Notes from Robert M. Luscher, "An Emersonian Context of Dickinson's 'The Soul selects her own Society.'" ESQ, 30 (1984), 2, 111-116.
In the poem, "Dickinson appears to be consciously adapting Emerson's concept of selection as it is elaborated in "Spiritual Laws." In this context, "in becomes clear that the poem neither advocates haughty isolation, as Larry Rubin has argued, nor condemns the reclusive soul, as E. Miller Budick believes, for creating an "irreparable dualism" between itself and the cosmos by its arrogant process of selection." Rather she seems to be fully aware of "the balance struck in "Spiritual Laws" between the solitude implied in the act of selecting and the unfolding of the self through that act. Rather than rejecting or parodying Emersonian thought, Dickinson's poem may find in it a rationale that redeems the soul's selective solitude."
Like Emerson, Dickinson is not impressed
by gifts or praise of society. Emerson says,
He shall have his own society. We can love nothing but nature.... Persons approach us famous for their beauty, for their accomplishments, worthy of all wonder for their charms and gifts; they dedicate their whole skill to the hour and the company, with very imperfect result. To be sure, it would be ungrateful in us not to praise them loudly. Then, when all is done, a person of related mind, a brother or sister by nature, comes to us so softly and easily, so nearly and intimately, as if it were the blood in our proper veins, that we feel as if some one was gone, instead of another having come; we are utterly relieved and refreshed; it is a sort of joyful solitude.>By removing herself, the "Soul has not necessarily cut herself off from animating influences; the closed door need not be read as either a grave or a closed mind....the soul may be responding to the dictates of what Emerson deems the "call inherent in one's character":
>Each man has his own vocation. The talent is the call. There is one direction in which all space is open to him. He has faculties silently inviting him thither to endless exertion. ...By doing his own work, he unfolds himself.
Thus the Soul may be expanding, not limiting, with a self-reliant "One" reaching for self-discovery. She is not shutting out books, a truly "ample nation."
In this context, "the seemingly ominous image of the last stanza, the decisive closing of "the Values of her Attention / Like Stone," can also be read as an emphatic example of the process outlined in the first two stanzas. Selecting the 'joyful solitude' of an Emersonian communion with what is kindred to it, the Soul need by no means become permanently sealed off in a tomb-like world or frozen in a static posture. The closed valves, after all, are only valves of attention; their stone-like close emphasizes the "weight," the certainty, of the act of selection, not merely, as the image is commonly read, the "enbombment" of the selective soul. Furthermore, the past perfect tense the speaker uses in the last stanza--"I've known her"--indicates that these values have closed before; the selection process depicted in the present tense in the first stanza may thus be one in a series of ongoing selections, part of the progressive gathering process Emerson perceives as defining and refining one's genius. The image itself suggests that an alternation takes place; like the valves of the heart, the Soul's valves of attention can both open and close--a way of controlling the flow of related persons, ideas, and events for consideration by memory and the poetic talents. The valves of attention have the potential to be, in Emerson's terms, 'the obedient spiracle of your character and aims," singly admitting only those whose kinship intimately aligns them with the Soul in a reciprocal relationship. The intimacy of another related mind, Emerson notes, is like "blood in our proper veins."....The Soul's selection, then, instead of creating a heart of stone, a death-like stasis, or a willful solipsism, may actually be preparing it for a "teaching" that paradoxically brings a transfusion from the world outside. "
"Dickinson's poem, in other words, offers more than a defense of reclusiveness, self-reliance, or exclusive friendships. Using Emerson as a framework and as a subject, it defines and defends the act of poetic creation--her calling--as a selective concentration that measures, in relative solitude, particular moments in her Soul's conversation with her own society."
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