Emily Dickinson, “To own the Art within the Soul” (855)

“To own the Art within the Soul…” (855)
Emily Dickinson

To own the Art within the Soul
The Soul to entertain
With Silence as a Company
And Festival maintain

Is an unfurnished Circumstance
Possession is to One
As an Estate perpetual
Or a reduceless Mine.


“One” must craft an assumption to get a coherent surface reading: owning “the Art within the Soul” entertains. “Silence” may be the “Company” of entertainers, or the other members of the “Festival.” “The Soul to entertain” or the “Festival maintain” is “an unfurnished Circumstance:” either is not an assumption. The conclusion regarding “Possession” is also not assumed but rather proven.

“To own the Art within the Soul:” many say we can be happy merely by deciding we’re happy. Happiness is not an attitude earned, but a mental state with an on-off switch. That thought yields “Silence as a Company” and a “Festival.” “Festival maintain” is striking because it indicates the definition of happiness has changed. It is not something we may celebrate, but rather celebration itself (“entertain” vs. “maintain”). Hence, “unfurnished Circumstance:” the celebration is unwarranted, empty (“and” shows “Festival maintain” superfluous). “Possession” brings us to the poem’s beginning, but with a twist: since we don’t justifiably own anything, we can only speak of ownership through analogy. One possesses as “an Estate perpetual” – nothing ever changes, this is not human life (unless one counts what does not change about human life, failure/death). Or, as a “reduceless Mine:” you can say you’re turning inward, always, and keep “Mine,” a possessive. But “mining” demonstrates itself hubris in Xenophon’s “Ways and Means” and perhaps even Prometheus Bound (about line 500).

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