In Emily Dickinson's poem "The Soul selects her society,"  why is the meter in lines 10-12 different from the meter of the first two stanzas?

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In Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Soul selects her own society,” a significant change takes place in the structure of the final stanza.  The number of syllables in each of the four lines of stanza one is 10, 4, 8, and 4. Similarly, the number of syllables in each of the four lines of stanza two is 10, 4, 9, and 4.  However, the number of syllables in each of the four lines of stanza three varies noticeably from these earlier patterns.  In stanza three, the four lines contain the following numbers of syllables: 9, 2, 9, 2:

I've known her -- from an ample nation --

Choose One --

Then -- close the Valves of her attention --

Like Stone --

Clearly, the second and fourth lines of this stanza stand out as highly unusual in this poem and thus receive special emphasis.

The strong emphasis received by these two lines seems appropriate to the meaning of those lines and to the meaning of the poem as a whole. As its opening line suggests, the poem argues that the soul can be selective in its choice of society. In other words, each individual human being, in his or her essence, alone decides who will be admitted into that person’s circle of friends, associates, or loved ones. No one, or nothing, can force a soul – the essence of a person – to value or embrace a person whom the soul finds unappealing, for whatever reason.

The body may be imprisoned or otherwise under the control of others, but the soul itself is free to make its own choices. Even if an “Emperor” (7) wants to be admitted to a person’s select group of admired or beloved persons, he cannot force his way into that sanctuary. The soul, in this respect, has complete autonomy and independence.

In light of these themes and meanings of the preceding lines, the abrupt shortening of line lengths in lines 10 and 12 makes perfect sense. In both cases, the forms of the lines reinforce their meanings. Both lines, because of their brevity, suggest strength and exclusiveness. In line 10, the brevity of the line emphasizes the key verb “Choose” (since choice has been a major theme of the poem) and the key noun “one” (since exclusiveness has also been a major theme). Taken together, the two words – “Choose one” – seem abrupt, active, and selective.  “Choose two” would not have the same effect, nor would “Choose twelve.” It is the strong metrical and semantic emphasis on “one” that gives the line its impact.

Equally effective is the only other two-word line in this poem: “Like Stone” (12). Here the effect of the two heavily-accented syllables (a metrical foot known as a “spondee”) is one of immoveable solidity. The fact that this brief line is the final line in the poem inevitably reinforces the sense of inflexibility and stability the line itself describes.  Both of the extremely abrupt syllables are not only unusually short but are literally unusually accented, since both are spondees. Dickinson's use of this unusual metrical foot seems clearly deliberate and intentional.

Thus, in this poem as in so many others by Dickinson, what might at first seem merely naïve instead seems, on closer inspection, evidence of a very thoughtful and talented artist who knew exactly what she was doing.


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