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22 January 2013

The Soul selects her own Society —

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 —

                                                              F409 (1862)  J303

Some folks are extremely discriminating. I've known a few. But I've never known anyone quite as discriminating as the generalized Soul of this poem, one of Dickinson's most anthologized. 
          Dickinson conceives the soul as a stately and majestic entity. Her "Majority" is herself and what few other souls she chooses for her society; what's more, it is a "divine" majority. There is no temptation to admit others, no matter who they may be — even emperors kneeling at the door begging for entrance. Nope. She "notes" them and is completely "Unmoved" by their interest. 
          In the last stanza, Dickinson refers to a soul in the particular, as if there is a universal soul that somehow acts individually within each of us. At times, she says, this soul might just choose one friend. That's pretty discriminating, although it's clear that the poet is not talking about one's public face or persona. It's easy enough to chat and hang out with casual acquaintances but still keep them at arm's length from the depths of your soul. That place is sacrosanct.

Victorian water valve
        The last image is intriguing and delivers one of Dickinson's word wallops. She presents the attention that we give to others, significant others that is – friends, associates, neighbors, extended family – as if it were flowing water. Once this ultra discriminating Soul has chosen her friend from an "ample nation," she turns off the faucet, closes the "Valves of her attention." The flow of friendship and love has been turned off to all but one. Not a drop is left over. The soul has shut her valves categorically: "Like Stone." The word drops out of the otherwise abstract poem like a rock. It is heavy, solid, immune to entreaties or tears, implacable.
One must wonder if Dickinson is reflecting on her own soul. After all, it was about this time that she was withdrawing from society and staying home. Within a few years she would not venture out of her property at all. It was about this time that she would send down her regrets to even her most beloved friends who came to call. One must also wonder if she is reflecting on a beloved other who has shut her out.
         I think, though, that she is meditating on the sovereignty of the soul. We sometimes talk about soul mates, or love at first sight, or having chemistry with some one. This may be the Soul making her choices. That is all well and good. But Dickinson writes with the outsider's knowledge of what it means to not be the soul mate. It is as if the valve of communion turned to stone.


  1. I always read this a little more literally, as Emily's tenacious attachment to someone. She chooses one person and then although others come at her like emperors with chariots she cannot allow them romantic attention due to the sovereignty, as you say, of the Soul. This is the end verse, "choose one" from an ample nation, which reminds me of another poem:

    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!

    I suppose your interpretation allows for that but is a little more open.

  2. I tend to agree that there is a personal meaning to this poem and had, like you, assumed that it reflected her "tenacious attachment" to someone. In re-reading, however, it occurred to me that the poem might also be read as if she had someone else in mind--someone who refused her at the soul level.
    "Of all the Souls" is a great addition to the discussion of this poem. It does indeed support the idea that Dickinson is alluding to her own stance. Thank you!

  3. Cool, keep writing, lots of good stuff here!

  4. This poem operates on several levels. It is like a jewel with different facets -- all of them tentative and with meanings that reflect and blend together depending on how the light of the reader's mind strikes.

    The surface level -- a reflection of ED's life and withdrawal from society is there, certainly. I think that is a valid reading. But if you look at the two metaphors that ED uses to segregate her Society -- a door and a valve -- I think you find deeper levels of meaning.

    A door swings two ways. It admits one into her "divine Majority" and then definitively closes. But the Soul is still communicating with the world -- she "notes" the Chariots pausing and the Emperor kneeling. The door metaphor evokes Revelations 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock. If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him and he with me." Popular religious paintings -- even today --portray Jesus knocking at a door with no knob -- the door of the heart that can only be opened from within. I expect that ED chose an Emperor rather than a King (a title more associated with Jesus) in order to downplay the Biblical image so that it doesn't overwhelm the poem. And typical for ED, and why some of us love her so much, she is not opening the door even for an Emperor.

    Then the poem moves deeper to the amazing image of a valve -- a gate that permits entry from only one direction. Valve, like the door, evokes the heart -- but in a more physical, visceral way. And here, as you point out, the valve isn't regulating entry of another person -- it is the closing of the "Valves of her attention" -- the door of perception. In the last stanza, she is no longer noting who comes or goes outside her gate. The closing of this valve evokes the shutting down of the senses at death ("and then the windows failed, and then, I could not see to see"). The final phrase -- "Like Stone", not only carries aural weight -- it evokes the stones of the graveyard -- or the rolling of the stone in front of the Jesus' tomb. So the poem ends with ED and her lover together -- with attention focused only on each other -- perhaps as moss covers their names -- and with only the barest hint of a resurrection that she is not even paying attention to.

    1. Ah yes, "Safe within their alabaster chambers," ... "Rafter of satin, and roof of stone" (F124).

      I very much appreciate the suggestion of Jesus' tomb in your reading and the "barest hint" of resurrection it conveys. But as you say, that is not at all what she is focusing on.

  5. In deep meditation, when concentration is so steady attention is undistracted the mind is single pointed and impervious to the outer world like stone.

  6. I would not overlook the the play on words in this poem. Read the last line using the word "present" in both its denotations and connotations. Is she saying don't show or usher anyone else in, or is she declaring her absence. After all, she has reached her majority-the age of adulthood when she can choose to join in her congregation or choose to exclude herself. As we know she explores the theme of faith over and over again. This manifesto of her independence is such craftsmanship and so finely wrought yet highly accessible. I love exploring this one to my students.

    1. I've been re-reading this poem and the comments and I don't remember focusing on the 'present' as you discuss it. I think it does add a lot to the poem to read that line in both meanings: as almost a decree about presenting yourself to the reclusive Soul, and also as the Soul absenting herself from social interactions with those not admitted into her inner circle.

  7. Any ideas why she chose "low" gate? It would seem she had a high gate to protect herself.

    1. hmmmm... maybe because the soul wants to look out at the world -- and that's how she is able to 'note' the chariots passing. Dickinson was a very observant poet and took in a lot just from her windows.

      Also, I don't think there is a sense of threat in the poem; just one of discrimination on the part of the speaker.

    2. A low gate is like a service entrance - the high gate is the grand entrance. If the emperor is at her service entrance, how much more grand is she than he is?

    3. Thank you, Pp -- I didn't know that about the low gate -- and it matters in this poem.

    4. Metaphors are fun, iconoclasts aren’t, but an 1856 lithograph of “Homestead” shows a low picket fence lining Main Street in front of ED’s house.

      Metaphors and reality can coincide. Come to think of it, aren’t metaphors conceived in a poet’s subconscious womb after reality injects its sperm? Virgin births of poems and people are rare. TPB has fathered many metaphors, including this one.

      Thank you for the fun Susan! We won't forget you, ever!

  8. Thanks! Good points. Also, as if she were saying, anyone could get in but you're not buddy!
    Are you still continuing with this project? I sure hope so. They are all very insightful and thought-provoking.

  9. I've been translating Dickinsons' complete poems to my native language, and your insightful remarks aided me greatly and facilitated my job, many thanks indeed.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Wow! I'm just getting to know Dickinson and I'm so happy I found your blog!

  12. How much is this worth

    1. Haha. My soul?

      Funny how this poem so often gets taken for the selectivity of Emily's soul, but somehow, through the rest of the poem you end up, with the poet, on the outside of "her" attention. It swings both ways, that door. And It does seem the syntax of that third line, the "to her divine majority", is a swinging door in itself. As mentioned above, I believe, it could mean the soul shuts her doors to the majority, thus accepting the minority OR shuts the door of of the poor minority from her divine majority.

      Even though many of ED's poems have this kind of swinging syntax, I'm still not convinced she did this on purpose. I think it is worth looking for the most accurate of the possibilities. But this poem IS perhaps stronger for taking into account both sides of that door. Perhaps on take away from the coinciding perspectives is that you need never worry about being shut out of someone else's door, but might rather notice who you are letting into yours?

    2. In light of d scribe’s generous offer to cohost TPB, I can’t resist this stroll down memory lane (excerpt from comments on F409, 'The Soul selects her own Society —'):

      Anonymous June 2, 2022 at 6:28 PM

      "How much is this worth"

      Susan Kornfeld June 2, 2022 at 10:14 PM

      "What are you offering?"

      d scribe May 31, 2023 at 12:30 PM

      "Haha. My soul?"

      Dear d, Don’t laugh, and be careful what you offer. Susan knows she is a Siren.

    3. Haha. My soul doth go the way of the dodo. I'm still laughing tho. Also, I dig the valve/pod discussion below. Cheers.

    4. For biography addicts, here’s the Siren reference (L554, ED to Sue, 1876 or later):

      “Susan knows she is a Siren - and that at a word from her, Emily would forfeit Righteousness - Please excuse the grossness”

  13. Is it just my dirty mind, or are we consciously or subconsciously invoking a wonderful sexual metaphor, beginning with ED:


    “I've known her — from an ample nation—
    Choose One—
    Then — close the Valves of her attention—"

    ED’s frankness about sexual topics swelled with time, perhaps climaxing with F1482 (1879):

    Forbidden Fruit a flavor has
    That lawful Orchards mocks —
    How luscious lies within the Pod
    The Pea that Duty locks —

    You can interpret that last line as you wish, but note the door is locked. No mention of a “valve” in this poem, but how else can you “lock the pod”?

    ----Anonymous 4/6/13:

    “if you look at the two metaphors that ED uses to segregate her Society -- a door and a valve -- I think you find deeper levels of meaning.” Amen to that!

    “A door swings two ways”, but “the poem moves deeper to the amazing image of a valve -- a gate that permits entry from only one direction.”

    Well, yes and no. Wedding vows, like mitral valves, metaphorical and real, leak more often than we like to admit. ED, who, at least in her mind, made a verbal vow with Charles Wadsworth in 1860-1861 to be faithful to him in this life and marry him in the next, later in life (1878-1882) enjoyed a warmly romantic though probably not consummated relationship with a late-in-life suitor, Otis Lord:

    Anonymous and SK (6/2/2022)

    "How much is this worth"

    Susan Kornfeld

    "What are you offering?"

    Larry B.

    Susan, I think Anonymous meant "How much this is worth!"

  14. An interpretation of 'The Soul selects her own Society —', [brackets mine]:

    The Soul [ED’s] selects her [refers to “Soul”] own Society —
    Then — shuts the Door —[.]
    To her divine [Reverend Wadsworth] Majority [of two, her soul and his] —
    Present [Imperative verb] no more [society members] —[.]

    Unmoved — she notes the Chariots [suitors] — pausing —
    At her low [picket-fence] Gate —[.]
    Unmoved — [even if] an Emperor be kneeling
    Upon her Mat —[.]

    I've [ED has] known her [her soul] — from an ample nation [of suitors]—
    [to] Choose One—[,]
    Then — close the Valves [lock out other suitors] of her attention [love]—
    Like Stone [the lid of a sarcophagus]—