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09 February 2017

The Soul's Superior instants

The Soul's Superior instants
Occur to Her — Alone —
When friend — and Earth's occasion
Have infinite withdrawn —

Or She — Herself — ascended
To too remote a Height
For lower Recognition
Than Her Omnipotent —

This mortal Abolition
Is seldom — but as fair
As Apparition — subject
To Autocratic Air —

Eternity's disclosure
To favorites — a few —
Of the Colossal substance
Of Immortality –
                        Fr630 (1863)  J306

This abstract and lofty poem, sent to Susan Dickinson, builds to an epiphany granted only to a few. Dickinson provides nothing concrete or physical;  no metaphors or similes. Perhaps that is appropriate for a poem about the Soul. In the previous poem the Soul engages in desperate battle. Here, as if a correllating compensation, we see it in transcendance.
        It is tempting to combine lines and read this poem as iambic pentameter rather than trimeter. The words and pace are stately, the ideas thoughtful and grand – qualities traditionally expressed in longer lines. Dickinson's choice of concise lines, however, not only accentuates the (sometimes subtle) rhymes, but encourages readers to lean into and inhale – if not quite comprehend– each phrase. There is much to contemplate here, negotiating such abstractions as 'infinite', 'Omnipotent', 'Eternity', and 'Immortality' with little to illuminate the esotericism

Dickinson begins the poem with a claim: the Soul's finest moments occur in the most rarefied solitude. Such solitude is achieved in two ways: either because everything mortal and physical withdraws into nothingness, or because the Soul ascends to some plane where nothing 'lower' than the Divine has meaningful existence. But whether it is the world that retracts or the soul that ascends, the Soul must some how shuffle off all its mortal coils.

1945 Pelvis Series

        The third stanza is something of a tour de force of difficult abstractions that start with 'A': Abolition, Apparition, Autocratic Air. I used the Dickinson Lexicon as my guide. The first 'A', 'Abolition', most obviously refers to the mystical loss of one's physical self in a transcendent state. In 1863, however, 'Abolition' would also have conjured the Emancipation of slaves. In fact, the Lexicon's first meaning of 'Abolition' is 'Emancipation'. The quotidian life of the Soul is one caged in flesh, enslaved to the body. Superior instants, then, can only occur when that soul is freed.
  In its freed, transcendent moments, the Soul becomes ethereal, as pure and pleasing – as fair – as a spirit being or angel, and subject only to the divinity permeating the heavens or, alternatively, to the Biblical God of whom Dickinson sometimes writes.
        In this transcendental realm, Eternity grants revelations to "favorites – a few –" (Christine Miller chooses the Franklin B alternate, "To a Revering – Eye"), which might mean those few souls who have achieved "mortal Abolition", or else a subset within those few. The revelation is of Immortality's "Colossal substance" – a rather paradoxical concept heightened by contrast with the ethereal Soul depicted in earlier stanzas. It is a surprising epiphany as Immortality is more typically considered as a state; a manner of existence with no heft of its own.

Perhaps this poem reflects Dickinson's sense of poetic exaltation, her quest to pierce the veil. Perhaps it is her echo of such poets as Horace who had a very real sense of poetic immortality, as in his Ode 3.30, 23 BCE:
I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze
and higher than the royal structure of the pyramids,
which neither the destructive rain, nor wild Aquilo
is able to destroy, nor the countless
series of years and flight of ages.


  1. Barely scratching the surface of the poem and stumbling at the gate (while shamelessly mixing metaphors here) -- and being very impressed with your explication and analysis -- I am intrigued with two words in the first line: Soul's and instants. The latter comes to me as a diction surprise (i.e., with the unintentional (?) pun on instance which puzzles me), and the definition of the Soul becomes the problematic lynchpin on which the poem depends. So I stop at that word. Just what is the Soul in the context of this poem? That I utter as a rhetorical question, a snapshot of my puzzlement.

    1. Much has been written about Dickinson's uses of 'Soul'. I think of it as a precious inner essence. Two poems that I think shed light on this are "The Soul has bandaged moments: [] and "If your Nerve deny you" [].

    2. Thank you for sharing the information and links.

  2. Thanks for your analysis of this poem -- it is spot on.

    And I appreciate Tim Davis' observation about EDs unusual use of the word "instants". The first stanza explains the experience of epiphany in terms of time and space. The experience comes in flashes -- instants -- of insight that "occur". In these "instants" the experiencer (Soul) is alone in space and time -- an "infinite" withdrawing from friends and from "Earth's occaision" -- an odd phrase that describes earth as a momentary mortal, thing -- bound by time. This first stanza is described from the perspective of the Soul.

    The second stanza describes the withdrawing as a physical ascent to a "Height". This stanza and the next are from the perspective of the mortal world -- the ascended Soul, viewed in the context of space and time, is "remote" and "seldom". The word "Recognition" is interesting -- it implies that the Soul could be seen, the epiphany accessed -- but it is not recognized or understood. This idea is echoed in in the last stanza's phrase "Eternity's disclosure" -- immortality is revelation -- clear seeing.

    The third stanza has a beautiful rhyme of "Abolition" and "Apparition" and the wonderful sound of the words "Autocratic Air" -- sounding to my ears like electricity, maybe a lightning bolt striking a mountain peak.

    In the last two stanzas, the invisible has emerged -- first as an Apparition -- then as something "Colossal". Mortal time and space have become eternal and omnipotent.

    1. Thank you -- in particular I had been reading 'Recognition' as from the Soul's perspective, not as from an outside vantage. It puts the following stanza in a different light, too. One of the great joys – and struggles – of Dickinson's poetry is her deftness with ambiguity. The resulting space, like a vacuum, invites meanings to pour in.

  3. I read "substance" with the meaning: 2. substance - the choicest or most essential or most vital part of some idea or experience.
    I didn't read it as referring to a type of matter.
    That said, thanks to you for the explication and analysis of a great poem.

  4. A digression:

    The “Omnipotent’s” favored few, including ED, of course, get a mystical peep at the colossal substance of immortality. Must be nice.

    So she had a few mystical moments, what of it?

    A good friend once suggested mystical experiences are intrinsic creations of our own mind-body, evolutionary adaptations buried in our DNA to convince us life is good, worth living, and, naturally, we should to give copies of that DNA to future generations by making babies. Clever strategy on DNA’s part, no?.

    But don’t let such thoughts spoil every love scene in every movie you ever see. Especially, don’t think about it when screwing.

    [Shakespeare’s] first 17 poems, traditionally called the procreation sonnets, are addressed to a young man—urging him to marry and have children in order to immortalize his beauty by passing it to the next generation, e.g., Sonnet VI:

    “Then let not winter's ragged hand deface
    In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill'd:
    Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
    With beauty's treasure, ere it be self-kill'd.
    That use is not forbidden usury,
    Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
    That's for thyself to breed another thee,
    Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
    Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
    If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
    Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
    Leaving thee living in posterity?
    Be not self-will'd, for thou art much too fair
    To be death's conquest and make worms thine heir.


    By Shakespeare's exhortations, ED was a complete failure.