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20 September 2011

Soul, Wilt thou toss again?

Soul, Wilt thou toss again?
By just such a hazard
Hundreds have lost indeed—
But tens have won an all—

Angel's breathless ballot
Lingers to record thee—
Imps in eager Caucus
Raffle for my Soul!
                                                   - F 89 (1859)   139

The poet’s intellect or rational mind here interrogates her Soul. The Soul may or may not “toss again”—commit itself to something that is of great interest to both Angels, who wait breathlessly to record the outcome of the toss, and Imps who are eagerly raffling for a chance to own the Soul should the toss go their way. This would seem to indicate the stake is Heaven or Hell.
            The interestingly ambiguous word is “again” of “toss again”. It implies the Soul has already tossed once and the Self is asking if it won’t give Chance another go. For this is clearly not a rational choice. The gambling metaphor is quite specific, even down to the ratio of “Hundreds” versus “tens”. Clearly the odds are stacked in favor of the Imps as the Hundreds have ‘lost’ –which would be Hell, while only tens have ‘won an all’ – which seems clearly to mean everlasting life in Heaven.
            But if all this is so clear, why would the Soul leave all to a toss of a coin? Heaven seems a sure-fire commitment when given only the two alternatives. I think the poet may be contemplating another type of action or commitment whose eternal impact is unknown. For example, the commitment to Poetry and Truth may be a Heavenly choice—but it might also be wrong, wrong, wrong (to listen to preachers of the day who would only permit sanctioned sorts of poetry). In this case since one cannot know for sure the eternal impact of the choice, the Soul may as well toss for it.
            I think, however, that Dickinson is looking at the type of Christianity, the nature of her relationship to God. Having  tossed once before for the conventional –the church-going, hymn-singing, etc. variety, she is saying, shall we try something else? It may be better—in fact our salvation may depend on it—but there’s no way to know. I believe Dickinson did toss again and go in favor of her own iconoclastic beliefs where Bees stand in for God and the Woods for church, and where she more and more dedicates her life to thinking and imagining beyond the doctrine of her time and even (at this stage) begins the slow process of withdrawing from the public world. She took ‘the road less traveled’, and her poetry increasingly challenges, questions, and bruises itself upon questions of God, the soul, and what it means to be alive. I hope her toss took her to the Paradise she so often wrote of.


  1. I agree that the word 'again' is key. The first line is a powerful question we can ask ourselves every time we are faced with familiar tempatations. She was living in the land of pilgrim forebears, after all!

  2. I believe this poem is about the importance of not gambling with your soul. Because if you do, if you neglect to care, "hundreds have lost".

  3. mangalapalli vishweshwerOctober 5, 2018 at 9:45 PM

    Many thanks Susan for your interpretation. I did not know where to begin and you have brought a direction and way forward to interpret this pregnant poem

  4. Thanks Susan. your blogs on Dickinson poems are great help to a novice like me to understand the riddles and metaphors of the great poet.

  5. This is a riddle of a poem, but also vexing. What was it this day that vexed her so to write this. You may be right that it may be her decision to change her form of worship from the conventional to one of her making, and if so she wonders that it may be wrong and akin to a toss of the dice, which would be high odds, or a coin. Which would be better - 50/50. But this is a constant question and choice, which goes to who she is, unconventional and a conundrum.

  6. re-reading the poem now I'm struck by the last phrase: 'my Soul'. I've seen something like this formulation in other poems -- there is a 'Soul' and there is something that observes and exhorts the Soul. An example that comes to mind is 'If your Nerve, deny you –' ( where there is a transcendent 'you' who needs to buck up Nerve and give Soul a bit of fresh air. I call it there the 'transcendent you'.

    In this poem the speaker is interrogating the Soul -- as if the speaker isn't as vested in the outcome as the Soul is.

  7. Yes, she is seeing herself detached from the soul, and if the soul is taken, where is she?

  8. After a gap of 2 years, I reread this poem and found a completely different meaning: It is believed that imperfect souls enter human body at the time of conception, live the life of human and try to attain redemption... but the attainment of redemption is difficult, has a low probability of succeeding in gaining that redemption and that attempt is a hazardous gamble. Win, the soul is fine. But don't win it and the imps/devils are waiting to claim you as a prize at their raffle.

    1. That is interesting indeed. Where does the described belief originate? Is it related to reincarnation?

  9. It’s 1859 and ED has to decide whether to be the quiet feminine mouse that her society, her father, and her brother expect of her or to listen to Stephen Bowles’ encouragement that she use her poetic genius to reject the straitjacket of feminine propriety expected of 19th century women. Her head said be a mouse but her heart urged joining forces with Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Marian Elliot to forge frontiers in literature. ED compromised by writing 2000 amazing poems and storing them in her desk until she died.

    Lavinia, ED’s sister, burned ED’s correspondence as she had requested, but chose to save the poems, which ED never mentioned. Lavinia’s fateful choice to spare the poems gave us the legacy we love.

    How happy is the little Stone
    That rambles in the Road alone
    And does’nt care about Careers . . .

    Fr1570 (1882)

    Habegger, Alfred. 2001. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books. Random House. Kindle Edition.

  10. …or, as Joni Mitchell put it, “your head says ‘forget it’ but your heart’s still smokin’ “

  11. She may be debating whether to write another poem from her soul or not.

  12. We have 2 selves.
    1) Absolute self : our own Divinity that is one with all / with the universe. It is Truth, inner self, it leads with selflessness, love and compassion (angels encourage this)
    2) Relative self: our ego, our developed identity as we navigate life within arbitrary rules and beliefs of a particular region, culture, rules of a religion (imps encourage this)
    We are soaked from birth in an idea if "success" or of a definition of good life. And our ego is continually developed as we learn to "win" in the dualistic game of life in the material - relative world.

    However, we get glimpses of Truth, our Absolute self (watching a sunset, witnessing a selfless act of grace, a poem : )

    If we get in touch with our Absolute self via being quiet and still, meditating, and lead from the Absolute self we "win an all".