Thomas Wentworth Higginson may have exaggerated a bit, speaking of “dred.” It was 1891, and he had taken on the editing the surprisingly vast literary legacy of Emily Dickinson for its first substantial publication. In this task, he was a lucky find, for though he had engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Dickinson when she was still alive—the real rarity was that he was a thoroughgoing radical, a Transcendentalist comfortable with heterodoxy, an uncompromising abolitionist who raised and lead a company of Afro-American soldiers in the Civil War; and rarer yet in his time, a stalwart feminist who knew and worked with pioneering American feminists Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.
So, fear of controversy was not in Higginson’s nature. Still “dread” was the word he used:
“One poem only I dread a little to print—that wonderful 'Wild Nights,'—lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia (Emily Dickinson’s surviving sister, and the one who found the large cache of poems at Emily’s death) any shrinking about it? You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.”
What dread could a little 12-line poem cause? Dickinson's “Wild Nights Wild Nights” appears to be a poem about unembarrassed female desire. Even with suggested subtext supplied for for lines like “Rowing in Eden,” it may seem less shocking today. Let’s give Higginson some credit. He not only didn’t want to censor it, he maintained it needed to be included for publication.
Perhaps today we’re not shocked—but let’s not forget, it’s an Emily Dickinson poem. It’s terribly concise. It sings off the page, yet with such short lines, just three to five syllables long. It’s memorable. When I mentioned it to my wife as the next piece I was working on, she nearly knew it by heart.
But most strangely, though it starts like an ardent valentine, it finishes either in the pleasant, muddled thoughts of lust or with something altogether less conventional. Setting humptastic subtext aside, why would one row in Eden? You’re in paradise! Where do you want to go? Do you need to stock your ship up with the fruit of knowledge? And you’ve made it to port in the last stanza. Again, let’s leave the “made it past third base” metaphors behind for a moment. Why are you exclaiming the sea when you’re in port? I even wonder if Dickinson is slipping in a pun here: “Ah! the sea!” sounds like "Odyssey.” Is Emily’s wild-nighter an Odysseus looking to getting back on the boat and back to sea?
I don’t know exactly what Dickinson is getting at there. Her level of concision: pretty, but sharp pieces of glass, leaves lots of slant light to refract.