A poem by Emily Dickinson:

We send the Wave to find the Wave—
An Errand so divine,
The Messenger enamored too,
Forgetting to return,
We make the wise distinction still,
Soever made in vain,
The sagest time to dam the sea is when the sea is gone—

What is the meaning of "We make the wise distinction still"? What is "distinction" here? I can't grasp the basic meaning - I don't need a complex interpretation, just the basic meaning.

Basically, I understand it thus:

  • We send the wave to find the wave.

Okay, "we make a wave and we are sitting and waiting till it hits another wave and returns".

  • An errand so divine.

Okay, let it be divine. Maybe by "wave" the author means some spiritual effort, an effort to understand some other person. Hence, a divine errand. It's hazy, but I get the general feeling.

  • The messenger enamored too.

The wave is enamored? It's getting hazier. The wave fell in love with another wave (another person?).

  • Forgetting to return.

It fell in love and forgot to return. Okay.

  • We make the wise distinction still.

What? Here I crush into a concrete wall. I don't understand this line at all. We sent our wave, it fell in love and forgot to return. But what is "distinction" and how does one "make a distinction"?

  • Soever made in vain.

I understand that this relates to "distinction" but that does not help my understanding. "This distinction is always made in vain; there is always no use of this distinction" - but what is "distinction"? Distinguishing two waves between each other? But we did not see our target wave, and the wave we sent got lost.

  • The sagest time to dam the sea is when the sea is gone —

Apparently the sea consisted of only two waves. And now that our wave got lost and the first wave was not even seen by us, the sea is gone and we can put a dam on the dry surface.

Maybe there is a plain English explanation of this poem somewhere. I googled but found literary criticism, which does not help. I need at least to grasp the basic meaning.

  • 3
    Good question. Could the poem possibly be about Death?
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 22:03

1 Answer 1


Loosely, based on Dickenson's artistic obsession with "eternity", my thought is:

  • This poem involves our connection with the eternal (god, heaven, the dear departed.)

  • The waves may be people who die, off to the hereafter, whom we hope will return to validate the reality of heaven, and, by extension, God.

  • The errand (the journey of death) is so divine (literally) that the messenger forgets everything in the face of eternal bliss (enamored) and never returns to validate.

  • Despite that (we make the distinction still), regardless of knowledge (potentially in vain), it does not make sense to cut ourselves off from the feeling of connection to the eternal (dam the sea) so long there is, at least, that feeling.

(It's been a while since I went deep on this poet I consider most significant of all of her contemporaries, but I think this interpretation jibes well with the rest of her extensive work on this subject;)

  • 1
    So "wise" is ironic?
    – CJ Sheu
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 7:29
  • @CJSheu lol, I don't think so ;) There is irony in that we can't verify what comes after life, but the poet seems to feel it is wise to remain hopeful. (Think Pascal's Wager)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 17:06
  • according to your interpretation, we shouldn't "dam the sea," but the poem says that it's wise to dam the sea when it's gone.
    – CJ Sheu
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 1:27
  • @CJSheu yup. it's a contradiction and a paradox. what the poet may be intimating is that the sea should not be dammed.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 17:48

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