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17 January 2015

The Soul unto itself

The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend —
Or the most agonizing Spy —
An Enemy — could send —

Secure against its own —
No treason it can fear —
Itself — its Sovereign — Of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe —
                          F579 (1863)  J683

Dickinson writes here about how self mastery and self dereliction play out at the deepest level ¬– within the soul. She presupposes a multiplicity of manifestations within the soul –which in its complexity and emanations we might today think of as the psyche. 

Dickinson depicts a multiplicity of selves in various other poems.  In  "One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—" [F407], finding "Ourself behind ourself, concealed" is cause for fright. Encountering one's own self in some "lonesome Place" is worse than finding an assassin in the bedroom.
In "If your Nerve, deny you" [F329], the "you" is a sort of Controller positioned above the "Nerve" as well as the soul. "If your Nerve, deny you – / Go above your Nerve" …/  If your Soul seesaw – / Lift the Flesh door". I've been calling this sort of controller entity the aware Self. 
Al Sayed
In this gnomic little poem there is an inner Soul that seems to be at the mercies of a more active soul. This active soul might be a lordly or "imperial friend" to the inner, but it might also be a corrosive, invasive force, a "Spy" – one Dickinson finds as "agonizing" as any sent by an enemy. Who better knows our vulnerabilities and weaknesses? Who best, then, to undermine our self sovereignty with agonies of doubts and fears?

Ah, but when the Soul is sovereign and "Secure against its own", then that inner soul should "stand in Awe". Dickinson herself expressed a kind of awe in "Through the straight Pass of Suffering" [F187] where the martyrs' souls are steadfast as a compass needle is to the "North Degree".
        "The Soul selects her own Society" [F409] shows a different sort of sovereign soul. This one is self contained, self directed – and extremely discriminating. 


  1. There is this vantage point she has beyond the soul, where I wonder is that.

  2. Stanza 1, a simple declarative sentence, suggests an either/or, friend or foe character of the soul, but are those faces temporary and changing or firmly fixed?

    Stanza 2 states a steadfast, courageous soul cannot commit treason against itself, can trust itself to stand firm under fire, captain of itself no matter what. Such a soul is awesome.