The soul

The soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend,—
Or the most agonizing spy
An enemy could send.

Secure against its own,
No treason it can fear;
Itself its sovereign, of itself
The soul should stand in awe.

~Emily Dickinson

Oh, Emily. So few words, yet so much to unpack. The soul is “imperial,” sovereign–each of us ultimately has final authority over our own selves. Yet the soul is both “an imperial friend” and “the most agonizing spy.” We are our own worst enemies. This rings true on both the individual and societal levels. The first stanza feels pretty straightforward.

It’s in the second that things get interesting. She’s just said that the sovereign soul is also its own worst enemy, but now she describes it as “Secure against its own,” and says that it cannot fear any treason. Wha??

Maybe the first two lines of the second stanza aren’t meant to describe how the soul actually is, but how it perceives itself. It feels “secure against its own,” and it is incapable of fearing treason–but this doesn’t mean that treason is impossible. After all, it’s when we’re most comfortable that we let our guard down. And if the ultimate enemy is yourself, then your enemy is always closer than you think.

I like the typically Dickinsonian religious rebellion implied here, too. The soul is its own sovereign–not any external power. Each person’s soul is responsible for itself. There’s a sort of blasphemy mixed with New England Puritan emphasis on responsibility here, and somehow it works.

I wonder how often any of us “stand in awe” of our own souls and the power they wield. If we made a regular practice of this, I imagine the world might be a very different place.

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