Emily Dickinson, “One and One – are One” (769)

One and One – are One (769)
Emily Dickinson

One and One — are One —
Two — be finished using —
Well enough for Schools —
But for Minor Choosing —

Life — just — or Death —
Or the Everlasting —
More — would be too vast
For the Soul’s Comprising —


Socrates in the Phaedo: the unity of body and soul is the problem of how 1 + 1 = 1. One is finished using 2 after school is done. Dickinson says “Schools:” it brings to mind the condemnation of the Scholastics common in thinkers from Descartes to Kant. A “School” can even be one of fish. History may be Providential or cyclical. It is definitely for the many. It depends on duality; we ignore the complications. If  the lesson from World War One was to avoid getting into unnecessary fights and alliances, then Neville Chamberlain was sticking to the “lessons” we proclaim history teaches.

“Minor Choosing” is what comprises the Soul. Nothing more. All that Choosing is:

Life — just — or Death —
Or the Everlasting —

The “just” after life: is life really chosen? Putting an end to our personal history, there is either “Death” or “the Everlasting.” The soul wavers between the two (if that: is “Everlasting” more than what Life assumes itself already?) and anything more is “too vast.” You can’t be a soul otherwise.

There are a lot of people who want to talk about our personal destinies being part of some great enterprise. To some degree, even the notion of a “soul mate” fits into this rhetoric. In such a case, we could assume One and One and down the chain add up to a lot more. Dickinson’s speaker denies this is of any consequence. It isn’t clear the soul is part of some grand historical narrative. It isn’t even clear the soul is free in any significant sense.  The small choices that define us are already tied to the Nothing to which we are afraid to return. Our being of necessity has too much ground to cover.


  1. Ashok – you don’t think this is commentary on trinity? I’m not sure about the rest but i’ve always interpreted this poem as some sort of commentary on spiritual vs rational laws – and how they don’t always sync up. Maybe its a surface reading but i’d love to hear you address it.

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