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01 July 2012

Of all the Souls that stand create –

Of all the Souls that stand create –
I have elected – One –
When Sense from Spirit – files away –
And Subterfuge – is done –
When that which is – and that which was –
Apart – intrinsic – stand –
And this brief Drama in the flesh –
Is shifted – like a Sand –
When Figures show their royal Front –
And Mists – are carved away,
Behold the Atom – I preferred –
To all the lists of Clay!
                                                            F279 (1862)  664

The poet here declares that out of all the souls ever created she has chosen only one. In a show of love and loyalty she goes on to say that when earthly life has been stripped away and the souls are stripped to their essence, her chosen one will be a pure and elemental atom while all the rest will be common, erodable clay.
            Dickinson chooses the common hymn structure – alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter and rhymes in every other line beginning with line 2 – as befits this hymn-like testament to a dear friend or lover. She also makes much use of alliterative “S”: Souls, Sense, Spirit, Subterfuge, intrinsic, stand, Sand, Mists, lists. These “S”s gives a fluid sound, like the Sand of life shifting to a different form or the filaments of our physical senses as times files them away from our inner spirit. That latter image suggests the elderly who although no longer able to see or hear or walk as well as they did in earlier years seem pared down to the essence of what makes them who they are. Some seem spiritual, others noble, while others harsh and proud. And that is what the next line suggests: when “Subterfuge – is done,” for when we are beyond the last breath, stripped of flesh and dress and the expressions we have learned to adopt for society, we will not be able to mask ourselves by means of such small deceits.
Water and wind carve the cliffs – here hidden by mist
            In one interesting line, the fifth, she uses the “wh” alliterative: When, which, which was. This nicely underscores the parallel construction of “that which is”  and “that which was.” The present (“is”) and the past (“was”) are, after the Spirit is liberated from the Sense (flesh), standing “Apart.” They are now of different realms, their true natures revealed. The revelation is like the clarity with which we see a landscape when the morning mists are burned off by the sun. Dickinson uses the wonderful expression “carved away,” which brings in the suggestion of erosion and time. Rocky pinnacles are often all that’s left of a hillside after eons of wind and rain have carved the soil and softer rock away.
            The last two lines are triumphant. “Behold,” the poet instructs us. Look at the beautiful essense of my loved one. Compare her (or him) to all those other folk – the “lists of Clay!” Like a diamond, she endures.  

2 comments:

  1. It's a beautiful commentary, methinks. My own reading of the poem differs only in one place: I don't think 'the atom she prefers' is necessarily the essence of life - I think she declares her awareness that the person who means the world to her is in fact only an inconsequential particle of creation, a minute detail that matters only to her.
    I may be wrong, but I find that tremendously touching.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. I almost think you're right except for the distinct contrast between 'atom' and 'clay'. There is something better about the atom, more enduring, than erodable clay. Further, the poem begins with the subject "Souls"; grammatically it follows that both atom and clay represent clay.

      I do think, now that you discuss it, that there is the aspect of the smallness of a soul, how it is pared down to but an atom. Small indeed relative to the cosmos!

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