Emily Dickinson’s Cloistered View of the World

I love Emily Dickinson. I love her cryptic, almost awkward use of words to describe the human predicament and reveal her own complicated, conflicted soul. She lived her life cloistered in her father’s attic, preferring the solace of her intricate verbal world over the “dog-and-pony-show” of her day. I identify myself with her cloistered view of the world but my “cloistering” has mercifully been metaphorical.

One of her poems that has always grabbed me was about attention, the tendency of our “soul” to fashion a world that it is comfortable with and then “close the valves of our attention like stone.” I love that image and can almost hear those valves “closing like stone.”

Here is the poem:

The Soul selects her own Society,
Then, shuts the door;
To her divine Majority
Present (or obtrude) 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.

I had often come up with the same observation about life but until I read this poem I could only offer “we believe what we want to believe”, not having the gift of poetic expression as Dickinson did. And, though this insight came with the price of “detachment,” I’m glad to have paid that price as it has helped me to remember to appreciate and value my perspective on life but to remember that everyone’s “valves of attention” creates unique viewpoints.

And in this poem note the soul’s response to her stately “visitor”. This soul, comfortable in its own private little world, turns its nose down at a visitor who should be graciously welcomed. It makes me think of Hamlet’s pining to escape his “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” by “fleeing to a nutshell” where there he could be “king of infinite spaces.”

This poem reveals that Dickinson knew she lived detached in a private world and the body of her poetry suggests that she found a comfort there in her solitude. Emotional isolation can easily be a “private hell”….as it is when one is the “king of infinite spaces”…but the gods can afford comfort there if it happens to be one’s lot in life. And without Dickinson’s acceptance of her “lot in life”, our world would be deprived of her poetic riches.


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