Okay, so maybe we're just getting super excited because we just saw Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but this poem is sounding fun, swashbuckling, and frankly piratical to us right now. Reading it, imagine that you've just signed up for a thrilling voyage as a member of a pirate crew, and you're not sure where the ship will take you, or what adventures are in store. Picture your bold, fearless captain (who may or may not resemble a dashing Johnny Depp) roaring out this poem from the deck of the ship, as you sail merrily out of the harbor, into the fading light of a magnificent sunset. Where are you headed? Nothing is for sure, but you know that there's danger, adventure, and excitement ahead. Ahoy there!
Nothing unusual here – Emily Dickinson didn't give any of her poems names (though some more conventional editors did), so in this day and age, we just refer to her poems by their first lines. These are often kind of bizarre and a wee bit cryptic, and this poem is no exception. When you just hear "There is no Frigate like a Book," it immediately captures your imagination – after all, what can books and boats possibly have in common, except the letter "B" (oh fine, and "O," too)? Guess you'll just have to read the poem to find out.
The setting here is a kind of fantastical imaginary landscape. It's a pretty spectacular one, populated by magnificent ships sailing away to far-off lands and knights trotting around on prancing horses. However, this poem doesn't actually represent a place, imaginary or no. Instead, it asks us to imagine imagination itself (whoa). That sounds totally confusing and way far out there, but think about it for a minute. The central metaphor of this poem asks us to compare reading a book to traveling to far-away places. The travel that goes on here is imaginary, and the speaker is asking us to summon up the idea of travel in our minds, not a specific voyage.
If you've read any other Dickinson poems, you may be familiar with the mysterious nature of the speaker. We don't get any hints about who or what is telling us about books "There is no Frigate like a Book." There are no clues as to the speaker's gender, age, or characteristics (not even an "I" – so we can't even say exactly say that it's a person). The only thing that makes the speaker seem human at all is the pronoun "us" in line 2, which implies that he/she/it is a reader, just like we are. It's perhaps best to think about the speaker here as a kind of disembodied voice, making observations about the natural, human joys of reading.
This is a kind and gentle, entry-level Emily Dickinson poem. While some of her other, stranger poems are way up there in the alpine meadows, this poem is like a nice, ambling walk up a grassy slope. It may take a little bit of huffing and puffing (say, around Line 5 or 6, maybe), but when you get to the top, you can take an exhilarating roll down!
Since she didn't get out much, Emily Dickinson spent a lot of time seeing magic in ordinary things. Many of her poems creatively transform the most normal-seeming, everyday happenings (like the buzzing of a fly, or the passing of a train) into meaningful symbols for bigger ideas. This poem does exactly that. It takes an everyday occurrence – reading a book – and shows us how that simple action that we take for granted is actually a mystical and amazing thing.
Dickinson's poems, for the most part, are written in what's referred to as "ballad stanza," which means that they have a singsong, hymn-like quality. It's no coincidence that you can sing pretty much any Dickinson poem to the tune of "Amazing Grace" – they're written in this same meter, like a lot of other songs. Technically ballad stanza is quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter in an ABCB rhyme scheme.
What does this mean? Well, first of all, let's tackle the word "quatrain." That just means a stanza made up of four lines. You probably noticed that "There is no Frigate like a Book" has two quatrains.
Moving right along, let's talk about iambic meter. This poem has the rhythmic, da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM feeling of an iambic meter. An "iamb," a popular kind of metrical "foot" (or unit) is made up of two syllables, one unstressed (da), and the other stressed (DUM). It might help to think of the clever reference to "prancing Poetry" in line 4, and imagine a horse briskly trotting along to get a feel for this meter. When you put several iambs in a row, you get that two-step rhythm that makes Dickinson so fun and easy to read aloud.
Ballad stanza has alternating lines of four and three iambs, thus the names "iambic tetrameter" (tetra = four, like Tetris) and "iambic trimeter" (tri = three, like tricycle). Make sense? No? Yes? Maybe? To be safe, let's try and read aloud together – the bold, italicized syllables are the stressed ones. We're also separating the iambs with slashes so you can really see the three- and four-syllable lines. Try to really exaggerate the difference between unstressed and stressed syllables to feel the even beat of these lines:
There is | no Frig|-ate like | a Book
To take | us Lands | a-way
Get it? As for rhyme, you can easily pick out the rhyme pattern here, even when it's a little wonky. The second and fourth lines of each stanza rhymes (ABCB DEFE). This works out beautifully in the second stanza, where "Toll" and "soul" match up perfectly, but in the first stanza – "away" and "Poetry" – we have what's called a slant or sight rhyme. That is, we can see that the two words "rhyme" because of their common ending, but it doesn't sound exactly right when you read it out loud. So, those of us who were embarrassedly trying to make "Poetry" sounds like "away" ("Um, Po-e-tray?") can breathe a sigh of relief. This slant rhyme may seem weird, but it's most definitely not an accident. Rather, it's one of Dickinson's trademarks, and the common occurrence of slant rhymes in her poems keeps them from being dully consistent and sing-songy in form (in our humble opinion).
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Move along… there's nothing to see here.