By: Melissa Wilson
Emily Dickinson was one of the most influential writers of the 19th century and was not even recognized when she was alive. She was a devoted conservative Christian woman from Massachusetts and did not come into contact with many people. Many of her poems revolved around death and the afterlife in an attempt to answer the unknown questions. Her “poetry was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England”, why she was attracted to writing about death. As a woman of the nineteenth century, she also struggled to be taken seriously as a writer. Although her work is not viewed by Civil War critics as credible, she spent half her writing career writing poems about death during the war (Faust 204). Many of her works have an emerging theme of death and feminism, alluding to that was what was on her mind during her lifetime.
Two of Dickinson’s major themes in her poems is the afterlife and the struggles of being a woman. Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War attempts to help the reader understand the meaning of death during the Civil War and how it was handled by nineteenth-century Americans. Dickinson “wondered where she might find heaven” (Faust 206) and created possibile outcomes for the afterlife. She found death liberating, not necessarily as final curtain-call for Americans. As a woman, it was difficult to be taken seriously by other writers at the time; which she explains in her poem They Shut Me up in Prose. She writes “As when a little Girl/They put me in the Closet –/Because they liked me “still”” explaining the male dominance in her life that constrained her from expressing herself and remained “still”. In the poem The Soul Selects Her Own Society, Dickinson grapples with idea that death is a liberation for women to finally have a choice and be free from their social constraints that men put upon them.
“The soul selects her own society
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —”
The first line and title “the soul selects her own society”, addresses death and feminism first-hand. The soul’s gender is a woman with the pronouns “her” and “she”. The “soul” in this poem once belonged to a woman that lived on Earth. By the “soul” choosing where she wants to be in the after-life gives the soul a greater autonomy than the human form it once possessed. Once the “soul” decides the “society” they “shut the door–” on all other options. This emphasizes the absoluteness of the soul’s decision when choosing a society. The soul is “unmoved” by any other by any other religious figures that try to sway her. The “soul” had high standards because she finally has a choice in something.
“Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —”
Because the soul is a woman, her having a choice means more to her, why she is so selective in where she wants to reside in the after-life. Women of the nineteenth century did not have a lot of autonomy in their life, but once they passed they ascend into the afterlife where they are “freed” from the social constraints they had as human. The poem emphasizes the soul’s selection because this is essentially the first time in her “life” that she was able to make a decision on their own without any male influence.
“I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —”
The third stanza of the poem creates a shift in the subject to “I”, where the speaker of the poem presents their opinion of the soul. The “I” represents the old human-form of the soul poetically before her death. She says, “I’ve known her — from an ample nation–”. The “ample nation” is Earth before they die, more specifically the United States. The speaker then emphasizes the soul will “choose one/Then — close the Valves of her attention —/Like Stone–” The soul is strong and stable like a “stone” and now that she is finally freed from human constraints she can pursue anything she desires. Now she is able to wander free and devote her “attention” on what she desires. The “soul” knows what was true in her human form’s heart and plans to pursue them in the afterlife.
Artist: John George Brown in 1870, oil on canvas.
This painting depicts a courting ritual between a man and a woman in the late nineteenth century. Music a way for men and women to spend quality time together and this was a way men would woo women into marriage. In the painting, you can see the man has control in teaching the woman how to play this flute-like instrument. This furthers the control men had in courting rituals with women. It does not show she is being forced into playing the instrument, but the man is instructing the woman. Relating this to The Soul Selects Her Own Society it’s unknown if the woman in the painting wants to play this instrument or be pursued by this man. The outlook for this woman is that after she passes, her soul will ascend into the after-life and follow her own desires.
This poem was a hopeful rhetoric for women, to look forward to the day they would be free to make their own choices. The message is that their soul would follow their true desires in their mortal life, and will pursue them in the afterlife.
Poets.org Staff. Emily Dickinson. Academy of American Poets https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/emily-dickinson
Constance B. Rynder The Seneca Falls Convention. American History Magazine. April 1999. http://www.historynet.com/seneca-falls-convention
Drew Faust This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 2008
John Geroge Brown. The Music Lesson. 1870. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/21.115.3/
Emily Dickinson They Shut me Up in Prose. Poetry Foundation.1951,1955… https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52196/they-shut-me-up-in-prose-445