February 19-25: Poems on Choosing

On Choosing the Poems

As we said in the introduction to this week’s post, we curated our gathering of poems around “The Soul selects her own Society,” a touchstone poem about selection and choosing in Dickinson’s canon. We also mentioned that Dickinson’s first editors, Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, included this poem in the first published edition of Dickinson’s poetry in 1890 under the title “Exclusion.” Helen Vendler concludes her insightful reading of the poem with this fact and asks pointedly:

Was “Selection” too peremptory a word for a female to use at the time?

We think perhaps it was, and yet, “select” is the word Dickinson uses for what Vendler calls the soul’s “absolute choice.”

What accounts for Dickinson’s preoccupation with choice and selection at this time? Is it a celebration of “the will to choose” or the fear of exposure? Or some combination? We know Dickinson suffered a great loss in 1861, which might have been a rejection of love, and she began withdrawing into the Homestead and into her corner room. One of her recent biographers, Alfred Habegger, associates the stringent selection presented in “The Soul selects her own Society” with Dickinson’s rejection of Samuel Bowles, whom Habegger said,

no longer had the key to Dickinson’s attention.

As Habegger reconstructs the story, Dickinson sent Bowles “Title divine – is mine!,” which she regarded as a confession of sorts, and insisted on complete confidentiality. But when Bowles visited Amherst in November 1862, Dickinson refused to see him and Bowles dashed off a note to Austin Dickinson, with whom he was very close, calling Dickinson “the Queen Recluse” and referring to her “Maidens vows.” This got back to Dickinson, who felt Bowles had violated her trust, and would be from then on exiled from her intimacy. Habegger observes:

Because of the misdating of key documents, it hasn’t been understood that between late 1862 and 1874 she sent him no personal letters and few poems. … the relationship had been irreparably damaged.


Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books.  New York: Random House, 2001, 446-51

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 190.