Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Soul Selects Her Own Society

The Soul Selects Her Own Society [Emily Dickinson, c. 1862]: 


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—



Language is both beautiful and beguiling. Developed systems of ideological transference offer the ability to communicate ideas, emotion, and experience through both the written and spoken word. This same liberty is paradoxically confining, in that, no one word or phrase can carry the same significance for any two beneficiaries of its freedom. Authors utilize this paradox through the written word by embracing the variety and complexity of language, using its multiple layers of connotations and symbolism. Cherished authors of prose are exonerated for their ability to paint a clear picture with their words through explicative and lengthy descriptions; however, this sovereignty over language employed by prose is not a tool available through poetry. Poets are bound by structure, rather open or closed, thus restricting and confining a poet’s choices. It is this economy and creativity of expression that merits the art form’s nomenclature; the word poetry is appropriately rooted in the Greek verb poieo: “to create.” Poetry is a succinct and abstracted creation. Every word is a specific choice and the colors and variations in the connotations of words are embedded assets. Conversely, the abstracted structure that defines the poet’s portrayal of an experience or emotion offers the reader an enhanced, mystical freedom in his interpretation. Due to the creative subtleties found in poetry and prose, there are often many layers of understanding one can glean from any one text. Emily Dickenson is a master of this treasured efficiency of language, although a rebel in the face of standard poetic conventions and metaphoric symbolism. Exposing one interpretation of Dickenson’s poem, The Soul Selects Her Own Society, Dickenson offers her readers a raw and unique metaphorical presentation of the intellectual process of refinement against Society through her innovative style, use of symbolism, rhythm and grammatical structure.
Many of Dickenson’s poems are untitled pieces and she is notorious for not following typical poetic conventions; therefore, titles and grammatical disregard are noteworthy clues to the deeper meanings in her poetry. Upon initial analysis of the title and opening line to The Soul Selects Her own Society, the reader is immediately alerted to the opposition and supremacy of the soul over its society. As the vast majority of Dickenson’s poems do, these allusions refer to much more than the obvious spiritual sentiments they invoke. Dickenson’s accessible society was Newfoundland America during the mid to late1800s and a heated battle brewed between academic and social intellectualism met by its counterpart, American Transcendent Thought. Transcendentalism maintains that the Self is divine and intuition informs the physical and empirical states in order to reach a “transcendent” spiritual euphoria. This philosophy was developed in direct rebellion to the doctrine of the Unitarian Church. The most influential propagates of this theory were contemporaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and George Ripley. Due to Emerson’s central involvement in this movement and his alleged influence in the works of Dickenson, Dickenson herself is said to be a follower of this philosophy. In the title and opening line of her poem, Dickenson alludes to the Self, or Soul, and its dominion over its Society. This is largely reminiscent of the ideals and terminology of the Transcendentalist Movement. The unmistakably intentional repetition of the initial consonant sound /s/ in the title also emphasizes these qualities’ thematic importance. On one level, Dickenson’s poem narrates an intellectual transformation, embracing the proprietary rights and absolute individualism embedded in the ideals of transcendentalism. As introduced in her title, every aspect of her poem and every foot in each meter can be interpreted as informants in the revolution of her thoughts towards the supremacy and superiority of the individual Soul.
Throughout Dickenson’s poem, there is a strong tendency towards common religious and spiritual symbolism accompanied by fervent convictions and contradictions in regard to their significance. In the first stanza, Dickenson depicts the Soul, or “individual,” as it embraces its autonomous sovereignty and rejects the Divine Majority, perhaps a reference to the Trinity or strict Doctrine of the Unitarian Church. With the introduction of more than ephemeral, temporal decisions within a society, these spiritual references merit Dickenson’s ideals and offer permanence and divine significance. As the Soul “shuts the door—” and the Divine Majority is “Present no more,” Dickenson’s dissention of societal norms offers an additional intransient quality to her divine selection. The obtrusive gesture of shutting a door lends a sense that this “door,” often a symbol for opportunity or a an entryway to a particular ideology, is not being left open a crack to allow for re-entry, but it is eternally closed upon rejection. This stanza could serve as a realization of and protest against the prominent social and academic “Harvard intellectualism” of her time. Similarly, in the third and final stanza of her work, Dickenson writes, “Then—closed the Valves of her Attention/Like Stone.” The narrator is closing herself off from other possibilities as an act of protection and preservation. The combination of symbolic valves and stone are complex and unconventional. The imagery of Valves conjures connections to the heart, and the heart to the soul. The mention of stone is a common symbol of things interminable or unalterable which are brittle and difficult to move or alter, which could signify permanence and solidarity. Another suggestion may be that the stone is referring to a precious stone, such as a treasured pearl that would require special protection during its harvesting. This interpretation would unify the connection between the delicate valves of a heart and the precious stone. Her soul, the stone is the ultimate realization of spirituality, so she must guard it. Perhaps by closing other valves, the Soul is preserving her very essence and divinity like a treasured pearl in an oyster shell. At the time this poem was written, c. 1862, Dickenson had given herself to strict seclusion and solitude. The majority of her social interaction was through poems and letters and she immersed herself whole-heartedly in her academic evolution and development, perhaps an act of preservation of her soul. Throughout Dickenson’s poem, she employs the use of eternal and spiritual terminology to validate her transcendental ideas and support her reclusive lifestyle as a means of preservation in the face of a society ruled by rigid and “unfounded” doctrine.
Even Dickenson’s conventions advocate social antagonism; her signature divergence from the rigid iambic pentameter and the grammatical confines of her time parallel this transcendent rebellion toward strict religious doctrine. Throughout the poem, she rebelliously employs the use of the hyphen to give breadth and dramatics to the rhythm of her work. This stylistic decision was highly unconventional while she was writing and it allowed for her to break from the standard structure of the Shakespearian confines of iambic pentameter. Her stanzas are structured into two functioning units, where the first line is significantly longer than the second. The meter and rhythm of the poem is repeated in the first and second stanzas; however, in her final stanza, the second and fourth lines are two-word phrases, “Choose One.” and “Like Stone.” Both of these phrases are emphatic and definite. Their concise presentation even more dramatically illuminates their significance in the poem as appropriately final. Also, words are unconventionally capitalized throughout the verses, which draw attention to them within the phrase. Words such as: Soul, Chariots, Valves and Stone, all had common interpretations in poetry and Dickenson used these standard images in new ways to strike a contrast with previous understandings. Dickenson was well read in both classic and modern literature and would have been keenly aware of the effect this tool would have on her reader. She could draw attention and speculation to an idea by simply presenting it differently than it would typically be shown. However, these innovative attempts were not respected in her time, and were even rejected posthumously, as most of her poems were edited upon publication to match the conventional rhythm and grammatical patterns. This eccentric innovation in her work provides a perfect framework for the conversation she desired with her society.
The antonymic aspect of this poem is equally alluring as Dickenson’s subversive doctrinal and structural rebellion. Throughout the poem, paradoxical pairs are introduced to highlight the dichotomy of the freedom in embracing transcendental thought. Action partners from the first stanza such as, “Selects/Shuts,” and the final stanza, “Choose/Close,” personify the delicate balance between two inversely related Emersonian principles of selection and exclusion. Outlined in Spiritual Laws, the selection of one marks the exclusion of others. Through the implied acceptance of solidarity and rejection of “society,” one is not limiting animating influences, but expanding the possibilities found within the soul. Conversely, in the second stanza, Dickenson refers to the Soul as “Unmoved” in response to an Emperor or suitor’s presentation. “Unmoved” is repeated in the stanza to emphasize the inaction and steadfast focus of the soul. The solicitation of the emperor could further symbolize regality and statis, and her rejection of his advances could be a metaphor for her sovereign status as queen of her own soul. The interesting aspect of this repetition is the resolute inaction characterized in stark contract to the indomitable action of the first and final stanzas’ duos.
The story told in this poem could easily be and often is interpreted as a love poem, or a poem embracing the ideals of reclusiveness, but I think the much more alluring layer as an audience is defined by the emergence of a dignified intellectual. The poem offers action in the face of motionless and the choice of one in the midst of many options. The contradictory aspects presented console me, in that I can relate to the academic path, which often resembles the exclusion and denunciation of all other ideologies upon of the selection of one. In stride with Dickenson’s poem, I also can tend to resent popular socio-cultural norms because they often resembles a rigid set of unfounded and superficial standards, much like the arbitrary doctrine that the transcendentalists fought against the Unitarians. I sometimes sense the desire within me to reject the “royal suitors” of alluring materialism “kneeling upon [my] mat” and choose from among the “ample nation” of discordant doctrine and philosophy One valve to my heart. It would be this conviction that I would fully embrace and close around me as a protective barrier surrounding my soul. I recognize the divinity within every soul, as a special calling or desire God placed within us. Dickenson embraced solitude and written correspondence as a means of protecting her most precious soul, but I feel that through emphatically selecting one philosophy, which leads to thee rejection of all others, one can find some sense of euphoric spiritualism.
For a woman rarely-seen and known for her simple white dress, Dickenson has left a profound impact on the innovations of modern poetry and thought. She was a contemporary of her time, not afraid to stand against social, religious, or literary norms in order to accomplish her goals. Her understanding of language and its employment during her lifetime is remarkable. Although just at a dozen of her over eighteen-hundred poems were published during her lifetime, in a society that did not respect women as academic equals, Dickenson was regarded privately as a gifted poet and fearsome intellectual and her ingenious approach to poetry merits her as one of America’s most treasured poets.

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