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

Updated on April 20, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emily Dickinson

Source

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 displays 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.

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"

Emily Dickinson

Dickinson at 17
Dickinson at 17 | Source

Commentary

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

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 spiritual 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 belongs—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.

Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      7 months ago from U.S.A.

      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 kakoti profile image

      Nishibonya 

      7 months ago from India

      Informative :)

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