Emily Dickinson deserves huge props for her subversion of Romantic subject and diction, her unabashed discussion of human nature and mortality in the ballad meter. She's pretty much a perfect example of human ingenuity, a testament to a brain's power of creation. Dickinson must have possessed extraordinary concentration; her mind wandered just enough to make unusual connections while selecting the precise words necessary in translating thought. And she addresses this act of thought in this poem, using water as a familiar symbol -
The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly — and true —
But let a Splinter swerve —
'Twere easier for You —
To put a Current back —
When Floods have slit the Hills —
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves —
And trodden out the Mills —
A well-directed brain runs smoothly, like a well-oiled train on a track. But the slightest splinter sends it rushing in all directions with the force of floodwater. We can attribute Dickinson's success to these splinters, these triggers that unleash the brain's creative momentum.
It's obvious that Dickinson tackles Romantic tradition by pursuing a very un-Romantic subject, the nature of human thought. But she still uses a very familiar symbol to capture the reader's understanding. Water is used to describe indomitable force, a flow, an energy. In this view, water is mercilessly persistent, possibly destructive, a thoroughly inhuman entity.
Maragaret Atwood also uses water as a reflection of human nature in The Penelopiad. But she puts a different spin on things -
“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
Human spirit, like water, is indomitable - "and nothing in the end can stand against it". But this type of force is far from unyielding. Water caresses, flows, patiently wears away at obstacles. And Atwood ingeniously describes humans as "half water". We might defeat opposition through brute force, our spirit akin to the waters that "slit the Hills - / And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves - / And trodden out the Mills - ."
Or we might simply heed Atwood's words. "Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does."