Emily Dickinson, “The Spirit is the Conscious Ear” (733)

“The Spirit is the Conscious Ear” (733)
Emily Dickinson

The Spirit is the Conscious Ear.
We actually Hear
When We inspect — that’s audible —
That is admitted — Here —

For other Services — as Sound —
There hangs a smaller Ear
Outside the Castle — that Contain —
The other — only — Hear —


This is a strange poem, but one expects no less of Dickinson. First stanza brings spirit and mind together. These are not necessarily the same thing: spirit can have more to do with heart, courage, drive, will. But the central idea of the first stanza is “we actually hear when we inspect.” This examination is the “Spirit,” as it most certainly is a “Conscious Ear.” “That’s audible / That is admitted” – “that” could be the results of inspection, things heard. It could be the inspection itself. That these two possibilities are present points me this direction: “that’s audible / that is admitted” is the self-consciousness of spirit. Dickinson could have said “what is audible / what is admitted,” but she chose “that.” “That” and “here” in the first stanza point to an immediacy for the speaker. Something is being engaged right now, at this moment.

There is a problem. The last time you thought about something – say, solved the “Jumble” in the paper – did you feel the spirit being the “conscious ear?” Did a deeper awareness of self emerge? Did you find yourself rethinking what was audible, the possibilities of what you allow yourself to hear? No? Huh. That’s weird.

I think what one has to do with the first stanza is place especial emphasis on “actually hear” and “inspect.” There is almost no passivity in the first stanza. There is only working at being as conscious of oneself as one can be in the present. “Audible” and “admitted” indicate just how much “inspect” is about knowing how we are hearing, knowing what we are admitting and perhaps not admitting into our consciousness.

Still, Dickinson’s first stanza engages some rather large themes. It seems far too grand to make sense. The second stanza tells us about “other Services.” Why other services are needed when there are moments we “actually hear” is very strange, but the first stanza had nothing to do with actually hearing sound. “Sound” required another service to be heard.

The second stanza says that for other services, like gathering sound, a smaller ear hangs outside a castle. This image seems to come out of nowhere. In truth, a “castle” was presupposed in the first stanza. The “audible” was noticed first, then it was “admitted,” then it was “here.” The first stanza quietly described something getting into a fortress, being admitted through inspection. The implication is that “the spirit is the conscious ear” is a declaration of something perhaps true and definitely problematic.

What is problematic about the first stanza is “We.” “We actually hear” and “We inspect:” but wait, that means “we” are all united, all of one mind. Our faculty in this case makes us one. If we make spirit the same as a form of mind, the result is that our will is our intellect and man is the rational animal for very, very specific reasons.

But the truth is that spirit divides us. That we compete or may have courage in battle are great examples of this, but we also know differently too. Any spirit/mind unity, no matter how beautiful they sound or seem together, is contingent on what is bodily. Those other services, like the castle itself, contain something, perhaps an “other.” Those other services are very much bodily and yet can also be thought of as using a smaller ear while containing something separate and fortified. The thing which contains is separate from that which serves. It goes without saying the self is split, that the other is within us and yet apart from us.

And yet the other is beyond us and the ear is picking up on that. We are a disunity at the same point we are a unity. I suspect that is the ultimate significance of “the spirit is the conscious ear.” One might be tempted to say that the spirit is a conscious ear only on an intellectual level. That will yield the first stanza, with the problem of the first stanza. It is not clear when we inspect anything well with respect to ourselves. That doesn’t mean the possibility of the spirit being the conscious ear cannot be achieved. It does mean we need to go to the second stanza and see how our regular, everyday lives effect the truth of the proposition. The smaller ear is the conscious ear, too. It, in only hearing, is picking up the consciousness of another. It isn’t clear what we ourselves contain, only that we have fortifications of all sorts around.

1 Comment

  1. ashok, i’m going to comment without much thought. the poem immediately made sense to me. that’s because it sounds like what i do as a spiritual practice. my spirit hears (or i think it hears) much more and more important things – my spirit is “larger” – than my “smaller ear” that only picks up physical sound waves. and yes, i say “my spirit” – mostly because i don’t want to insinuate that others do/feel/operate the same way. at the same time, i think that ultimately spirit is always “we”. i am a part of it, i am subsumed by it, it is not “i”; at the very least it is not that thing that we often refer to as “ego.” …. just a few thoughts. lots of things to discuss here. thank you, as always, for your thoughtful reflections.

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