The Soul Selects Her Own Society – Emily Dickinson

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(c) 2014 Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved

I recently had the rare and arduous experience of re-reading for the umpteenth time all of Emily Dickinson‘s 1,775 surviving “poems”–but this time straight through over a period of two weeks. I’m working on a couple of Dickinson books and thought it would be a good exercise, a refresher.

Strangely, this was not the ecstatic, enjoyable experience I had anticipated.  The words of a prof, which I had rejected outright when I heard them many years ago, came back to me as I plowed through almost 800 pages of the Thomas H. Johnson edition (1952) of her poems (the one scholars accept as textually accurate today). This blasphemous–to my way of thinking–university professor  (whom I otherwise admired) said something to the effect that she was an intensely private poet, did not write for publication and that most of the verses discovered in her cherry bureau by her sister after she died were “slight” personal jottings to herself, not properly poetry as we think of poetry today.  They were jottings, drafts, written on the fly as the occasion moved her,

His statement outraged me at the time for I was at the time totally in the thrall of all things Emily in grad school. A travesty! I thought. How obtuse.  I even labeled him a misogynist, I think, an au currant out of hand trite dismissal of the time suitable for any sharp critic of a woman writer.

But at this stage with so much reading and study behind me, I have to say I now agree with him–up to a point.

After early rejection by the editor of the Atlantic and a few other self-important types, Dickinson did indeed retreat into her own private world and wrote much more casually and less formally, and this lesser verse is often so private as to be cryptic and half-baked, albeit studded occasionally with startling imagery and turns of phrase that stick out like rubies and diamonds in a sea of mud (or muddled thinking).

This poem seems to refer to her growing sense of isolation and hopelessness at ever being properly published:

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 —


When read straight through without the selectivity and aid of a cagey English prof pointing out the gems from the sludge, one must come to the inescapable conclusion that Dickinson, after a certain point and overwhelming disappointment, usually wrote in haste, and revised and polished only a smidgen of her verse into the lustrous, luminous poetry that we all read today.  That is, she rarely finished it with a sense of studied craft and with an eye to posterity’s opinion.

If there were ever a case for a writer burning their reams of rot not intended for readers’ eyes before he or she died, Dickinson’s spotty legacy makes it startlingly and memorably.  She apparently didn’t care, after a certain point, however.  She simply scribbled and stuffed the random odd shaped pieces of paper or backs of envelopes with her momentary emotional effusions into her bottom dresser drawer.  And there they accumulated in dark silence, unread, for fifty plus years.

Sadly for us, literary appreciation and fame were ambitions she deliberately discarded early on. Nobody “got” her, most thought she was an old maid oddball and her personality was not forceful enough to persist in the face of these obstacles.  To hell with them she concluded, apparently.  She stopped approaching editors and wrote for herself and family exclusively after a certain point. She even developed her own sour grapes attitude about the whole issue of being totally ignored as a poet in her life time:

Publication — is the Auction

Of the Mind of Man —

Poverty — be justifying

For so foul a thing

Possibly — but We — would rather

From our Garret go

White — Unto the White Creator —

Than invest — our Snow —

…. c.1862

Or, in an even more telling poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you — Nobody — Too?

Then there’s a pair of us?

Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!

How public — like a Frog —

To tell one’s name — the livelong June —

To an admiring Bog!

c. 1861

This does not diminish in anyway the perhaps five hundred totally original unforgettable poems she polished, revised, revised and revised one wit.  They remain crown jewels of American Literature.  But it does add a wrenching poignancy to her life as a poet, alone, unread, nearly silenced for lack of recognition.

One cannot help but wonder what she might have produced, a much larger and more substantial body of work surely, if only she had received some encouragement, support and a modicum of recognition.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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17 Responses to The Soul Selects Her Own Society – Emily Dickinson

  1. Thanks for posting, Margaret. This morning I read my first Emily Dickinson poem — I know, hard to believe. I thought it was excellent and definitely plan on reading more. Drafted up a blog post, which I will likely post in a week or so (I’ve been busy and have a nice back-up of posts ready). Anyway, I guess no coincidence that you posted on Dickinson. Oh yeah, the poem I read is “There is Another Sky.”

    Have a wonderful New Year!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jef says:

    First of all, plowing through the whole of her canon in one sitting, Margaret, confirms something I have suspected; you are mad as a hatter. Secondly, the notion that writing for oneself is synonymous with a kind of artistic failure is ludicrous. We want honesty and a glimpse of the unburnished seed at the center of the artist, or our neighbor, or the candlestick maker. We don’t want Yeats with his cultivated dangling forelock or McKuen’s sideburns and Playboy interview. It is not unfortunate that ‘recognition’ eluded Dickinson or we might not have the stuff we celebrate today. Any note found in a bottle is infinitely more interesting and precious than a lavishly crafted billboard. Writing deliberately for the boobs and critics and their miscreant offspring (known euphemistically as ‘posterity’) is the surest way to a dishonest accounting of one’s own heart. Duh! Yet, I am still enamored of you, Margaret. Happy New Year and don’t break the lamps in your reveling.


  3. I certainly have lots of written work that I would not want to be read, but oh well.


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