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09 March 2015

The Soul that hath a Guest

The Soul that hath a Guest
Doth seldom go abroad —
Diviner Crowd at Home —
Obliterate the need —

And Courtesy forbids
The Host's departure – when
Upon Himself – be visiting
The Emperor of Men —
            F592 (1863)  J674

This poem was addressed to Dickinson's sister-in-law "Sue" and signed "Emily". With that in mind, it seems Dickinson is providing a rationale for not visiting or going out. How could she "go abroad", afterall, while hosting "The Emperor of Men"? It wouldn't be courteous at all. Dickinson makes two justifications for staying home: In the first stanza she explains there is no need to go out because better company is at hand. In the second, she says it wouldn't be courteous to do so. 
        The reader must speculate about just who "Himself", the "Emperor of Men" might be. I've read several commentaries, each with a different answer. One says the Diviner guest is her own divine soul. I would take that to mean that she is, on a deep level, wanting that company and concerned about driving it away. Our daily persona, our workaday interior life can certainly be on hold while we go out and about. We probably just take it along with us wherever we go. But Dickinson has in earlier poems described an inner sanctum, a forge where the soul burns at a white heat To be in the presence of that Soul requires all one's attention. If blessed with its accessible presence, how could you leave it?
        Another commenter suggested Dickinson was so caught up in Shakespeare or one of her other favorite authors, that she couldn't be torn away. Shakespeare, in this case, would be the Emperor of Men. I like this reading because it matches the wry tone of the poem, especially the second stanza.  
        The third reading is a more literal one: the poet feels she is in the presence of a divine visitor such as the spirit of God or even Jesus. To me, this interpretation seems too ponderous for the poem.  I would suggest that Emily is simply referring ironically to her stern and august father – a deeply religious man, he would provide a "Diviner Crowd" – except that he wouldn't be a visiting Guest.

But then I can imagine various scenarios. Perhaps Sue, her sister-in-law, and her brother Austen (the couple lived next door) were hosting Samuel Bowles or some other fine "Emperor of Men" – and Dickinson was wryly acknowledging that they couldn't come to call with such a divine guest. 

That masculine "Himself" in reference to the soul might mean a man is the Soul in question – or it might just be Dickinson being grandly and generically human.

Readers? What think you?


  1. "The Soul selects her own Society —
    Then — shuts the Door —"

    These two poems just feel so connected to me. And so I am left wondering if the Emperor here is kneeling...

    1. I had that poem in my notes because I was reminded of it, too. Love the idea of the Emperor kneeling!

  2. I was pleased to come across your blog. I too am on an Emily Dickinson project; reading one poem a day and musing about it during the day whenever it enters my thoughts. I'm a writer/editor by profession and find myself in awe of Dickinson's ability with metaphors and grammar.

    1. I feel the same way. And her verbs! Just to take an example from the "Popular Posts" at the bottom of this page:
      "She dealt her pretty words like Blades — /How glittering they shone / — And every One unbared a Nerve / Or wantoned with a Bone".

    2. Kerry, I'm doing the same thing...a poem per day. I also just started reading some of her letters and in awe of how she seems to think in poetry...even as a child.

      I am also in awe of how Susan has so far blogged over 500 poems! Kudos to you, Susan!

  3. An essay that I link to below compares this poem with "The Soul should always stand ajar" on pages 8-9, and the author has some interesting opinions of Emily's use of gender when exploring one's relationship with God.

  4. ED is like the guru of solitude; Susan, your blog is a conductor's wand that allows all the separate parts to assemble and speak.

  5. This poem like many others have so many finely crafted facets. You just turn the phrases slightly and can see so many possibilities of meaning--all pretty convincing!!

  6. I wonder if any commentator ever saw any connection between the soul-emperor motif in E.D's. poems and the famous poem on the "little soul" (animula vagula blandula) by (allegedly) the Roman emperor Hadrian? As other poems demonstrate (e.g. no 1584 on Thermopylae, with an unnamed Antigone raising her voice too), E.D. can be extremely sophisticated also in her dialogue with the literary tradition.