The Soul Selects Her Own Society
The Soul Selects Her Own Society
Emily Dickinson c. 1862
Originally published in Dickinson’s posthumous first collection, Poems by Emily Dickinson, in 1890, “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is believed to have been written in 1862, a year during which Dickinson supposedly produced more than 300 poems. Significantly, the poem can be read as a description of the artist’s experience: the Soul, perhaps a poet, freely chooses to close herself off from the world in order to pursue the solitary, interior life of creativity and self-discovery.
In the first stanza, the speaker describes the Soul shutting a door, an image of the individual deliberately closing herself away to pursue some greater purpose. While it might seem that the Soul is hiding behind a closed door, there is evidence that the poem’s speaker believes her to be exercising the power of personal choice. Chariots pause at her gate; emperors come to visit, but she will not let them in. She is indifferent to these symbols of wealth, romance, and power. The poem’s speaker tells us that the Soul has closed her attention to everything except “One.” The “One” that she has chosen might be interpreted as her own creative vision.
The poem concludes by comparing the Soul’s choice to “Stone,” indicating that it is heavy, solid and irreversible. Once the Soul has closed herself off from the world, there is no turning back. Like many of Dickinson’s poems, “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” comments on the Soul of the individual and its rejection of the conventions of the larger society.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830 and lived there all her life. Her grandfather was the founder of Amherst College, and her father Edward Dickinson was a lawyer who served as the treasurer of the college. He also held various political offices. Her mother Emily Norcross Dickinson was a quiet and frail woman. Dickinson went to primary school for four years and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847 before spending a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Her education was strongly influenced by Puritan religious beliefs, but Dickinson did not accept the teachings of the Unitarian church attended by her family and remained agnostic throughout her life. Following the completion of her education, Dickinson lived in the family home with her parents and younger sister Lavinia, while her elder brother Austin and his wife Susan lived next door. She began writing verse at an early age, practicing her craft by rewriting poems she found in books, magazines, and newspapers. During a trip to Philadelphia in the early 1850s, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth; her disappointment in love may have brought about her subsequent withdrawal from society. Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis of an undetermined nature in the early 1860s. Her traumatized state of mind is believed to have inspired her to write prolifically: in 1862 alone she is thought to have composed over three hundred poems. In that same year, Dickinson initiated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Over the years Dickinson sent nearly one hundred of her poems for his criticism, and he became a sympathetic adviser and confidant, but he never published any of her poems. Dickinson’s isolation further increased when her father died unexpectedly in 1874 and her mother suffered a stroke that left her an invalid. Dickinson and her sister provided her constant care until her death in 1882. Dickinson was diagnosed in 1886 as having Bright’s disease, a kidney dysfunction that resulted in her death in May of that year.
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—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
These lines introduce the Soul as the subject of the poem. Clearly, this Soul is feminine, as indicated by the use of the word “her.” Here, the Soul might represent the self, the individual, or the mysterious essence of being. This Soul is also subjective; she is an active subject rather than a passive object, and relies upon her personal opinions and feelings. She “selects,” meaning that she picks out or chooses, “her own Society.” This line can be interpreted in a number of ways. On one level, it might mean that she decides what company she will keep and which social rules she will obey. On a deeper level, it might mean that she chooses the
- An audio cassette titled “Fifty Poems of Emily Dickinson” was released in 1996 by Dove Audio.
- An audio cassette titled “Dickinson and Whitman: Ebb and Flow” is available from Audiobooks.
- “Heaven Below, Heaven Above,” an audio cassette, is available through Audiobooks.
- An audio cassette titled “Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson” is available from Audiobooks.
company of her own self over the company of others. Once this selection is complete, she “shuts the Door,” or closes herself off. A closed door is a common image in literature which usually represents a block or barrier between the internal and the external world.
Dickinson’s use of dashes between words and phrases leads to several possible explanations of these lines. The lines might mean that the Soul is shutting her “divine Majority” inside with her, behind the door. In this sense, “divine Majority” might represent her own holy or sacred self, which is now no longer present to those outside of her closed door. Another way to read the lines is that she is shutting her “divine Majority” out of her inner world. In this sense, “divine Majority” could mean the social or religious system to which she is no longer present. Indeed, the capitalization of “Majority” might even indicate that she is actually shutting out God, an interpretation that might have seemed blasphemous to 19th-century Americans.
In this second quatrain, the speaker gives us examples of the consequences of the Soul’s choice to shut the world out. In these lines, we see how thoroughly the Soul has rejected the symbols of the external world. She has turned away from all the proper customs of the world’s society. Chariots, perhaps containing potential suitors or wealthy men, stop before her gate. She notices them casually, but she is not interested. She is even indifferent to royalty. The Emperor falls on his knees before her door, but she will not let him enter. This is a reversed image, for it is usually the common individual who must defer to an emperor. These examples illustrate that the Soul’s state of being is intensely private, personal, and unreachable.
In these lines, the speaker of the poem, using the pronoun “I,” comments upon the power and determination of the Soul. There is a tone of admiration and respect for the Soul’s discriminating selection process. It is observed that the Soul could have had her pick of “an ample nation,” or a more than adequate body of people, but she has chosen just “One.” The “One” here might mean her creativity, or her art, or her private spiritual life. In this interpretation, the Soul has given up the rest of the world for an inward life of reflection and self-realization. She chooses to “close the Valves of her attention,” with “valve” perhaps understood according to its archaic definition, “either half of a double or folding door.” This definition completes the image created by the “Door” in the first quatrain. Once these “Valves” are firmly closed, she is free to forget external matters and concentrate solely on the “One” thing to which she has devoted her existence. “Like Stone,” she is hardened against the world outside, and her decision is solid, permanent, and complete.
Public vs. Private Life
In America, more than in most countries, we have a strong sense of what privacy is and what rights an individual has to be left alone, possibly because the nation was founded by people who sought the freedom to worship their religion without government interference. On the other hand, balancing this respect for privacy is the suspicion that a person who is too aloof might be up to something and might pose a threat to society. In this poem, Dickinson does not present a defense for the person who chooses to live outside of the bounds of public life, she simply states it as a fact, ignoring society’s opinions. If her first two lines were any less direct or absolute—if she had said, for instance, “The soul sometimes selects her own society” or “My soul” or “One’s soul”—it would be somewhat of an admission that this might be unusual behavior, a practice that is not common to everyone. Instead, Dickinson presents this move toward privacy as an unavoidable part of the human condition.
The “low Gate” mentioned in line 6 could be an indication that this individual is not shut off completely from public life and is not beyond being contacted. The fact that the poet took the time to mention a gate that would be easy to pass over shifts the cause of the soul’s isolation at least partially onto the public at large: the Emperor she uses as a representative of the outside world falls down to his knees, but the poem implies that if he really wanted to breach the division between public and private life he could do it more easily with direct action than with social gesture.
Wealth and Poverty
Although this poem does not dwell upon wealth in terms of worldly things one might collect as possessions, it does refer to the social status that we associate with wealth through the Emperor and the Chariots that pull up outside of the gate. Since this poem is written at a level of high abstraction, it does not have to bother with details about how wealthy the people outside the gate are, or how non-wealthy the poem’s speaker is. The reader knows that there is no real Emperor, no carriages nor gate: these are simply indicators of wider-reaching ideas. It hardly matters if the reader interprets the Emperor to symbolize material wealth or political power, since the two are so seldom separate from each other. What does matter is that someone who the public could see as “mighty” is humbled before the soul that stays true to its own values.
This poem’s message is similar to the religious stance that values poverty and casts its suspicions toward wealth. The Bible, for instance, tells us that a camel can pass through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man can pass through the gates of heaven, and other religions require members to take a vow of poverty, so that they will not be more interested in worldly possessions than they are in God. But this poem does say that the Emperor’s worldly belongings can distract the speaker. He is irrelevant, uninteresting—she is “unmoved” by the sight of him. Whether it is the Emperor kneeling on her mat or the wealth of options made available by an “ample nation,” this Soul is not overwhelmed
Topics for Further Study
- Think of how those excluded from the soul’s society feel. Write a poem from the point of view of someone who was not selected.
- Explain what the “Valves” mentioned in the eleventh line represent. Why do you think Dickinson chose this word to express this idea?
by the things of the world that are so easily available to her.
The first three words of this poem state Dickinson’s case most directly: the word “selects” implies a decision that is gentle and unpressured, not something that one is forced into or that one does to push back against pressure. It is a word that ignores all of the various elements that one might consider when making a decision and leaves the Soul’s action entirely up to free will. The rest of the poem, though, is devoted to showing us the outside forces that generally keep one from living alone.
The first stanza offers us the friends that the Soul leaves behind by going into seclusion: the Majority (we can assume that they are friends because they are called “divine,” just as we can assume that “divine” does not mean God here because the noun is plural). Having shut friends and acquaintances out of her life, the second stanza has several powerful people in Chariots come to call on her, and one, an Emperor, even kneels on her mat, implying that his wealth and power are offered to her. Some people would be so attracted to an offer such as this that they would find it “too good to pass up,” denying that they have free will and the ability to choose, which gives more force to the fact that this Soul calmly “selects” something else.
The tone of the final stanza indicates that the speaker is not entirely happy with the idea of cutting herself off and of behaving like stone instead of flesh and blood. This is the strongest argument that another person might choose to justify remaining a part of society: that it is inhuman to shut oneself off like that. The speaker of this poem shows that this point is understood—the cold, thudding final two syllables indicate by their tone just how blunt it is to be “Like Stone”—but the fear of self-dislike is not enough to change the Soul’s choice.
“The Soul Selects Her Own Society” consists of three quatrains—stanzas of four lines each—arranged in iambs. The iamb is a metric foot of two syllables in which the first syllable is unstressed and second is stressed. The following line reveals the pattern of stresses in one line of the poem and illustrates Dickinson’s use of the iamb:
To her / di vine / Ma jor / ity —
Dickinson wrote most of her poetry in the eight- and six-syllable common meter used in many hymns and nursery rhymes. In this poem, however, her metric mix is eccentric. In the first line of the first quatrain, the poet uses a five-foot line called iambic pentameter (”penta” meaning five), which is the commonest line pattern in English verse. Then in the second line, she shifts to a two-foot pattern, or dimeter (”di” meaning two), that effectively “shuts the door” in its surprising brevity. Next she uses a four-foot line, or tetrameter (”tetra” meaning four). She ends the stanza with another stunningly short two-syllable line.
The second quatrain follows the pattern of the first in the second and fourth lines, but in the first and third lines the poet alters the pattern slightly by using words with a third loose, unaccented “ing” ending in the fourth foot (”pausing,” “kneeling”).
The first and third lines of the last quatrain are four-foot lines: three iambic feet and a final three-syllable foot with an accented middle syllable, called an amphibrach. And lastly, in the second and last lines of the quatrain, Dickinson uses a single-foot line, or monometer, for a highly effective diminishment in metric rhythm that particularly points up the poet’s powerfully terse last line.
Dickinson is noted for her unusual handling of punctuation. In this poem, she uses dashes both at the ends of lines and between words. This peculiar technique has been the subject of much critical study, but it is generally believed that Dickinson, who did not typically follow the standard rules of grammar, used dashes to indicate how words, phrases and clauses should be interpreted. Note, for instance, how the first dash in line two alters the reading rhythm of the formal iambic structure.
The poem is also interesting for its rhyme scheme. Each quatrain is rhymed on alternate lines, but Dickinson’s rhymes are not exact ones requiring identity in sound in the last stressed vowel and in following vowels and consonants. She often followed the rule of consonance, or off-rhymes, in which final consonants need be identical, but the accented vowels are different (”Society”—”Majority,” “Nation”—”Attention”). In the first two lines of the poem, Dickinson also relies on alliteration, the repetition of initial sounds in words. The “s” sound is repeated in “Soul,” “selects,” “society,” and “shuts,” further enhancing the poem’s use of sound.
There are a few figures in the history of American literature that are more familiar to the general public for their striking personalities than they are for their writings. For instance, many non-readers would be able to identify Mark Twain as being gruff and cantankerous, with wild, white hair and a huge moustache; or Ernest Hemingway, big and bearded, fisherman and fighter; or Truman Capote, the social gadfly, cheerily festooned in pastels. Emily Dickinson belongs with these: known for the personality that she projected of the recluse who never left her house, writing hundreds of poems but not having them published. Generation after generation, students are fascinated by the legend. Many wonder how a woman who was so removed from everyday life could know so much about it, while others wonder why a woman who had so much wisdom would be so timid. Many hopeful poets use Dickinson’s story to defend whatever social awkwardness they themselves suffer from and to dispute theorists who say that good writers must experience fascinating adventures. Poets will always have a touch of introversion built into their personalities, if only enough to make them step aside from socializing long enough to write things down. The legend associated with Emily Dickinson, of the mysterious woman in white looking out at the world from behind the curtains, expands from this kernel of truth, making her life seem more strange and symbolic than it actually was.
Dickinson was born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, the town that she lived in all of her
Compare & Contrast
- 1862: Congress passed the Homestead Act, giving 160 acres of Western land to any individual for free if she or he could make certain improvements and live on it for five years. In the years to come many could not cultivate the West’s arid land.
Today: Western farmers and cattle ranchers feel that government environmental regulations are hindering their ability to conduct their business
- 1862: President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that on January 1, 1863, that all persons held as slaves in the United States would be free.
1865: Freedom of slaves did not actually take effect until the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War. Almost immediately, laws were enacted that required blacks to be treated differently than whites in almost all social circumstances.
1964: After increasing gains made in the cause of equality, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 put an end to legal discrimination in public accommodations, unions, and federally funded programs.
Today: We have laws to punish racial discrimination, although American attitudes still show extreme racial consciousness.
fifty-six years. Her father was a lawyer, one of Amherst’s most important and active citizens, and the treasurer of Amherst College for almost forty years. As a result of this, the family had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Emily Dickinson attended the town’s public school when she was very young, and then she went to Amherst Academy, a few blocks from her house, where she received an excellent education. She was as active and involved and impressionable as any school girl, forming writing notes and trading secrets with the boys and girls who were her friends. From 1847 to 1848, she lived away from home for the first and only time when she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts, fifteen miles from Amherst, and shared a room with her cousin. With her keen intelligence and strong preparation from the academy, she was able to pass all of her courses in a year, which was good for all involved (Emily did not take well to the Seminary’s religious training, making her the kind of girl who was not welcome by her instructors). She returned to live with her family and never left until her death in 1886. Living at home was not unusual for unmarried women at the time: there were few jobs for women and a strong social stigma against women who lived by themselves. It was so common that her sister, Livonia Dickinson, also lived at home for her entire life. Some literary historians, wondering how Dickinson could have not married and yet write such moving love poetry, speculate about whether she had an affair. The most likely candidates for the suspected affair are a young assistant from her father’s office whom her father deemed not a good enough financial prospect or a married clergyman who moved to San Francisco in 1862, at about the time when Dickinson started to withdraw from society.
Throughout the 1850s Dickinson was still socially active about town, attending social events with her family and going for horseback and carriage rides with friends. Historians piecing together Dickinson’s diaries and reminiscences of her acquaintances guess that she was slightly shy and impatient with formalities. She was very attached to her big brown dog, Carlo, and was frequently seen taking him for walks. Her famous reclusiveness did not occur one day, but happened gradually, as a slow withdrawal. We know, for instance, that by 1982 she seldom went out in public any more, but she was not paralyzed by phobia in any way that would have prevented her from leaving the house. In both 1864 and 1865, she travelled to Boston for eye treatments, staying the night each time at a boarding house in Cambridgeport. She was still gracious with guests who came to visit the family, but increasingly she did not leave the property. Neighbors saw her tending the hemlock hedges in the garden or looking out of an upstairs window.
By 1870, she never went anywhere and she took to the habit of dressing all in white. This is the Emily Dickinson of legend, the strange genius who was shut off from the world but who knew so much about it. It must be remembered that, although she never traveled, she was extraordinarily well-read and intelligent and was an active part of her community until she was about forty. She was a sensitive person who could learn more from a half-hour in her own garden than another person might learn from a trip around the world. She was an independent thinker, with strong beliefs about God, living in a society that had beliefs about organized religion that were just as strong: in this light, it is small wonder that she would eventually choose to just keep to herself. We can see from her poems and letters that death fascinated her, and the world she lived in provided death all around to feed her imagination—not only because nineteenth-century medicine was less successful at fighting disease than it became after the advent of antibiotics, but also because many of her classmates and townspeople lost their lives in the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865.
After the death of her strong, socially active father in 1874, Dickinson had little reason to go out and be with other people; the following year, her mother was paralyzed by a stroke, and she had all the more reason to stay at home and tend to her. Through letters, she kept up relations with old friends and people she had never met in her life. Many of the 1775 Dickinson poems that we have today came from her letters, which historians hunted down when they realized the power of her work. Upon her death, her sister Livonia was surprised to find that Emily had been a writer at all, finding 879 poems in bundles around her room.
“The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is considered an important poem in the context of Dickinson’s life and work. In 1862, Dickinson shut herself away in her bedroom to write over 300 poems. Critic Allen Tate, writing in Limits of Poetry, Selected Essays, analyzes this period of the poet’s life. Tate writes that “when she went upstairs and closed the door, she mastered life by rejecting it.” He argues that Dickinson’s deliberate, empowering decision to withdraw from the outside world was far from pitiful; in fact, he claims that “her life was one of the richest and deepest ever lived on this continent.”
In Renunciation in Emily Dickinson’s Early Poetry, David Porter similarly sees the theme of Dickinson’s poetry to be the internal “quest,” meaning the search to find something within one’s self. This “quest” is most often sought through “renunciation,” the act of disowning or giving up the world. According to Porter, Dickinson believed that “spiritual immortality requires that one forego this life.”
Elizabeth Jennings, in an essay in American Poetry, applies this theme of the quest directly to “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” when she writes that “in the ... twelve-line poem, she tells us more about the questing, visionary mind than many poets have succeeded in doing in a complete oeuvre”(”oeuvre” meaning a person’s body of work). Jennings remarks that Dickinson’s ability to handle a subject of such greatness in a relatively tiny space is yet another measure of the poet’s genius.
Chris Semansky is a freelance writer and has written extensively on modern and postmodern literature. In the following essay, Semansky argues that the seemingly simple imagery of “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is actually very complex and capable of being interpreted in a variety of ways.
Poets, novelists, and even politicians use figurative language to make comparisons between things whose similarity is not initially apparent. For example, when President Clinton says he wants to build a bridge to the twenty-first century, he is not talking about an actual bridge, but a conceptual one linking the ideas of the twentieth century to the ideas of the next. The image of the bridge in this case is what English literary critic I.A. Richards would call the vehicle, while the idea of progress—the subject of the comparison—would be the tenor. Together these terms comprise a metaphor, or a way of talking about one thing in terms of another. However, when writers attempt to describe a complex emotion, idea, or state of being that cannot be reduced to mere description (either figurative or literal), they frequently resort to using what American literary critic Cleanth Brooks has termed “functional” metaphors. In Brooks’s definition, functional metaphors are comparisons so loaded with meaning—both emotional and referential—that they act more like symbols. Symbols are tropes, or figures of speech, that are both what they say they are and something else as well. For example, flowing water is a powerful and common image used in many metaphors to suggest time, eternity, or change. Emily Dickinson’s poems are loaded with functional metaphors, which make them both richer and more difficult to read. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” contains just such functional metaphors. However, the difficulty in interpreting or making meaning of this poem far outweighs the pleasure her metaphors offer.
For a poet long known for the obscurity and complexity of her references, Dickinson’s poems challenge, and sometimes even dare, the reader to make sense of them. She is and has been written about as a poet of the “interior life” because she attempted to find words for the twists and turns the mind makes when engaged with difficult ideas and sensations. Though the images, symbols, and terms she employs are not difficult in and of themselves, the manner in which she uses them is perplexing. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” speaks to both the hermetic life that Dickinson led and to the (often) hermetic quality of her own writing. The action taken by the “Soul” in the opening stanza speaks of the choices Dickinson made in her own life regarding her contact with the world outside her Amherst, Massachusetts, home—a world she had less and less contact with the older she grew. Seen in this light, shutting the door on “her divine Majority” describes a sensibility that has decided whom and what she would choose to pay attention to and ignores the rest.
The second stanza continues the description of the Soul’s “actions,” which in this case are a form of non-action. Aloof, even haughty, she observes chariots pausing and an emperor kneeling. Both are supplicants, and neither can distract her nor change her mind about the decision she has made. A few critics have suggested that Dickinson used Queen Elizabeth as the model for her metaphor of the soul as royal personage. The “divine Majority” in the preceding stanza, then, would refer to the Queen’s subjects.
The last stanza has occasioned much controversy among Dickinson scholars. Some of her biographers have hinted that the “One” refers to
What Do I Read Next?
- When Dickinson’s poems were first discovered after her death, her friend T.W. Higginson prepared them for publication in 1890 by smoothing the rhymes, removing local references and changing obscure metaphors. When Harvard University acquired the rights to the Dickinson estate in 1950, they published the poems as they were originally written. Today, all 1775 poems are available in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, published by Little, Brown and Co.
- Of all of the biographies of Dickinson available, Cynthia Griffin Wolffs 1986 book Emily Dickinson is certainly among the best. Wolff gives a meticulous, compassionate explanation of the poet’s life.
- At the same time that Dickinson was writing, Walt Whitman’s works were being published. His greatest collection, Leaves of Grass, was revised ten times throughout his lifetime and has been in print constantly since then. Whitman has common ideas on the theme of individuality with Dickinson, but his approach uses entirely different material.
- Emily Dickinson came from a long New England tradition of poetry. One of the last of the great New England poets was Robert Frost, who lived into the 1960s. To see how the New England sensibilities coped with the modern world, read the 1996 critical biography Robert Frost Among His Poems by Jeffrey S. Cramer.
Dickinson’s secret lover, variously claimed to be either Samuel Bowles or the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Both Bowles, the editor of The Spingfield Republican newspaper in which a handful of Dickinson’s poems were published, and Wadsworth, the pastor of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, were married. In Emily Dickinson’s Poetry, however, Robert Weisbuch refutes this suggestion, arguing that “if we read the poem without the intention of pimping, we see that the second stanza rules out worldly suitors, emperors, and their chariots. The chosen ’one’ is a ’what,’ not a ’who,’ unnamed because its only name is ’Mystery.’” The “One” is Christ, or a Christ figure. Consonant with this interpretation is Judith Farr’s claim in The Passion of Emily Dickinson that the mat in the second stanza is actually a prayer mat, and the low gate “is related to the gate of heaven that Jacob recognizes as leading to the house of God in Genesis 18.17.” Read in this light, the poem becomes a statement on Dickinson’s Christian faith, which her poetry questioned as much as affirmed. Still other scholars see the poem as primarily a description of Dickinson’s relation to her writing and to her audience. In this viewpoint, the “Soul” stands for the persona of the poet, whose gradual refusal of all suitors except the “One” suggests that the poet has rejected the lures and demands of the “outside” world and has dedicated her self to her art, writing only for an ideal reader, which may be either an actual or an imagined person. Closing “the Valves of her attention” in this light becomes an emotional act of the heart, then, as much as a reasoned decision of the will.
Finally, of course, critical interpretations of poems are arguments, not opinions, and over the years the possible arguments for this Dickinson poem have not been exhausted but have multiplied. Consider this interpretation by Jerome Loving in Emily Dickinson: The Poet on the Second Story, who reads “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” as a poem of “personal crisis”:
The poem is unique for its pattern of regression. We have in the first stanza the “supposed person” in the present selecting her own society. In the second we have the supposed person in the past.... In the third and final stanza the “supposed person” is reduced to an oyster, rejecting from the ocean floor all but one grain of sand, which the bi-valve will siphon in and transform into a pearl.... The movement in the poem from mind (soul) through person (Queen Elizabeth) to matter (the oyster) illustrates Dickinson’s response to the human condition. She could only follow her symbol back to the seclusion of the self. There and only there was it possible to live. The love she bore for the self in the past was a love of the self in the future. The only way back was the way forward—a kind of evolution in reverse in which the ’supposed person’ devolved into the matter she had contemplated.
This quotation marks a noble attempt to make sense of a very difficult set of images. But there is little in Dickinson’s own letters, correspondence, or other poems to suggest that the Soul alludes to Queen Elizabeth or that the poem’s final image is one of an oyster.
The preceding passage illustrates that how we read a poem depends not only on what we think the writer’s intention might have been, but also on what our own intentions are. If we read Dickinson’s poems as coded messages about her private romantic or religious life, we are more apt to read figurative language that she uses—such as metaphors and symbols—as allusions to events, people, or statements about that life. Criticism functions as an aid or a map to guide readers through a piece of writing. The lesson in reading a difficult poem such as “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” is that as readers we must also be discriminating by knowing our own intentions and using them to select our own society (of critics).
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Robert M. Luscher
The hidden messages, themes and images that dominate the poetry of Dickinson are discussed.
Most of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, David Porter notes, “pulls back from clarity, from specificity, from discernible referential links to an outside reality,” leaving readers to speculate about the contexts and puzzle out the themes of her poems. Even some of her best-known poems remain enigmatic and can shift meaning radically when the frame of reference is altered. Of one such poem, “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,” Porter remarks, “The most crucial act of all is concealed behind an unidentified, generic one. The poem ends with a decisive sound that belies its utter indefiniteness.”... Because the poem has been assigned a date of composition around 1862, near the beginning of Dickinson’s gradual withdrawal from society, that “indefiniteness” has often been given a biographical significance, and the poem has been read as a defense of exclusivism. But another context for the poem exists which, while it may not supersede the biographical, opens the text to a broader interpretation, adding substance to its generic drama of selection and specific gravity to its seeming indefiniteness. From such a reading, a picture of Dickinson emerges more in keeping with the figure drawn by her most thorough and balanced biographer, not as the “Queen Recluse” of popular legend, “working in grand isolation,” but as a poet engaged with the outside world, “for all her withdrawn ways.”
That other context is the familiar one of Emerson’s ideas, particularly those concerning society and solitude, friendship and self-reliance. In “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,” Dickinson appears to be consciously adapting Emerson’s concept of selection as it is elaborated in “Spiritual Laws,” a neglected essay which provides a useful frame of reference for interpreting the poem’s language and ideas. With a full Emersonian context in mind, it becomes clear that the poem neither advocates haughty isolation, as Larry Rubin has argued, nor condemns the reclusive soul, as E. Miller Budick believes, for creating an “irreparable dualism” between itself and the cosmos by its arrogant process of selection—an ironic reflection of both the Puritan and Transcendentalist assumption that each person can be one of the “chosen interpreters of the cosmic code.” If Dickinson is measuring Emersonian concepts in this poem, she apparently does so with a full awareness of the balance struck in “Spiritual Laws” between the solitude implied in the act of selecting and the unfolding of the self through that act. Rather than rejecting or parodying Emersonian thought, Dickinson’s poem may find in it a rationale that redeems the soul’s selective solitude. Although she stops short of endorsing Emerson’s affirmation that the soul’s “choices” manifest the workings of the Oversoul, she does “select” the language of “Spiritual Laws” as the basis for examining the nature of such choices.
When “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,” she is engaged in a process analogous to the one Emerson sketches in similar language in “Spiritual Laws.” Although Emerson boldly contends that “The soul’s emphasis is always right,” he makes it clear that spiritual laws beyond the self are the guarantee of its correctness. Dickinson’s poem plainly echoes and adapts the following passage, which immediately follows Emerson’s assertion that “eternal laws of the mind ... adjust the relation of all persons to each other”:
He shall have his own society.... Persons approach us famous for their beauty, for their accomplishments, worthy of all wonder for their charms and gifts: they dedicate their whole skill to the hour and the company, with very imperfect result. To be sure, it would be ungrateful in us not to praise them loudly. Then, when all is done, a person of related mind, a brother or sister by nature, comes to us so softly and easily, so nearly and intimately, as if it were the blood in our proper veins, that we feel as if someone was gone, instead of having another come: we are utterly relieved and refreshed: it is a sort of joyful solitude.
Just as the chariots and the Emperor in Dickinson’s poem have little to offer the selecting soul, so the gifted and accomplished of society at large portrayed here have little to offer compared to those allied by a similar nature. The poem dispenses with
“The most crucial act of all is concealed behind an unidentified, generic one. The poem ends with a decisive sound that belies its utter indefiniteness ...”
praise of famous men who have nothing to offer the soul and concentrates on illustrating how the soul’s selection of like-minded society becomes a reinvigorating influence. In addition to these basic ideological and imagistic similarities, persistent verbal echoes indicate that the poem responds to the same concerns Emerson addresses: the words “society,” “selection,” “soul,” and “his own” (Dickinson’s female soul of course requires “her own”) resound throughout Emerson’s essay, in a variety of forms and contexts, as in the following pronouncement on selection:
He may have his own. A man’s genius, the quality that differences him from every other, the susceptibility to one class of influences, the selection of what is fit for him, the rejection of what is unfit, determines for him the character of the universe. A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle, gathering his like to him wherever he goes. He takes only his own out of the multiplicity that sweeps and circles round him.
While Emerson reflects expansively on selection as the process by which one progressively defines his genius and realizes the calling that determines his particular society and his role in it, Dickinson distills a twelve-line lyric on the same process.
Viewed in this context, Dickinson’s queen-like Soul does not appear quite so aloof from her “divine Majority” or the noble visitors who court her attentions.... The Soul’s refusal to include the “divine Majority” in her society does not deny its divinity or value but rather indicates her inability to relate to its members en masse. By shutting the door and removing herself from their presence, the Soul has not necessarily cut herself off from all animating influences; the closed door need not be read as either a grave or a closed mind, although both glosses are possible. Instead, the soul may be responding to the dictates of what Emerson deems the “calling” inherent in one’s character: “Each man has his own vocation. The talent is the call. There is one direction in which all space is open to him. He has faculties inviting him thither to endless exertion.... By doing his own work he unfolds himself.”... By proceeding in that “one direction” and “gathering his like to him wherever he goes,” Dickinson’s Soul may thus be expanding rather than limiting her vistas; the choice of “One” may, in other words, be grounded in a self-reliance that is ultimately the path to self-discovery.
As Emerson remarks in “Friendship,” “The soul environs itself with friends that it may enter into a grander self acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone for a season that it may exalt its conversation or society.” At the heart of this paradox is the same duality present in “Spiritual Laws”: to select one’s own society is ultimately a form of education rather than a solipsistic narrowing. The selective soul, Emerson contends, actually obeys a higher spiritual law beyond the self—a law that allows for the discovery, cultivation, and fulfillment of an individual talent. While the Dickinson poem exhibits no apparent attachment to the Emersonian higher laws that validate the actions of the individual spirit, it can be consistently read in terms of his affirmation of spiritual education through a “natural magnetism, which is sure to select what belongs to it.” Such an intuitive selection process, Emerson reiterates, involves more than just one’s choice of friends:
Those facts, words, persons, which dwell in his memory without his being able to say why, ... are symbols of value to him, as they can interpret parts of his consciousness which he would vainly seek words for in the conventional images of books and other minds. What attracts my attention shall have it, as I will go to the man who knocks at my door, whilst a thousand persons as worthy go by it, to whom I give no regard. It is enough that these particulars speak to me. A few anecdotes, a few traits of character, manners, a face, a few incidents, have an emphasis in your memory out of all proportion to their apparent significance if you measure them by the ordinary standards. They relate to your gift. Let them have their weight and do not reject them.... The soul’s emphasis is always right.
Facts, words, anecdotes, traits, manners, faces, and incidents—such small bits of reality can be the stuff of poetry for one with the gift to develop them and for one whose “society,” in the more traditional sense of the word, consists of a diminishing circle of people. What the soul selects from everyday experience may be used to cultivate one’s talent (in Dickinson’s case, poetry); and focusing attention on the manifestations of a single kindred soul, whether in actuality or in memory, may ultimately help “interpret parts of [the] consciousness” active in employing this gift. Read in light of this passage, Dickinson’s poem thus addresses not only her personal preference for reclusiveness but also her choice of poetic and philosophic concerns.
Dickinson’s selective Soul may thus remain “Unmoved” by the overtures of the chariots which pause at her low gate and the Emperor who kneels upon her mat because these representatives of nobility beckon in the wrong manner and at the wrong portals of the soul, identifying themselves as non-kindred spirits. Emerson asserts that “only that soul can be my friend, which I encounter on the line of my own march, that soul to which I do not decline and does not decline to me, but, native to the same celestial latitude, repeats in its own all my experience.” The poem’s chariots and emperors err by passively presenting themselves to the Soul rather than actively asserting their affinities; knocking, not pausing or kneeling, might claim them a place in the line of the soul’s march as she gathers like unto herself. The rejected suitors, by the “low” level of their appeals, implicitly show themselves to be of a lower latitude than the soul occupies, with little to offer. The truer and more valuable affinities, as Emerson suggests, are determined by “eternal laws of the mind, which adjust the relation of all persons to each other by the mathematical measure of their havings and beings.” In an Emersonian context, then, the “One” finally chosen by Dickinson’s Soul must measure up by having qualities that attract her attention and awaken her poetic gift, thus justifying the act of sealing the soul off from the rest of society.
Dickinson’s reference to a chosen “One” need not imply simply a person selected from society at large. For Emerson, “It is with a good book as it is with good company,” and spiritual communion may be achieved by reading: “This is that law whereby a work of art, of whatever kind, sets us in the same state of mind wherein the artist was, when he made it.” When we read, we select the writer as our society for the interim and close the valves of our attention to the outside world. Thus, Dickinson’s poem may concern choosing from a society of books, of ideas, as well as of related persons. Indeed, one of the few potential losses Dickinson feared was that of the society provided by literature. “Some years ago I had a woe,” she wrote to Joseph Lyman, “the only one that made me tremble. It was a shutting out of all the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul—BOOKS.” Given the Emersonian language of “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,” the poem may dramatize the soul selecting—from an “ample nation” of texts—the very essay by Emerson which appears to absorb her attention so exclusively. More generally, the poem may simply portray what any act of reading can mean to the soul.
In an Emersonian context, the seemingly ominous image of the last stanza, the decisive closing of “the Valves of her Attention / Like Stone,” can also be read as an emphatic example of the process outlined in the first two stanzas. Selecting the “joyful solitude” of an Emersonian communion with what is kindred to it, the Soul need by no means become permanently sealed off in a tomb-like world or frozen in a static posture. The closed valves, after all, are only valves of attention; their stone-like closure emphasizes the “weight,” the certainty, of the act of selection, not merely, as the image is commonly read, the “entombment” of the selective soul. Furthermore, the past perfect tense the speaker uses in the last stanza—”I’ve known her”—indicates that these valves have closed before; the selection process depicted in the present tense in the first stanza may thus be one in a series of ongoing selections, part of the progressive gathering process Emerson perceives as defining and refining one’s genius. The image itself suggests that an alternation takes place; like the valves of the heart, the Soul’s valves of attention can both open and close—a way of controlling the flow of related persons, ideas, and events for consideration by memory and the poetic talents. The valves of attention have the potential to be, in Emerson’s terms, “the obedient spiracle of your character and aims,” singly admitting only those whose kinship intimately aligns them with the Soul in a reciprocal relationship. The intimacy of another related mind, Emerson notes, is like “blood in our proper veins.” The process of self-education is couched in a similar metaphor: “There is no teaching until the pupil is brought into the same state or principle in which you are; a transfusion takes place: he is you and you are he; then is a teaching.” The Soul’s selection, then, instead of creating a heart of stone, a death-like stasis, or a willful solipsism, may actually be preparing it for a “teaching” that paradoxically brings a transfusion from the world outside.
Although the emphasis in “Spiritual Laws” is on the selection process as the key to the discovery and cultivation of one’s talent, Emerson goes on to establish that process as complementary to an “active” engagement with the world at large: “I see action to be good, when the need is, and sitting still to be also good.... The fact that I am here, certainly shows me that the soul has need for an organ here. Shall I not assume the post?” Emerson implies that the soul should move into contact with the larger world and ultimately into action. “Besides, why should we be cowed by the name of Action?” he asks. ’”Tis a trick of the senses,—no more. We know that the ancestor of every action is a thought.” Nonetheless, such an attempt to redeem the seemingly passive refreshment of joyful solitude by spurring the soul into “action” is almost immediately balanced (in typical Emersonian fashion) by the pronouncement “To think is to act.” In Dickinson’s poem, shutting the valves of attention, a concentration of the Soul’s focus, is an active rather than a passive process. If it involves withdrawal from other claimants to the Soul’s “attention,” it also appears to enable the act of writing, the poet’s way of interacting with the world.
In the context of Emerson’s essay, then, this poem can be seen as a dramatization of a non-solipsistic, active process by which the soul concentrates on, and grows through, “Society” with another, either directly or through “the company of books.” In particular, Dickinson selects Emerson himself as the “One” of her society, temporarily concentrating his ideas about the connection between spiritual laws and self-reliance within the valves of her poetic attention. Although her Soul explores such relations in seclusion, its selectivity, as Emerson asserts in “Spiritual Laws,” necessarily links it to other souls with similar affinities and makes possible its own unfolding. Dickinson’s poem, in other words, offers more than a defense of reclusiveness, self-reliance, or exclusive friendships. Using Emerson as a framework and as a subject, it defines and defends the act of poetic creation—her calling—as a selective concentration that measures, in relative solitude, particular moments in her Soul’s conversation with her own society.
Source: Robert M. Luscher, “An Emersonian Context of Dickinson’s ’The Soul Selects Her Own Society’” in ESQ: A Journal of American Renaissance, Vol. 30, No. 2, Second Quarter, 1984, pp. 111-116.
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Aikin is one of the most respected literary critics of our century: his essay, first published in 1924, focuses mainly upon biographical information. His understanding of Dickinson’s poems is, unfortunately, based upon earlier published versions that were “edited” and do not reflect the author’s true intent.
Dobson, Joanne, Dickinson and the Strategy of Reticence, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Dobson’s book looks at Dickinson from a perspective of contemporary feminist literary theory, understanding her work and her life as natural products of the environment she grew up in. The interpretations of the poems are quite different than the usual interpretations.
This is a very clear and thorough biography, filled with details about every aspect of the poet’s life.