Course Hero. "Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) Study Guide." Course Hero. 13 Apr. 2018. Web. 10 Aug. 2020. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Poems-of-Emily-Dickinson-Selected/>.
Course Hero. (2018, April 13). Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Poems-of-Emily-Dickinson-Selected/
(Course Hero, 2018)
Course Hero. "Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) Study Guide." April 13, 2018. Accessed August 10, 2020. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Poems-of-Emily-Dickinson-Selected/.
Course Hero, "Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) Study Guide," April 13, 2018, accessed August 10, 2020, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Poems-of-Emily-Dickinson-Selected/.
Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Emily Dickinson's poem "Two swimmers wrestled on the spar—."
In this poem, which consists of two stanzas of ballad meter, two swimmers are wrestling or struggling in the ocean on a spar, or ship's beam, floating on the waves. After a long night one is safe and swims, smiling, toward land. However, the other swimmer dies. Ships pass by his body, floating with face upturned, eyes pleading, and hands thrown up in a gesture of begging.
The poem begins with an enigma, which often occurs in Dickinson's poetry: What is meant when the speaker says the swimmers "wrestled"? Are they wrestling to stay afloat? Are they wrestling playfully? Or is each trying to overpower the other? Has one left the other to die? Readers cannot be sure.
Like "Success is counted sweetest" this poem deals unflinchingly with loss. Also characteristic of Dickinson is her cool-eyed focus on the moment of death, of "unbecoming." Readers see the helplessness of the drowned swimmer through the "begging" eyes and "beseeching" hands. There is no sense of justice or the operation of fate: the death is cruel and unexplained, as the other swimmer turns "smiling to the land." However, unlike other Dickinson poems about death that comes in the guise of a courtly gentleman or friend or features the deceased as simply moving from a living to an unliving state, this poem features the dead figure as "begging" for life—and not accepting death as a part of life. In this sense it shows a distinctly different take on death than does "She died—this was the way she died" (#150). In fact it reflects struggle and pain, as does "Apparently with no surprise" (#1624, not discussed in this guide). Readers might even ask whether the speaker implies people don't much care about others or don't care about them once they're dead. As is typical of many of Dickinson's poems, the reader is left uneasy, with no sense of resolution.