August 14, 2017

Emily Dickinson on Gilligan's Island

In reading a post online about some Emily Dickinson trivial curiosities and the one that struck me again (because I heard Billy Collins talk about it years ago in a workshop) was her connection to the castaways on Gilligan's Island.

If you want to sing most of her poems (and I could imagine myself doing this with students), use the theme to TV's 1960s "classic" Gilligan's Island.

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.

And the why of this working is that Emily usually used the "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.

Wikipedia tells us that common meter (or metre or common measure) is a poetic meter consisting of four lines which 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 lyrics of one song can be sung to the tune of another. This ca 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 done to the tune of "Material Girl".

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

If it is raining on your summer day, trying singing Emily's "Summer Shower" poem.

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. 


  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


** All comments must be approved by the site administrator before appearing in order to prevent spam.