I wish Emily Dickinson had left a note about this poem. It seems maddeningly ambiguous about her context and meaning. What do you think it’s about? My comments follow.
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 –
Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995
Here are my thoughts as of today—informed by my experience as a woman and by social, national and international realities.
- Is this a riddle? I don’t think so. Riddles can have more than one true answer, but only when all clues in the riddle line up with each possible solution.
- The subject of the poem is named immediately – “the Soul.” Everything that follows describes choices of the Soul, personified as a woman.
- The action in the poem is simple. The Soul makes her own choice about whom she will or will not receive. She then shuts the Door, cutting off access to all others and ensuring her own Majority (of one). This isn’t a decision made by consultation or by popular vote. It’s a one-way decision of the Soul.
If this is about a human being, I celebrate our ability to choose whom we will or will not allow through the Door – into our lives. That doesn’t mean each choice we make will be wise. It means the choice is ours, for good and for ill.
On the other hand, I think Emily is suggesting more than this.
Notice these words: The Soul ‘shuts the Door’ – is ‘Unmoved’ – is ‘Unmoved’ – is ‘Like Stone.’ This suggests a one-time decision such as how the Soul choses to live her life. These words might also suggest this Soul is a snob or merciless.
Yet I see no evidence of this. She doesn’t seem to come from high Society or live in a magnificent palace (note her low Gate). She simply makes her choice and doesn’t look back. Her nay is nay, and her yes is yes. No use trying to change her mind.
It’s possible the supplicants are trying to help this Soul in some way. Or perhaps use her? They may want her vote or her support. They might promise her one thing and deliver something else. Whether the Soul knows this or not, I still applaud her courage when she shuts the Door, Unmoved.
Emily’s poem challenges me to be wise and clear about opening the door of my soul. Some bargains and sure-things end up being disastrous. Not just in our private lives, but in our national and global life.
In the end it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks I’m a snob or blind to reality (which I sometimes am). My choices aren’t always wise. Still, I believe God gave me the capacity to learn wisdom and discernment, if I’m willing to practice it. This means, as Emily’s poem implies, going against popular wishes or expectations from time to time. Especially as a woman, though also as a family member, friend, neighbor and citizen.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 February 2017
Image found at remodelingnewburyport.com