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Analysis of Poem "The Soul Selects Her Own Society" by Emily Dickinson

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson and a Summary of "The Soul selects her own Society" (Fr409)

"The Soul selects her own Society" is one of Emily Dickinson's 'soul' poems in which she explores inner needs and self-reliance. In effect these poems are about identity. They are snippets of self-analysis helping the reader relate to psychic sensitivity.

By all accounts, Emily Dickinson was a shy, reclusive person for most of her adult life, not straying far from her house in Amherst, Massachusetts. She spent her time helping in the house, baking bread, tending the garden and writing poetry up in her room.

She wrote around 1,775 poems, many of them concentrating on the dualistic nature of existence - how a body allows a soul to experience life, how soul gives life to a body.

She uses symbols, biblical allusion, philosophical asides, metaphor and other poetic devices to distil experience and pocket it in syntactically eccentric poetry.

Her work explores the inner world of the psyche, bringing the abstract and the concrete together in meticulously constructed stanzas that curiously rebel against tradition.

Many of her poems relate to the masculine in subjects such as religion - male figures feature - but the soul poems focus on the feminine as if to counteract the dominant male energy.

  • The Soul selects focuses on the idea of the soul creating a special 'select' type of person or persons and adhering strictly to withdrawal from mainstream society.
  • The language and imagery relate to thresholds of tolerance, space vacated or filled, openings, closures, superiority, authority. (see later analysis for more detail)
  • For Emily Dickinson the soul is that part of the psyche which shrinks away from the limelight and seeks inner solace from silence, the arts, nature and the divine. In this way it becomes distinct. In another poem she wrote: of itself / The Soul should stand in Awe.
  • She was influenced by fellow American Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings which championed self-reliance, spirituality and the educative in nature. It is known that she read his book Second Series in 1850, which contains essays such as The Poet, Experience and Nature.
  • The Soul selects displays the classic trademarks of a Dickinson poem: unusual syntax including dashes and single words; slant rhyme and no title.

But it should be remembered that Emily Dickinson created personas for her poems - the speaker is not strictly speaking the poet herself but a character invented. This is what Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter to friend and editor Thomas Higginson:

When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse - it does not mean - me - but a supposed person.

So although we can catch glimpses of the real Emily Dickinson in some of her poems, don't presume that all her poems are autobiographical. They are not. She uses masks and disguises to create a speaker suited to the content's meaning, which is mostly hidden from plain view.

"The Soul selects" was probably written around 1862, and first published in 1890, four years after Emily Dickinson's death. Because she never used titles, the first line of a poem is often used, in addition to a numerical system devised by Ralph W. Franklin, publisher of her collected poems in 1998. That numerical system is used in this analysis.

The Soul selects her own Society Fr409

The Soul Selects

The Soul Selects

Analysis of The Soul selects Line by Line

"The Soul selects her own Society" takes the reader into an abstract inner world full of symbols and shifting perspectives. Three short stanzas tell of the nature of the soul's approach to humanity and how it is separate from the self.

Line 1

Here we have a feminine soul being selective with those around. Interesting to note that in a male dominated world - Emily Dickinson wrote many poems with strong male figures in them - she chose the feminine for the artful, sensitive superior soul.

This is also the longest unbroken line in the poem, in iambic pentameter, without dashes.

Line 2

Having selected, the soul then closes off from the rest. The door represents an opening and a closing, a threshold between rooms, between the outer and the inner.

In a plain sense, this is about exclusion and inclusion. Perhaps a reflection of the poet's reclusive existence and shy retiring nature. The soul needs compatibility, which means having the right type of person to communicate with.

Lines 3 and 4

Is the door shut on her divine Majority? It seems so. Why divine? Who are these people? Is it the god-fearing crowd who the poet knew of, grew up with and in her own way, excluded herself from?

Emily Dickinson often used irony in her poems so it could be that divine Majority isn't to be taken at face value? Difficult to be absolutely sure - but what is certain is that they aren't around anymore.

So we know that the soul has power - to select - and then shut everyone out. That is, the soul creates a private space.

Line 5

Despite the door being shut the reader is granted another scene in this interior world.

There is the soul, unmoved, that is, emotionless, unchanged, by the arrival of Chariots. Chariots are biblical, the transport of generals and soldiers and important people. This is an ancient form of horse-drawn carriage.

The chariot is a symbol for those of high status.

Line 6

And they are coming to visit - only pausing - at her low Gate, that is, at her humble gate.

Lines 7 and 8

A repeat (technically anaphora) sees the soul unmoved again. This is a reinforcement and entrenches the soul's position, despite royalty appearing ready to kneel on her Mat.

What an image. Chariots bringing an Emperor to visit the soul and using her Mat to what? Bow, pay homage? Pray?

Lines 9 and 10

Here we have a vital line because the first person speaker is revealed. This is the self turned objective observer of the soul.

Again the idea is that the soul, necessarily a part of a country's society (ample nation), has the ability to choose One.

Lines 11 and 12

In parallel with the first stanza, after choosing, the soul then with a finality, excludes the outside world.

That word Valves implies a one way flow...a valve allows energy through in one direction only.

And Like stone suggests something rigid, heavy, weighty; stone is hard to move, it's strong, it is unmovable.

What Is The Rhyme Scheme of The Soul selects?

"The Soul selects" has a rhyme scheme : abab with both full and slant rhyme dominant. So, first line rhymes with third line and second line with fourth. The thing to note though is that not all the rhymes are obviously full, and one pair completely misses the full rhyme boat.

The first stanza is more or less in harmony with full rhyme, which reflects familiarity and certainty, a counterbalance to the syntax which is full of uncertainty due to all the dashes: Society/Majority and Door/more.

The second stanza contrasts sharply with the first because a pair of lines that should rhyme does not at all : pausing/kneeling whilst Gate/Mat - is pararhyme, that is, the consonant sounds are the same.

The third stanza has full rhyme nation/attention and what is known as embedded rhyme One/Stone where the first word is contained within the second. This reinforces the idea of rigidity and finality.

What Is The Meter (Metre in British English) of The Soul selects her own Society

"The Soul selects" is an unusual poem because the syntax - the way clauses and grammar are used - does not follow tradition. This is typical Emily Dickinson, to write out her poems as if they were on her breath, with many pauses for single words, each pause a dash. This naturally breaks the rhythm and makes a metric analysis more challenging.

Iambic feet are common, as are the inverted trochees, but in lines that vary from 10 syllables (lines 1 and 5)) to two (lines 10 and 12) rhythm changes reflect the theme of opening up and closing down.

Let's take a close-up look at each line:

The Soul / selects / her own / Soci / ety —
Thenshuts the Door
To her divine Majority —
Present / no more

Unmovedshe notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One
Thenclose the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone

Line 1 - basically an iambic pentameter, five feet with the iambic daDUM daDUM beat, so first syllable unstressed, second syllable stressed. The final foot is a pyrrhic, both syllables unstressed.

Line 2 - the word Then is stressed, likewise the word shuts ...but do they constitute a complete foot? The dash means there has to be a pause for the reader which kind of undermines the idea of a metric foot. The line ends with an iambic foot.

Line 3 - an iambic tetrameter, four feet, with that end foot a pyrrhic, non-stressed, falling away, like with the ending of the first line.

Line 4 - here we have a trochee (DUMda) followed by an iamb.

In short, Dickinson's lines rebel against rhythm, because of the dashes, which bring uncertainty and unexpected pauses. Some say this is innovation (no other poet wrote in such manner), others are critical.


Norton Anthology of Poetry, Norton, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey