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Emily Dickinson's "The Soul selects her own Society"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Introduction and Text of "The Soul selects her own Society"

The speaker in Emily Dickinson's "The Soul selects her own Society" enjoys living a nearly monastic life of privacy and dedication to a divine goal. In this poem, the speaker muses on the beauty and sanctity of living such a quiet life. This poem plays out in three quatrains, featuring the innovative form that Dickinson readers might likely expect from this reclusive poet. The piece is generously sprinkled with her signature dash – 17 of them in a mere 12 lines.

Also there are three lines that contain two dashes while one line professes a whopping three of those Dickinsonian favored punctuation marks. Just how and/or why the Dickinsonian dash became a staple in the Dickinson poem remains pure speculation among scholars and critics of her work. One thought about that usage is that it represents a rhetorical pause shorter than a period but longer than a comma. However, it is also quite likely that the pause represented by that dash could indicate a stop even longer than a period.

Another likely function of the dash is to hold her place as paused briefly to think about what she would write next. Dickinson wrote specifically for the page, not for poetry readings. And although she, no doubt, read her works aloud to herself or perhaps to friends, she likely varied her pauses where she had placed the dashes. Therefore, it also seems likely that the dashes represent boundaries for thought groups.

In Emily Dickinson’s handwritten manuscripts, the dash appears in various lengths from a hyphen to an em dash. She virtually always sets the dash between spaces. Thus, her usage resembles that of the en dash, as opposed to the em dash, in modern usage. For example, the line from “The Soul selects her own Society” should be rendered, “Unmoved – she notes the Chariots – pausing –” instead of “Unmoved—she notes the Chariots—pausing—.”

The Soul selects her own Society

The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more –

Unmoved – she 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 –
Then – close the Valves of her attention –
Like Stone –

Reading of "The Soul selects her own Society"

Commentary

The speaker in these lines cherishes her privacy and her intentional striving to live a quiet life of creativity.

First Quatrain: The Independent Soul

The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more –

The first line of the first quatrain finds the speaker making revealing and momentous announcement: "The Soul selects her own Society." The vital force of life energy, known as the soul, has the ability to understand what it needs, what belongs to it, and how to choose the true from the false. After the soul makes its selections, it bars intruders from distracting it from its necessary duties and engagements. The speaker engages a royalty metaphor to compare her activities to that of a king's court. She commands the atmosphere of others that she will accept no more, as her limit for her soul's society has been met. She now is in full possession of "her divine Majority."

Like a king's court that has welcomed all of the guests to his audience, he places a halt to the entrance of further guests. This speaker's "divine Majority," however, is populated only by what her own soul has selected. Interestingly, it is likely that this speaker's selection consists of only of meditation, a few books, a personal item or two, thoughts, prayer, and her own writings—not people at all, except for a beloved friend or two, who may be welcomed into her sacred, soul-inspired court.

Second Quatrain: No Intrusion into the Sanctuary

Unmoved – she notes the Chariots – pausing –
At her low Gate –
Unmoved – an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat –

This speaker remains adamant that she will rebuff anyone, regardless of station, who may wish to intrude upon her sanctuary of quiet reflection. Even those who come by fancy carriage and unload at her door will not be accepted for an audience. She has chosen and she remains insistent in keeping her privacy.

The grace and solitude that her soul's selection have made will not be broken even for an "Emperor," who might come calling. No kneeling emperor would even motivate her to forsake her own quiet sanctuary to accept audience with him. Heads of state would hardly make a satisfactory visitor for one whose interests are only in the metaphysical world and not the political.

Third Quatrain: Soul is Sole Discriminating Force

I’ve known her – from an ample nation –
Choose One –
Then – close the Valves of her attention –
Like Stone –

The speaker now makes quite clear that her own soul has completed all the dismissing through selection that makes her soul a discriminating force for seeking the Will of the Divine Spirit. This speaker has intimately affirmed with her own soul an uncompromising stance that allows her to remain brave and secure in her choices for the way she lives her life. She will "close the Valves" of her own stone-like attention to outside forces and place that concentration where it belong—upon inward forces of reality.

Through her own experience of selecting her soul's companions, this speaker can place herself inside a divine culture where she can experience eternal bliss. Without engagement with ordinary humanity, her soul can return to its divine state, where she can commune with her Divine Creator, enjoying the blessed company that she loves more than anything this world could ever offer.

Emily Dickinson

Dickinson at 17

Dickinson at 17

The text I use for commentaries

The text I use for commentaries

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 14, 2020:

Thank you, Michael, for your comment. Dickinson always provides very good literary material for study. She enlightens as well as entertains. She gives us back our memories that we have likely forgotten or perhaps even failed to register. For such poets, we all should be eternally grateful.

Gratitude is wonderful quality. Thank you, again, for sharing yours. Hope you have a blessed day, Michael!

Michael Yoo on March 14, 2020:

Dear Ms. Grimes,

Starting about a year ago, I have been enjoying your analysis of poems of various poets. Your writings served as both a stepping stone and the window through which I could appreciate the beauty of the decorations inside the dwelling.

I am so grateful for all the writers sharing their valuable insights openly...

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 11, 2018:

Thank you, Nishibonya. I try to add my 2 cents worth & maybe give an idea or two about the text. Dickinson can seem somewhat difficult to fathom , especially to beginning readers of poetry. But once readers catch on to her elliptical style, things begin to flow nicely. I appreciate your comment. Have a nice day!

Nishibonya from India on December 18, 2017:

Informative :)