Emily Dickinson, a poet far beyond her time, came to the stage in a post enlightenment era of American History. The 1800s brought with it writers and poets alike determined to bring forth new imaginings tying the dichotomic scientific principles and spiritual ideals of the time together in what is now considered romantic literature. While Dickinson is not considered a strictly romantic poet, many of her personas directly reflect the idealistic nature of many other romantics such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller. In her prized poem, “The Soul selects her own Society-” a conceptual idea emerges, provoking a truly unique perspective for readers. Is human nature the humbling of a once profound consciousness and the exaltation of the ego? By deconstructing this poem, the ties to romanticism will be highlighted and Emily Dickinson will be held under a forgotten light.
The title-less influence
Emily Dickinson’s refusal to directly title her poems brings to question her intention of influence. The titles given to her poems upon publishing are the first lines set in bold or otherwise numbered by editors compiling her works for anthologies. Judith Farr reflects on the poems Dickinson titled herself saying that these titles, “were obviously selected because [Dickinson] knew titles were customary, not because she conceived of them as improving the coherence of her work” (qtd. in Mulvihill 1). This effort to distinguish her works with a definite title exposes the need to label and separate concepts into neat, easily recognizable boxes. It is a romantic idea to let the reader develop implicit ideas from the body of a work rather than to outright tell them with a blatant title. In a brief description of romantic poetry this source explains a possible motive for a deliberate diversion from the norm; “Romantics set themselves in opposition to the order and rationality of classical and neoclassical artistic precepts to embrace freedom and revolution in their art and politics” (“A Brief Guide to Romanticism” 1). In order to understand Emily’s abstractions, it is necessary to delve deeper than the initial response a title imposes.
Just one broken down
“The Soul selects her own Society-”, both the title and the first quoted line, is an ambiguous understatement of romantic idealism. Dickinson’s deliberate diction presents not only the transcendental “Soul” but also her attempt to assign the soul a sex. This is a solely romantic concept in that the spiritual experience is developed and capable of making decisions. Also, it presents a concept of separation from the self and the soul. Many philosophers categorize this as non-locality or the division of consciousness and ego, but it is all centrally focused in an unmaterialistic mentality. In line nine the presence of two beings is established again, “I’ve known her – from an ample nation -” (qtd. in Myer 320). This is arguably the most prominent romantic idea in the poem. The belief that a non-human entity is responsible for deciding that which it wants to experience, i.e. her “Society”. Throughout the poem, Dickinson eludes to the timelessness of the soul in its journey to experience a material connection. In lines four through seven, she notes her soul’s, or rather her persona’s soul’s process of deeming an appropriate experience; “Unmoved – she notes the Chariots – pausing/At her low Gate -/Unmoved – an Emperor be kneeling/Upon her Mat -” (qtd. in Meyer 320). Her choice of “Chariots” and “Emperor” could be clever symbols used to describe a sort of leafing through time. It may represent the pivotal moment when the soul decides where it belongs and is no longer “Unmoved”. While trying to rationalize the perpetually abstract, it is unwise to try to define all elements of romanticism. Schematics can’t create evidence, but may be useful in an essay such as this. In a line quoted from, A Handbook to Literature: Sixth Edition by C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon, a definition is formed to classify the romantic mentality; “An interesting schematic explanation calls romanticism the predominance of imagination over reason and formal rules (classicism) and over the sense of fact or the actual (realism)” (qtd. in “On American Romanticism” 1). If this concept is applied to the final lines of Dickinson’s poem, “Choose One -/Then – close the Valves of her attention -/ Like Stone -” a new understanding can be reached (qtd. in Meyer 320). From a classicist perspective, the soul is inanimate, therefore saying that “she”, the soul, is going to “close the valves of her attention” is a personification. However, it is more believable and sensible, though ambiguous, to view this entire poem through a romantic lens. From this shifted perspective, the “valves of her attention” could be the soul’s settlement into a coexistence with the material world. She must “Choose One -” and experience that which she has chosen for herself.
Finally, Emily Dickinson’s use of the hyphen or dash has eluded many just as her lack of titles has. Simply stating that this is just another way of differing from the norm wouldn’t be enough to encapsulate her intentions for the dashes at the ends of her poems as well as the inner lines. While no one can say for sure why those dashes linger there, one romantically interesting explanation has sprung forth. What if the hyphen simply illuminates a lack of finality? In “The Soul selects her own Society -” it has been theorized in this essay that the soul has chosen her path and closed her attention to her past experiences. However, the last line hangs with an uncertain, – with the line “Like Stone -” (qtd. in Meyer 320). Stone is typically used to describe that which is immovable, but the dash questions its solidarity. Could Dickinson be suggesting that nothing in the material realm is exempt from change; even stone? If the soul can select her own society once, what is to stop her from doing it again? The dash leads one to believe that this choice is infinitely evolving and cannot be contained by any material means. It is an eternal continuation of self or reality. It is a stretch to place such a weighted conclusion upon a poet, however there seem to be no conclusions that can contain a true romantic.
Deciphering the clues left behind by great writers is a feat unfit for the narrow-minded. While it is reasonable to apply one theory at a time, it is necessary not to become too attached to one translation or another. Admittedly, Emily Dickinson may have intended a completely different effect with this poem. However, it is in person’s best interest to never stop questioning and to come to one’s own conclusions. The diction in this poem directly matches that of many romantic works in this time period, but more than that the feeling this piece instills is surreal. In conclusion, while difference of understanding is inevitable, it is reasonable to piece a puzzle together with the picture in one’s mind.
“A Brief Guide to Romanticism.” Poets.org. The Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 3 Mar.2014.
“Definitions from A Handbook to Literature, Sixth Edition.” Holman, C. Hugh and Harmon, William. vcu.edu. On American Literature, n.d. Web 3 Mar. 2014.
Dickinson, Emily. “The Soul selects her own Society -.” Poetry An Introduction, Seventh Edition.
Ed. Ellen Thibault. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 320. Print.
“Why Dickinson Didn’t Title.” Mulvihill, John. english.illinois.edu. Modern American Poetry, n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.
Janus from My Mind on May 20, 2014:
Very informative. If I remember correctly, Dickinson often mailed her work to "Some Guy Whose Name I Can't Remember" and he was absolutely amazed as to how well she received constructive criticism. In my opinion, anyone who can handle criticism has talent, in some form or another. The mystery surrounding her work makes her even more intriguing.
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on May 20, 2014:
Great article! I love the poetry of Emily Dickinson and I especially love this poem, The Soul Selects... Great analysis of the poem and I agree with your points. She and her poetry certainly cannot be categorized that's what makes her poetry so great. She can say so much with a minimum of words.