Week 82: The Soul selects, by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, as this poem testifies, was a proud spirit in a humble situation. Nothing new in that, of course: there’s many a maker who has passed unnoticed during life, or received no more than a few crumbs of recognition from those who cut the literary cake. Those who do not belong must create their own belonging – in a way that’s much of what being a poet is about – and this Emily most powerfully did. I admire this poem’s uncompromising rejection of populism, its insistence on the essential privacy of the poetic act and the incorruptibility of its individual truth. Of course, to trust the soul’s selection while keeping the valves of one’s attention not entirely petrified would be an even better trick.

Am I alone, though, in finding Emily’s eccentric punctuation – the proliferation of dashes, the arbitrary capitalisations – something of an irritation? But I suppose one has to respect the right of a poet to create a poem’s shape on the page, even though in the end what matters is a poem’s shape in the mind, so I have preserved her own typography.

The Soul selects

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 — 

Emily Dickinson

5 thoughts on “Week 82: The Soul selects, by Emily Dickinson

  1. Thanks. #303 in Johnson’s numbering. Written about 1862. Johnson writes: “… between AprIl 25 and June 7 [1862] she accepted her destIny as an artist who in her lifetime would remain unknown, …”. “low Gate” and “mat” – the Soul lives in a modest house? “Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling / Upon her mat” – it’s the Soul that’s unmoved not the Emperor. “Valves” – heart valves?

    • Ah, I’d never thought of the ‘valves’ in the poem as referring to the human heart – for me it’s always conjured up an image of a bivalve mollusc firmly closing the two parts of its shell, thus creating a lithified appearance. I don’t quite see how the heart image could work – if your mitral or aortic valve gets stopped up you have a bit of a problem! If you find any evidence as to Emily’s actual intention, let me know.

  2. Hi David, I don’t know Dickinson’s intention. I can imagine a soul functioning like a heart (closed to some, open to others), and hearts are sometimes described as stony. I think “heart valves” fits well (in some ways). On a separate point, I imagine Dickinson is describing how the soul might work in general – but if we apply it to her, “One” is Susan, her sister-in-law?

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