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The Soul selects her own Society — Then — shuts the Door —

February 17, 2010

Today, I think I’ll have a go at the veritable heart of the canon—that is, at a poem by Emily Dickinson, of course. Who else?

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype taken at Mount Holyoke in late 1846 or early 1847

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 —

The poem is numbered 303 in T.H. Johnson’s scheme, and 409 in R.W. Franklin’s; both date it in 1862. Let’s consider the opening line: “The Soul selects her own Society…” The idea is that the “soul” does this because the “body” cannot, or may not, do so as readily: the body is fated by birth, family, sex, class, etc. So a certain liberty is assumed for the “soul,” as against—or so the implication inevitably must go—the “body”; and this “soul,” we should note, is gendered feminine.

Now, it is not possible grammatically to sever the first line from its successors in this stanza, which leads me to the second point I’d make: the grammar is equivocal, in that the stanza admits of several possible readings. We might read the stanza as follows (and here I will print it, for illustrative purposes, in sentence form): 1) “The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door. To her divine majority, present no more.” Or we might read it: 2) “The souls selects her own society, then shuts the door to her divine majority, present no more.” Or: 3) The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door to her divine majority. Present no more.” In examples 1 & 3 “present” is a verb, with the accent on the second syllable; in example 2, it is an adjective, with the accent on the first. So, how to decide? Because if I am to read the poem aloud, I must decide what to do with my voice. Dickinson’s eccentric punctuation, here, as in many another place, leaves more than one possibility open. In this case, however, textual evidence may help us resolve the problem, or even to decide it for good and all. On the manuscript, Dickinson offers two alternative readings in stanza one: “On” for “To” in line three, and “Obtrude” for “Present” in line four. “Obtrude” can only be a verb; its adjective form is “obtrusive.” So, if we take “obtrude” as readily exchangeable with “present”—that is to say, as a live alternative to “present”—then we should read “present” as a verb, not as an adjective. This would seem to exclude possibility #2 above from consideration, for in that sentence “present” is an adjective modifying “Soul,” which is no longer, well, “present” to the world—a sense which, though perfectly consonant with the poem, is grammatically impossible if we take “obtrude” as a genuinely live alternative. If we take into consideration both alternative readings—”On” for “To” and “Obtrude” for “Present”—then I think we are left with little choice but to hold to #1 above. That is to say, if “on” and “obtrude” are allowed somehow to decide the matter, the stanza must work as two sentences of two lines each. Prosody also supports this reading, insofar as the verb “present” is iambic—the poetic foot dominant in the poem—whereas the adjective “present” is trochaic. But of course, Dickinson’s prosody is often as vagrant, with respect to convention, as are her systems of punctuation and capitalization, and as is her thinking. So the matter must be left open, in prospect, even as we must decide the matter one way or another when reading the poem aloud (so that we know, among other things, whether to say “présent” or “presént,” where the diacritical mark indicates stress).

Two, among many, whose society I and Emily Dickinson—New England Whigs though her family may have been—would shun; or so I should hope.

But as I have said, though readings 1, 2 and 3 are grammatically incompatible, they are not incompatible in sense, the whole idea being that, should you pay call on this “Soul,” should you “present” yourself to her, you’ll find her forbiddingly inaccessible to you, whether you are the King of Saudi Arabia, or the Emperor of Ice Cream. And before passing to the meaning of the stanza, I would simply point out that Dickinson very often compels her reader/critic to be also a textual scholar of sorts—a fact impressed upon anyone who has ever visited Martha Nell Smith‘s excellent on-line project, the Dickinson Electronic Archives.

But now, the meaning, the import, of the sentence/s we have so far been examining. “Majority” almost certainly means here “the state of being of full age” (O.E.D. sense 2). (“Majority” is the antonym of “minority”: a person still in her minority is, of course, legally a “minor.”) This poem is an announcement that Dickinson has come into her own, achieved her “majority”—even unto the point of attaining “divinity.” Let’s consider that fact in the context of courtship (stanza two), and in light of the more particular, rather than the more general, meaning of “society,” as given, for example, in O.E.D. sense 7c: “The aggregate of fashionable, wealthy, or otherwise prominent people regarded as forming a distinct class or body in a community. Cf. high society at HIGH adj. 5a.” Consider all of that, and it seems clear that this poem announces an ironic sort of “debut” by a highly recalcitrant and heterodox “débutante.” The latter word, of course, refers, as the O.E.D. has it, to “a female appearing for the first time before the public or in society; also, a young woman who has recently ‘come out’”—which is to say, a young woman who has made herself available for courtship. This meaning was brought over into English at least as early as 1801, long before Dickinson’s birth; and she belonged to that social class in Amherst which would have been well aware of the word in this sense. (See the photograph of the family house, at the bottom of this entry.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let there be no mistake. This poem issues from the pen of a woman who has no intention of fulfilling the sort of role that her “society” might expect her to fulfill, just as surely as the following passage from Emerson‘s “Self-Reliance” issues from the pen of a man who had no intention of consigning himself to orthodoxies of any kind (I highlight the more salient passages, for my purposes here, in red):

From the Phillips, Sampson Co. edition of 1854.

From the Phillips, Sampson Co. edition of 1854.

The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.


Detail, from the Phillips, Sampson edition of 1854.

We find expressed here, in a vigorously masculine vocabulary, what Dickinson expresses in a feminine one. The point is the same in each case: there can be no “socially” accredited outlet for what is best in a man or woman, or, as both Emerson and Dickinson would put it, for the “Soul.” So, Dickinson’s ironic “debut” is not an “entrance into society,” for the purpose of accepting suitors, say, but a refusal to take any part in the whole obtrusive affair. Let Emperors come in their Chariots; let them debase themselves by “kneeling / Upon her mat.” She’ll present herself to no one. Let worthies drop calling cards on a silver plate for deliverance to her; they’ll find her not present to them—in Soul, if not in Body, but probably not present in both. “The Soul selects her own Society” is one of Dickinson’s great poems of withdrawal, or of renunciation. Which brings us to the difficulties of that third stanza:

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

First, note that “valve” here means, in O.E.D. sense I.1.a: “One or other of the halves or leaves of a double or folding door.” Closing the valves of her attention means closing the “doors” of it; and these figurative doors are hewn of stone, and therefore (presumably) impenetrable. No one, no suitor—not even given the vast “amplitude” of the “nation” of persons on offer—shall penetrate her; none shall really get her “attention.”

Now, taking a biographical tack, some find in this stanza a hint that Dickinson herself had “chosen one [man],” without consummation, and then turned her back on the world. For most such readers, the “one” here is likely the unknown addressee of the so-called “Master Letters,” with whom some believe Dickinson to have been—unbearably, deeply, unrequitedly—in love. There is no clear evidence that these letters ever were mailed, and they are inexhaustibly fascinating in their complexities—in tone, diction, and metaphor. But before resorting to such a biographical reading as that, I’d note the tense of the verb chiefly in question here (present perfect): “I’ve known her…” I’d note also the fact that “her” means the “Soul,” not the person, spoken of in the poem—whether or not we identify the speaker with Dickinson. I’d note further still that the first-person pronoun that first enters the poem at line 9 (“I’ve known her…”) may ever so slightly dislocate the person speaking from the “Soul”;—unless, of course, we take the speaking “I” to be Body to the spoken of “Soul,” which is not absolutely out of the question, strange though the idea may seem. My argument is that “I’ve known her” is not identical in implication or sense to “I know her,” or to “I knew her, ” or to “I know her to have”; that the “one” may not be the addressee of the “Master Letters”; and that the speaking “I” may or may not be Dickinson, and may or may not be the local habitation of the “Soul” about which this poem is written. I say so on evidence internal to the poem.

So what can we say with some certitude? That the poem renounces “society” for solitude in a way familiar to New England Transcendentalist writing, such as we find it in “Self-Reliance”; that as such, given the way the “Soul” is gendered, we have to do, here, with an ironic (or dismissive) sort of “debut,” by a fiercely independent “debutante” of a “Soul,” which refuses any role one might assign it to; that certain equivocations in the grammar of stanza 1 prohibit us from deciding how many sentences it comprehends, while compelling anyone who would read it aloud to make just such a (tentative) decision (this is part of the play of/in the poem); and that a certain caginess in the grammar of stanza 3 leads me, anyway, to shy away from reducing the poem with or to a biographical reading. In closing, let me clarify that last point about stanza 3: the appearance of the first person, and the present perfect tense, may dislocate, even if only slightly, the speaker from the Soul spoken of, both in identity and in time.

And yet none of these points prevents our placing “The Soul selects her own Society” firmly amongst the many poems of “renunciation” in Dickinson’s body of work; and these poems often, though not always, involve renunciation of gender roles specific to the time and place out of which Dickinson wrote. The postures she adopts with respect to conventions, of whatever kind, are always slightly queer: she “tells” her truths “slant,” as she herself puts it in poem 1129 (in the Johnson system of numbering).

"The Homestead," in Amherst, Massachusetts, birthplace (in 1830) and residence (from 1855-1886) of Emily Dickinson. Click on the image to be taken to the web-site of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

N.B. For a catalog of other pages within The Era of Casual Fridays that treat poems by Dickinson, click here. For the pages devoted to Dickinson at the Modern American Poetry web-site (University of Illinois), click here. For the aforementioned “Dickinson Electronic Archive,” edited by scholar Martha Nell Smith, click here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. annehimmelfarb permalink
    May 27, 2013 9:38 AM

    Your reading is very interesting. It never occurred to me that “present” was NOT a verb–the meter accents it as a verb–but I appreciate your pointing out that it could be an adjective.

    “Majority” as age is also interesting and probably more convincing than my reading, which takes “majority” in the sense of voting: the soul has an absolute veto and may choose one or not as she pleases.

    I don’t see this so much as a renunciation poem (autobiographical or not) as a poem about the arbitrariness of human connections. Souls–and perhaps especially gendered female souls–do arbitrarily select their own society, for reasons they themselves may not understand or be able to articulate.

    PS I came upon your blog by chance–I was driving through New Jersey yesterday on the Garden State Parkway, trying to remember the stanza in Marvell about “the happy garden-state,” and when I googled it to get the whole poem, your blog came up. I will keep reading. I love Frost, Dickinson, and some of the metaphysicals, Philip Larkin is probably my favorite poet–I wonder what you think of him.

    • May 27, 2013 9:41 AM

      Thank you. Glad you ran across this. As to arbitrariness, I take your point. My gratitude.

      Philip Larkin’s a favorite of mine, too (and Hardy). There are a number of entries on Larkin here:

      I’ve not had time these past six months to keep things up, but will soon, I hope.


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