This poem about friendship or of love, if you prefer, illustrates why Dickinson has been called the poet of exclusion. The poem describes choosing a friend (or lover), and rejecting (excluding) all others. Do you feel a difference in her presentation of these two actions, selecting and rejecting? does she emphasize selecting the friend more than rejecting all others, or is the act of excluding emphasized?
Dickinson presents the individual as absolute and the right of the individual as unchallengeable. In this poem, the soul's identity is assured. The unqualified belief in the individual and in self-reliance is characteristically and quintessentially American.
This poem also illustrates Dickinson's tendency to write lines in units of two. If you look at the lines, you will see that all the lines in this poem are organized in units of two.
In lines 1 and 2, what sound is repeated? Is she emphasizing key words with this alliteration?
Dickinson has the "soul" doing the choosing. What aspects or part of the human being does "soul" represent? For example, the stomach would represent appetite and hunger or express our physical needs; the brain, as we discussed in class, our rational or intellectual side. Does using "soul" give a high or a low value to the way this individual selects friends? Does she have admirably high standards or is she despicably vain and insensitive?
The phrase "divine majority" is interesting. "Divine" does more than just continue the image of "soul." It confers status (what higher status or rank could one have?), and status is an important idea in Dickinson's poetry. We must now consider the meaning of "majority." Majority has several meanings: (1) more than half, (2) the age of legal adulthood, no longer a minor, (3) the military rank of major, (4) superiority (an obsolete meaning today). Which definition or definitions are meant here? Think about how each one fits into the meaning of the poem and how it adds to the effect of the poem and choose. It is possible, in a poem, for all these meanings to be intended.
What kind of a gesture is shutting the door? Is it, for example, an action that leaves open the possibility of change, or is it a final action? What are the connotations of the word "obtrude"? Does it suggest a charming interruption, an offensive action, or some other type of behavior on the part of the people who have been excluded?
The soul is not won by worldly rank or power. A number of words indicate status: chariot, low gate, emperor, kneeling, mat. Who has the superior worldly status? Is there a suggestion of status and superiority in some other scale of values? Consider that the emperor has come to her, for his chariot is at her gate. Is there a hint that he is courting her?
In line 3, Dickinson eliminates words; a careless reader might think that it is the emperor who is unmoved, a confusing reading since he has come to her and is kneeling before her. Dickinson has omitted the subject and verb, which she stated explicitly in line 1, "she notes." It is the soul who is unmoved by the emperor's kneeling before her.
Dickinson depicts the rigor and the finality of the soul's choice. The numerous field ("ample nation") she has to choose among is contrasted with the narrowing of her choice, "one." What is the effect of "ample" and "nation"? Having chosen, the soul closes the "valves" of her attention. Does the soul have choice or control over valves? Do closed valves allow anything in? Would her valves let anyone in? Is the phrase "like stone" relevant here? What is like stone--the soul's choice, her attention, or the valves? What qualities do we associate with stone--warmth, cold, softness, flexibility, hardness? Is it a coincidence that the poem ends with "stone" or is it appropriate? Openings and closings get more attention than or stand out from the rest of a text because of their position.
The last point I want to make concerns meter and line length. In every stanza, the first line is longer (has more syllables and feet) than the other three. The second and fourth lines are shorter (have fewer syllables and feet). However, in the last stanza, the second and fourth lines are shorter than in the preceding stanzas; each line has only two syllables. This exceptionally short line calls attention to itself; these lines sound hard, emphatic, and final, an appropriate effect for the idea expressed in these lines.