nights to be loud and fast. But Brady Earnhart takes it slow, and his arrangement creates a cushion of sound. What comes through beautifully is that yearning emotion I spoke of above. You can hear another song from Earnhart’s latest album So Few Things here.

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