The Moon is distant from the Sea –
And yet, with Amber Hands –
She leads Him – docile as a Boy –
Along appointed Sands –
He never misses a Degree –
Obedient to Her eye –
He comes just so far – toward the Town –
Just so far – goes away –
Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber Hand –
And mine – the distant Sea –
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me –


Emily Dickinson’s “The Moon is Distant from the Sea” was published posthumously in 1890 in The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. It was included in the book’s series of love-themed poems. This poem was likely written between 1858 and 1864 when Dickinson wrote most of her poems. It was also published in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1924), an anthology sectioned into five separate, thematic categories, and this work is featured in Part Three: Love. This poem also appears in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1999.

This lyrical poem uses an extended metaphor about a relationship between a man and a woman, compared to the relationship between the moon and the sea. Each of the three stanzas is comprised of four lines. The first and third line of each stanza is in iambic octameter, and the second and fourth line of each stanza is in iambic hexameter. This meter, though alternating, is still rhythmic and create a melodious lull. This gentle rhythm may also be reflective of the moon’s consistent pushing and pulling of the sea.

The rhyme scheme is also reflective of the story of the poem; in the first stanza, the second and fourth lines rhyme, however, the first and third do not. This stanza builds a rhyme scheme as it begins creating the world Dickinson imagines. In the second stanza, which follows a similar pattern to the first, contains only one rhyme, and it is a slant rhyme, “eye / away.” The specificity of rhyme is indicative of the precision in the Moon’s and Sea’s relationship. As the rhyme scheme is consistently imperfect, the tide perpetually continues going in just to go back out, leaving the lovers apart, and their relationship imperfect. The third stanza becomes more personal as she addresses her “Signor” directly, and their relationship is harmonious as their roles are reversed, is in an ABAB rhyme scheme.

The first and second stanzas represent the relationship with the woman, “She,” the Moon, who leads the Sea, “Him.” The Moon and the Sea are personified metaphors for the relationship of these two people. The Moon, while far from the Sea, still “with Amber Hands – / She leads Him – docile as a boy – / Along appointed Sands,” creating a warm and pleasant sense of imagery through the reference to the scientific relationship of the moon and sea, and simultaneously creating a tone for the relationship. Scientific themes can be found in more than two hundred of Dickinson’s poems, including in the reference the moon’s gravitational pull of the sea. Dickinson lived in a time of great technological and scientific advancements, and studied science in school; she once wrote to her brother of her enthusiasm for learning the history of Sulphuric acid (White). The reference to the scientific aspects of the moon’s relationship to do sea, Dickinson implies an element of consent to this pull. In the second stanza, she writes that the Sea “never misses a Degree – / Obedient to Her eye -”, implying that he has a choice, and is making the decision to work harmoniously with the Moon.

A shift comes in the third stanza, as the He becomes the “amber handed” Moon and She becomes the “distant” and “obedient” Sea. The third stanza, despite the swapping metaphors, mirrors the previous stanzas. The Moon’s “Amber Hand” appears in the first and third stanzas, as does the distance between the two lovers. The Sea’s obedience is also seen in both the second and third stanzas, obeying the Moon’s imposing eye. This repetition emphasizes that despite the roles of the two lovers reversing, as She goes from Moon to Sea and He goes from Sea to Moon, their relationship remains to similarly amicable, agreeable, and harmonious.

Dickinson was an accomplished artist and musician; her in her time in college, she enjoyed singing and compared poetry and music often. Several of her poems, including “The Moon is Distant from the Sea,” “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain,” and “Heart, We Will Forget Him” have been transformed into songs through Song of America, an organization dedicated to telling American history and culture through music. This poem, like most of Dickinson’s, was published posthumously, and at a high point in her literary career. It has been published in many anthologies since its original publication, and Dickinson’s thematically categorized poems have continued to be analyzed and published by scholars.

“The Moon is Distant from the Sea” is about love and attraction, between herself and her “Signor.” Dickinson’s repetitive theme of love in her poems have intrigued readers since the 19th century as the subject of her affections remains unnamed. Scholars from the Emily Dickinson Museum speculate that the object of her affection was Judge Otis Phillips Lord, a friend of the Dickinson family. Though Dickinson died unmarried and remained deliberately vague in her mentions of this lover, the speculation of an emotional relationship between the two is supported by correspondence found posthumously. This poem presents several of Dickinson’s iconic literary elements, including her use of personification and metaphor, emblematic rhyme and metric patterns, imagery, and repetition.

Bibliography and Further Reading Biography of Emily Dickinson, Biography Online; Fred D. White. “Sweet Skepticism of the Heart”: Science in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” College Literature, 19.1 (1992); Greg Mattingly. Emily Dickinson as a Second Language: Demystifying the Poetry (2018); Emily Dickinson. The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. R. W. Franklin. (1999); Millicent Todd.  Emily Dickinson: A Revelation (1954); “The Moon is distant From the Sea.” Poetry Foundation; “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson.” Song Of America.

Credits Composed by Mariah Palmer, Fall 2018. Reading by Mariah Palmer.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

American Poetry and Poetics Copyright © 2017 by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book