By Harold Bloom
Bloom's glossy serious perspectives
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Additional resources for Charles Dickens
Move him into the sun – Gently its touch awoke him once, At home, whispering of ﬁelds unsown. Always it woke him, even in France, Until this morning and this snow. If anything might rouse him now The kind old sun will know. Think how it wakes the seeds, – Woke, once, the clays of a cold star. Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides, Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir? Was it for this the clay grew tall? – O what made fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth’s sleep at all? In this poem the speaker speaks of a companion whose newly dead body lies, apparently, nearby.
To achieve this reading we have to reverse the direction of the metaphors, turning “Mermaids” into something like felt presences in the water, “Hempen Hands” into rigging (or, for you, sailors – I’ll come back to this), “eating up” into drowning, “Silver Heel” and “Pearl” into foamy surf, and “bowing” into ebbing. (You say there are “literally” mermaids in the poem, where I would say “metaphorically”; I guess there’s another way of reading literally, which is to read as if there were no metaphors, which would make this is a poem about mermaids, frigates that can extend helping hands, a tide that can play at eating someone up, waves that have silver heels and are made of pearl – but no one would read it this way, right?
Wouldn’t the fully expanded sentence read: “And made as if he would eat me up as wholly as he would eat up a dew upon a dandelion’s sleeve”? I don’t think the sun comes into it at all: she is imagining the smallest possible visualizable quantity of water – not just a drop of dew, but one tiny and delicate enough to perch on a dandelion’s stalk. ) And the “Mighty look”? Whatever the sea itself thinks of its demeanor, the woman is surely amused by it. So “haughty” is perhaps wrong, but to take “mighty” to be the equivalent of “majestic” is to play too much into the sea’s hands, I believe.
Charles Dickens by Harold Bloom