The "Soul" in Emily Dickinson's "The Soul selects her own Society" (303)
Dickinson, even when choosing her own society, does not fail to remind herself of the cost of company, a cost not unlike isolation...
Grades are submitted. One job application for the next schoolyear is complete; two more need to be done soon. What's on my mind is the relation between doing, accomplishing, and fulfillment. Grades notoriously require a lot of doing and accomplishing. Do they provide fulfillment? That is more difficult to ascertain. As for my job hunt, I want to submit applications regularly with no hopes attached.
With this spirit, I'm fascinated by Dickinson's "The Soul selects her own Society." That first line resonates with empowerment. In contrast, I am grateful for the company of those willing to tolerate me. Select my own social circle? An entire society? I find this inconceivable. To put not too fine a point on it, job hunting in academia requires hundreds of applications. I am far from selecting anyone or anything. When Dickinson furthers her lyric with a "divine Majority" and a kneeling Emperor, I am completely lost. I have good friends, but there are still long stretches of loneliness and powerlessness.
The Soul selects her own Society (303) Emily Dickinson 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 —
Of course, Dickinson, even when choosing her own society, does not fail to remind herself of the cost of company, a cost not unlike isolation:
I've known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —
Anthony Hecht's comment about the "Valves... Like Stone" instructs here. Maybe the Soul selects her own society out of love or some higher calling. Perhaps this is what it means to be paired—love flowing to one other, in one direction. But it could be that the Soul itself is the question. Dickinson invokes it to play God, to select an elect. It is, as Hecht says, a "ruthless" and "arbitrary" process. He concludes that, well, this is everyday life. His words: "We play at being God; it is characteristically human of us to do so."
Dickinson's empowerment, then, plays with both love and terror. Suzanne Juhasz takes careful note of the simple, small, enclosed space. A door, a low Gate, a mat, stone. Nothing like a "Chariot." Has Dickinson detailed a prison cell?
I myself am fascinated with the word "Soul." Why use that at all? Hecht wonders briefly if "heart" could substitute for it, but then sees that Soul introduces more divine matters. I'd like to think aloud about "Soul" for myself. I don't think it is appropriate to be too technical or theological with it, though it alludes to elevated themes. Dickinson does make it sound like her heart, a part of her living within. And she speaks of it as the whole of her, one encompassing her present self and its choices. The Soul "selects," "shuts," "notes," "choose[s]," "close[s]." It is a person and a portal. It is ruler and peasant. I've never been big on soul talk, but Dickinson is earnestly probing what this thing could possibly be.
The problem she's confronting is manifold, but a few features distinguish themselves. First, she knows that the soul exists because of her own arbitrariness. "The Soul selects her own Society — / Then — shuts the Door." She may or may not be present to "her divine Majority." She will "Choose One," then "close the Valves of her attention — / Like Stone." All the sudden decisions imply a true self which acts upon profound ideas or feelings. There must be a soul. Second, the arbitrariness, the existence of a true self, tells us nearly nothing. All you know is you're not you yet. You're capable of higher love, but you're also capable of decisions you don't understand and feelings that make no sense. There's a true self, but your randomness only points to it.
Well, there is one qualification. The Soul will not be moved by an Emperor. Maybe it is overshadowed by dysfunction. Maybe it is dysfunctional. But it is truly independent, its own power. It alone is the source of love, love in its limiting glory, love as choosing against choice. If I'm right, one reason we want love is to know we can love. That in making the commitment, we exercise our freedom.
Many find it fashionable to mock Kant, but that's his logic on display. A formulation more fitting to his thinking: You wouldn't know what a right is unless you took full responsibility for it. Dickinson, of course, is on much darker territory. Still, I'm compelled by the optimism of the word "Soul." She's thoroughly secular, yet bears witness to the sacred. On the one hand, those of us who know fundamentalism recognize the awful outline of a certain sacrality. We've known those who justify horrible behaviors by repeatedly and insistently invoking their spirituality. On the other, the independence which recognizes a divine majority, is skeptical of Emperors, and can choose one object of love has a sacred quality.
Hecht, Anthony. "On 303 ("The Soul selects her own Society")." Modern American Poetry, 11 Sep 2015, https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/anthony-hecht-303-soul-selects-her-own-society
Juhasz, Suzanne. "On 303 ("The Soul selects her own Society")." Modern American Poetry, 12 Sep 2015, https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/suzanne-juhasz-303-soul-selects-her-own-society