The Formation of the Soul: On Dickinson’s "The Soul selects her own Society…" (303)

“The Soul selects her own Society…” (303)
Emily Dickinson

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 –

Comment:

Note: I did consult Mark Van Doren’s commentary on this poem in his Introduction to Poetry, as well as Anthony Hecht’s and Suzanne Juhasz’s here. Their insights are littered throughout the entry below.

1. The ambiguities in this poem are very specific, and can be isolated and accounted.

The first one we will consider is “shuts the door / to her divine majority.” Who is the soul keeping in or keeping out? Has the soul actually picked someone (or anyone) in her “society?” Are they or are they not the “divine majority?”

It is conceivable, from the second stanza and “ample nation” in the third, that her entire world is a “divine majority” she chooses from, one that worships her no matter what. And looking more closely at the first line, “selects her own society” could mean that the soul only resides with herself at the end.

“Present no more” is strange too – who is not present to whom, and when? There are answers that seem exact, but they are beholden to the questions above.

“Unmoved” could refer to the soul or to the chariots and the Emperor. The Chariots could belong to the Emperor or be different entirely.

“Choose one” may be the soul choosing from “an ample nation,” or a reflection on us readers. We have souls too, so we choose similarly. It could be us being told to choose a nation the soul picked from.

Finally, whose “Valves” of attention close at the end and why? Given that we stop reading and the page becomes dead again, I wonder.

2. Van Doren starts with the idea that this poem is a generalized love poem. The soul always picks “one” and thus is hardened to others. Hecht moves from that idea by emphasizing that the soul is not the heart, it is the soul and therefore this poem is his statement that We play at being God; it is characteristically human of us to do so.

3. We have discussed the soul at length in this blog. No matter what, it is defined by the rational. A merely appetitive soul could be explained only by propositions, as it would lack self-understanding. A more refined soul will engage and participate in reason.

We presuppose the soul as narrow-minded. It reveals itself – perhaps only exists – in willfulness.

4. Juhasz’s statement that The soul is shown living within a space defined by door, gate, and mat is where I want to begin anew. If the soul resides in the midst of us, holding us together, then the middle of this poem may be especially crucial. The only thing is that a crucial part of the soul’s residence is described in the first stanza, that being “Door.” “Gate” and “mat,” external trappings of the soul’s residence, are the only items describing the soul specifically in the second stanza.

“Valves” would seem to be the word that corresponds with “door.” Only: a “door” is a portal that can lead in or out. “Valves,” as Juhasz points out, only move one direction. Something has changed from the first stanza to the last, but what?

It cannot be the soul. The most notable thing about the third stanza is how it starts with “I,” and seems to be a repetition of the first and second stanzas thematically. Yet the “I” has been preceded by a description of an actual place, one with a “gate” and a “mat” where other people act in accordance with the constructs. A “gate” and a “mat” presuppose people will act a certain way when encountering them. They are not wholly physical objects.

5. The Chariots pause, the Emperor kneels, the Soul disappears. That’s the primary significance of “I’ve known.” To know the soul is to know oneself and be at rest, and that puts an end to motion, which can be said to be the will to power. Van Doren takes especial note of the difference in wealth between the Chariots/Emperor and a “mat.”

But “Society,” “divine majority,” and finally “ample nation” have nothing that designates them as powerful. In fact, if anything, they seem rather powerless too, and do not have other objects of attention as Chariots or Emperors. The Soul might have only picked herself, after all, and there is good reason to believe that the soul forms its own “divine majority.” Suppose that the soul did love someone: does it preserve them by enveloping them and destroying their individuality, or by staying apart from them?

Dickinson’s narrator sees that question as moot: the soul is always alienated from whatever she loves. She can only choose her own society. The democratic/Biblical image nation, a monarchy resembling Egypt, and finally even human reason are all alien to the soul, even as they define her. She ultimately only makes choices, and thus is “like stone.” To make a choice is to be the point at rest which orders all motion, but to not have any real control over the end of that motion. We are not pure reason, just as we are not wholly social animals.

3 Comments

  1. I feel that the soul is searching for a soul mate and once it has found it, the soul has no reason to be open to anyone else so it closes. The soul goes through many types of people in order to find the one it wants.

Leave a Comment