Two worlds

Departed to the judgment,
A mighty afternoon;
Great clouds like ushers leaning,
Creation looking on.

The flesh surrendered, cancelled,
The bodiless begun;
Two worlds, like audiences, disperse
And leave the soul alone.

~Emily Dickinson

At numerous times over the course of this year-long Emily Dickinson project, I have suspected that I am gradually becoming stupider. Some of Dickinson’s poems hit me like a flash of insight, clear and bracing. Others completely befuddle me, to the point that I wonder if I have forgotten how to word.

The first stanza of this poem is very straightforward. Of course it’s about death! The second stanza? Tricksier. Okay, death means the surrendering of the flesh, the beginning of a bodiless state. But what are the “Two worlds” that “disperse” “like audiences”? Has she named two worlds?

Maybe the two worlds are a reference to the “clouds,” representing heaven, and “Creation,” representing this life, in the first stanza. If this is the case, then what is Dickinson saying about death? That the soul after death has nothing to do with either this world or the next? It’s almost like this woman was not raised by a preacher. Or like she’s the stereotypical P.K., pushing allll the boundaries and challenging alll the beliefs.

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.

The soul selects her own society

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

~Emily Dickinson

I love how the abruptly shifting line lengths mirror the speaker’s certainty in her own right to do as she pleases. She does not need to humor anyone–her relationships are her own to forge and tend.

I also love Dickinson’s complete disregard for rank and title, for all the trappings of this world. Her voice in this poem recalls Robert Burns’s in his poem “For a’ that”:

Is there, for honest poverty,
That hings his head, an’ a’ that?
The coward slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that;
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp;
The man’s the gowd for a’ that,

What tho’ on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin-gray, an’ a’ that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man’s a man for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their tinsel show an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His riband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Guid faith he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth,
May bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet, for a’ that,
That man to man, the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

~Robert Burns

Rouge gagne

’T is so much joy! ’T is so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I
Have ventured all upon a throw;
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so
This side the victory!

Life is but life, and death but death!
Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath!
And if, indeed, I fail,
At least to know the worst is sweet. Defeat means nothing but defeat,
No drearier can prevail!

And if I gain,—oh, gun at sea,
Oh, bells that in the steeples be,
At first repeat it slow!
For heaven is a different thing
Conjectured, and waked sudden in,
And might o’erwhelm me so!

~Emily Dickinson

“Rouge et noir” seems aptly titled, but this one is weird. “Red wins”–really? That’s not exactly what I’m getting from this poem. The speaker is imagining red winning, but that win, when envisioned, seems to end as a loss. If she won, heaven “might o’erwhelm me so!” And the whole poem is still conjecture. She hasn’t won yet. She doesn’t know if she will. She’s still waiting for the result, waiting to find out what her fate will be. The word “if” appears in each stanza.

The whole poem sustains, through its dashes and exclamation points and incomplete thoughts, a mood of frenetic anticipation. What will happen? Will I win? And will that win really be a victory?

Rouge et noir

Soul, wilt thou toss again?
By just such a hazard
Hundreds have lost, indeed,
But tens have won an all.

Angels’ breathless ballot
Lingers to record thee;
Imps in eager caucus
Raffle for my soul.

~Emily Dickinson

The poem’s title, of course, is not Dickinson’s, but it’s evocative. This poem itself strikes me as very different from her usual style and theme. Though Dickinson often delves into darkness, the image of demonic little imps eagerly vying for her soul is a different shade of darkness.

Is she writing about herself? or is she being more philosophical, more general? I wonder what inspired this poem. It’s interesting that in the very first line, the speaker acknowledges that she’s already gambled her soul, at least once–“Soul, wilt thou toss again?” How did the first toss go? If you lose your soul once, can you gamble it again? If you win it once, is it possible to lose it after that?

It’s a strange poem, and raises so many more questions than it answers.