Three times — we parted — Breath — and I —
Three times — He would not go —
But strove to stir the lifeless Fan
The Waters — strove to stay.
Three Times — the Billows tossed me up —
Then caught me — like a Ball —
Then made Blue faces in my face —
And pushed away a sail
That crawled Leagues off — I liked to see —
For thinking — while I die —
How pleasant to behold a Thing
Where Human faces — be —
The Waves grew sleepy — Breath — did not —
The Winds — like Children — lulled —
Then Sunrise kissed my Chrysalis —
And I stood up — and lived —
The speaker of this poem is caught in an epic struggle between the elemental forces of “Breath,” or air, and the “Waters.” It is a life and death struggle – the waters toss her about, mocking her with “Blue faces” and striving to deny her breath. She has lost her breath three times already, yet “Breath” is a benevolent force in this poem which persists and seeks to save her and revive her “lifeless Fan.”
The helplessness of the speaker jumps out at you. She has no control over either the forces trying to destroy her or the forces trying to save her. She must passively ride the waves, an observer to the battle over her own destiny. She is also alone, the “sail,” that could represent a boat and human contact is pushed “Leagues off” by the chaos around her. It seems she is on the brink of death.
The last stanza brings her respite from the chaos. She is snatched from the brink of death by the unwearied “Breath” which has been fighting for her the whole time. As she emerges from her “Chrysalis” to sunlight, the struggle is recast in terms of birth rather than death. We see that her helplessness in the struggle was childlike in many ways. She has been saved, but not by her own efforts, and the speaker offers little insight into the meaning or context of the struggle. This poem represents the view that the forces that govern our lives may be beyond our control or comprehension. Dickinson challenges the mainstream Romantic idea that imagination and personal introspection can positively transform any experience. In poem 598, such a transformation is far beyond the ability of the speaker.