July 17, 2023

Emily Dickinson on Gilligan's Island

I was reading a post I did some years ago about an Emily Dickinson oddity. I needed to update the post and so I checked back to the article about some Emily Dickinson curiosities that inspired my post. The one that caught my attention ( and was also something I heard Billy Collins talk about years ago in a workshop) was her connection to the castaways on Gilligan's Island.

That seems like a big stretch of the poetic imagination, but you can sing most of her poems (I could imagine myself doing this with younger students), using the theme to TV's 1960s "classic" Gilligan's Island. That theme song is an earworm in many brains of people who grew up watching the show. 

Give it a try and sing this first stanza of "Because I Could Not Stop For Death."   (If somehow the melody of "The Ballad Of Gilligan's Isle" is not burned into your neurons deeper than any poem, give a listen below)

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

How come this works? (And here is the lesson for the class.) Emily usually used a "common meter" in her poems. The TV theme also uses it, and it is used in lots of nursery rhymes and Protestant hymns. It's four beats followed by three beats.

In more detail, Wikipedia tells us that common meter (or metre or common measure) is a poetic meter consisting of four lines that alternate between iambic tetrameter (four metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) and iambic trimeter (three metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).

It has historically been used for ballads such as "Tam Lin", and hymns such as "Amazing Grace" and the Christmas carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem". The upshot of this commonality is that the lyrics of one song can be sung to the tune of another. This can make for some great singalongs around the campfire. 

For example, "Advance Australia Fair", the national anthem of Australia, can be sung to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." "Amazing Grace" can be sung to the tune of Madonna's  "Material Girl".

But I am quite happy to just imagine Emily on the beach with Ginger and Mary Anne, swinging in their hammocks, drinking from a coconut, and singing her poems to the delight and total misunderstanding of all those around her.

Is it a rainy day where you are? Try singing Emily's "Summer Shower" as if you were on that island with Gilligan and the crew. Coconut drink is optional but advisable.

A drop fell on the apple tree,
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.

A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!

The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.

The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away. 

There were episodes of the show when the gang sang and performed. One of those was the 1965 “Don’t Bug the Mosquitoes.” This is the time of Beatlemania and a pop group called the Mosquitoes arrives on the island to escape their fans. Ginger, Mary Anne and Mrs. Howell form their own pop group, the Honeybees. 

How did the Mosquitoes get there; why didn't they help the castaways leave; where did the ladies get their outfits and the record player, record and electricity? Oh, nothing is ever explained and everything is possible on that island.

I would love to have given Emily a vacation on a tropical island and seen her sing some of her poems with the ladies. I think she needed a vacation from Amherst. And some tropical drinks.


  1. I remember in the sitcom "Head of the Class" it was stated that Dickinson's poems could be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas". Not all of them, as it turns out.

    1. But - am I right about this? I think the melodies have choruses (stanzas) of 4 lines each having 4 bars, the equivalent of 4 'feet'. The singer may rest, or sing a long note or some sort of 'decoration' over the last bar of the 2nd and 4th lines, but the 4th bar is definitely there.. If there's an instrumental backing, or an audience clapping along, it's more obvious. So reading this has got me puzzling about whether, if I'd read these poems without the description, I'd be reading it as 4-3-4-3 or 4-4-4-4, leaving a filler gap at the end of lines 2 & 4.I know in jazz we expect solos to be 16 or 32, 64 etc bars long - multiples of 16 bars, not multiples of 7 ... thanks for the site, Alison


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