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<i>The Exact Word: Analyzing Word Choice in Two Poems by Emily Dickinson</i> The Exact Word: Analyzing Word Choice in Two Poems by Emily Dickinson


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 kneeling
Upon her Mat

I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose One
Then close the Valves of her attention
Like Stone


I dwell in Possibility
A fairer House than Prose
More numerous of Windows
Superior for Doors

Of Chambers as the Cedars
Impregnable of Eye
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky

Of Visitors the fairest
For Occupation This
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise

Biographer Henry Wells says of Emily Dickinson in Introduction to Emily Dickinson, "She clearly thought even more diligently of the individual words than of any other feature of a poem" (Wells 276) . According to Wells, Emily lived for her poetry. Every word of her poetry is carefully chosen, each image carefully constructed using the exact word. In two of her poems, "I dwell in Possibility" (No. 657) and "The Soul selects her own Society" (No. 303) Dickinson shows her diligence to the word and she creates a theme of authority with her word choices in each of the poems.

In "The Soul selects her own Society", Dickinson seeks to invoke an image of superiority through the careful choosing of the precise word. In this poem she uses words such as "divine", "Chariots", "Emperor", and "nation" to call forth the image of authority. Perhaps the poet sees herself as better than the "Majority". She is "unmoved" by the attention that they lavish on her because she perceives herself better than the "vast Majority".

In this interpretation the imagery suggested by this lofty tone is pointedly superior. She has "an Emperor kneeling Upon her Mat" - her mat. The idea of a regal Emperor - and you may picture the Emperor in his flowing, ornate robes - actually kneeling before a common woman - is an image that sets the tone of superiority. The reader can ‘see’ the "ample nation" begging for her attention and ‘see’ her point at one then turn away from the rest. "Like Stone" is a concrete image of the poet herself shutting out all that she does not desire.

Yet another analysis’ of the images in "The Soul selects her own Society" are that they create a theme analogous to God and the universe. The "Soul" as the human being sees herself as god-like, she creates a universe of her own choosing by creating a defined space with her carefully chosen words - "Door", "Gate" - which keep the external world out. Whereas God has created ‘Heaven’ for His personal space, the poet’s haven is not grand, but simple - "low Gate", "her Mat". The poet is the ‘common man’ who becomes superior through linguistic word play. The suggestion of superiority as stated above infer that the soul has given herself ‘heavenly’ qualities. Each word has been carefully chosen by Dickinson to convey her message.

The search for the exact word is lauded in Dickinson’s poem "I dwell in Possibility". In this poem she speculates on the craft of poetry. The poet loves words and delights in the vast number of words that she has to choose from. She sees poetry as having infinite "Possibility", whereas prose is more limiting. There are more "Windows" in poetry, more opportunities to portray the imagination.

Through poetry, the poet is free to make nouns verbs, adjectives nouns, verbs adjectives. For example, "I dwell in Possibility" - should this be read as a noun, as a place? One word has many meanings and Emily concentrated on searching for the ‘exact’ word. Wells remarks on Emily’s word choices, "Each principal word in a major lyric constitutes for her the equivalent of a universe" (Wells 279).

Alternatively, another reading of this poem suggests that the windows symbolize the vast expanse of the universe, of the imagination, while the solid doors symbolize a limited space, thus the windows of the imagination are "More numerous" and "Superior" to "Doors Of Chambers as the Cedars". The poet "dwells" in the imagination, in deep thought and contemplation, a place she finds more comforting than the vast exterior world she calls "Prose". The imagination dwells in the soul’s self, "Impregnable of Eye" it is accessible only to the creator.

Further, the fairest visitors could also be the words themselves. Given Emily’s penchant for choosing the exact word, this is the reading that I would give the lines, "Of Visitors the fairest For Occupation". The fairest visitors could also refer to the people that are allowed access to the poet’s world, those allowed to read the poem, perhaps those who are able to understand the poem.

Lastly, the poet once again approaches the god-like by "spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise". She has created a poem, a work of art - she has taken from the imagination an elusive being and brought it to life in the external world. Wells says, "Each poem becomes a telegram from "infinity" (Wells 283). In an essence Dickinson has created "Paradise" - the Adam and Eve and Garden of Eden liberated through the words of the poet. She has given to the universe a piece of herself.

Works Cited

Lawall, Sarah. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Second Edition, Vol. E, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

American Literature Research and Analysis Web Site, University of South Florida in Fort Myers (online),, 11/25/02

Wells, Henry W.,Introduction to Emily Dickinson, Packard and Company, Hendricks House, Chicago, Illinois.1947.

K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2002, 2006

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