Dickinson's "The Soul selects her own Society —"

Emily Dickinson

Dickinson at 17
Dickinson at 17 | Source

Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems.  When referring to a Dickinson poem, it has become customary to use the first line of the poem, capitalizing and/or punctuating only as Dickinson did.  

Therefore, this commentary is titled:

Dickinson's "The Soul selects her own Society —"

The Complete Poems

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

This volume includes all of Dickinson's 1775 poems; it was edited by Thomas H. Johnson, who restored Dickinson's original forms.


Introduction: The Dickinson Dash —

The speaker in Emily Dickinson's "The Soul selects her own Society" enjoys living a nearly monastic life of privacy and dedication to a divine goal. In this poem, the speaker muses on the beauty and sanctity of living such a quiet life.

This poem displays in three quatrains, featuring the innovative form that Dickinson readers might likely expect from this reclusive poet. The piece is generously sprinkled with her signature dash — 17 of them in a mere 12 lines.

Also there are three lines that contain two dashes while one line professes a whopping three of those Dickinsonian favored punctuation marks.

Just how and/or why the Dickinsonian dash became a staple in the Dickinson poem remains pure speculation among scholars and critics of her work. One thought about that usage is that it represents a rhetorical pause shorter than a period but longer than a comma. However, it is also quite likely that the pause represented by that dash could indicate a stop even longer than a period.

Another likely function of the dash is to hold her place as paused briefly to think about what she would write next. Dickinson wrote specifically for the page, not for poetry readings.

And although she, no doubt, read her works aloud to herself or perhaps to friends, she likely varied her pauses where she had placed the dashes. Therefore, it also seems likely that the dashes represent boundaries for thought groups.

First Quatrain: "The Soul selects her own Society"

The first line of the first quatrain finds the speaker making revealing and momentous announcement: "The Soul selects her own Society." The vital force of life energy, known as the soul, has the ability to understand what it needs, what belongs to it, and how to choose the true from the false.

After the soul makes its selections, it bars intruders from distracting it from its necessary duties and engagements.

The speaker engages a royalty metaphor to compare her activities to that of a king's court. She commands the atmosphere of others that she will accept no more, as her limit for her soul's society has been met. She now is in full possession of "her divine Majority."

Like a king's court that has welcomed all of the guests to his audience, he places a halt to the entrance of further guests. This speaker's "divine Majority," however, is populated only by what her own soul has selected.

Interestingly, it is likely that this speaker's selection consists of only of meditation, a few books, a personal item or two, thoughts, prayer, and her own writings—not people at all, except for a beloved friend or two, who may be welcomed into her sacred, soul-inspired court.

Second Quatrain: "Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —"

This speaker remains adamant that she will rebuff anyone, regardless of station, who may wish to intrude upon her sanctuary of quiet reflection. Even those who come by fancy carriage and unload at her door will not be accepted for an audience. She has chosen and she remains insistent in keeping her privacy.

The grace and solitude that her soul's selection have made will not be broken even for an "Emperor," who might come calling. No kneeling emperor would even motivate her to forsake her own quiet sanctuary to accept audience with him.

Heads of state would hardly make a satisfactory visitor for one whose interests are only in the spiritual world and not the political.

Third Quatrain: "I've known her — from an ample nation —"

The speaker now makes quite clear that her own soul has completed all the dismissing through selection that makes her soul a discriminating force for seeking the Will of the Divine Spirit.

This speaker has intimately affirmed with her own soul an uncompromising stance that allows her to remain brave and secure in her choices for the way she lives her life. She will "close the Valves" of her own stone-like attention to outside forces and place that concentration where it belongs—upon inward forces of reality.

Through her own experience of selecting her soul's companions, this speaker can place herself inside a divine culture where she can experience eternal bliss.

Without engagement with ordinary humanity, her soul can return to its divine state, where she can commune with her Divine Creator, enjoying the blessed company that she loves more than anything this world could ever offer.

Reading of Dickinson's "The Soul selects her own Society"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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    Maya Shedd Temple profile image

    Linda Sue Grimes (Maya Shedd Temple)37 Followers
    435 Articles

    Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

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