Emily Dickinson, “The Soul should always stand ajar” (1055)

The Soul should always stand ajar (1055)
Emily Dickinson

The Soul should always stand ajar
That if the Heaven inquire
He will not be obliged to wait
Or shy of troubling Her

Depart, before the Host have slid
The Bolt unto the Door —
To search for the accomplished Guest,
Her Visitor, no more —

Comment:

The erotic energy of the Soul standing ajar, awaiting the advance of Heaven, is intense but perhaps submissive:

The Soul should always stand ajar
That if the Heaven inquire
He will not be obliged to wait
Or shy of troubling Her

“The Soul should always stand ajar,” standing attractive, alluring, letting “Heaven” exercise his whim or determination. “Heaven” thinks He has a choice, but in not being “obliged to wait,” or “shy of troubling Her,” He really fulfills Her deepest desire. If freedom or choice seems a plausible theme to consider in the first stanza, it also feels almost completely submerged by sexual fulfillment: Who cares who is in control? Soul and Heaven are both happy if Soul leaves the door open.

Of course, if Soul and Heaven could merge, that would be the purest, truest human happiness.

So why might Soul not leave the door open? The very first line of the poem was an admonition, “The Soul should always stand ajar;” the first word of the second stanza, “Depart,” is an imperative. An impossible set of orders presents itself. We are to have souls open for reception of the highest ecstasy; later, we are to leave our own soul. Initially, these two things do not appear to contradict each other directly, as each, taken by itself, is a problem. The difficulty of the poem’s recommendations emerges most fully in the second stanza:

Depart, before the Host have slid
The Bolt unto the Door —
To search for the accomplished Guest,
Her Visitor, no more —

The first stanza made it sound like Soul and Heaven could meet in perpetual conjugal bliss. Now someone is to “depart,” before “the Host have slid / The Bolt unto the Door.” Someone must leave before Soul is closed by a Host. That leaving, to be sure, has a purpose: “To search for the accomplished Guest, / Her Visitor, no more.” The theme of freedom, of control, returns with a vengeance. Heaven leaves with his so-called accomplishment, and the Soul is left behind. An air of inevitability permeates the whole poem. Soul would open itself completely to Heaven, only to find bliss then desertion. In desperation, a Soul’s owner would try escape herself, looking to find the “accomplished Guest,” but unable to do so.

Heaven’s Host closes the door, leaving Soul with only temporary bliss. If Heaven has a claim on truth, it stands to reason that if it visits us, it does not leave us with the truth alone, but with a multitude of different ideas about what we experienced. One cannot really depart and search for Heaven, as one cannot really leave her Soul and the images it contains, some of which are directly from the highest source, never to be confirmed in this life. The unreality of the second stanza comes from taking the first stanza seriously. A funny thing happens, though, if you take the second stanza seriously: if you were able to depart your Soul and search for Heaven, you would undo the openness of the first stanza. You would deny having a passive soul, that merely waited for Heaven, however clever the trap laid. What would be admitted is that we must engage truth through our perceptions. There is no clever way to avoid experience, including the experience of loving and finding oneself lonely.

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