Of all the Souls
that stand create –
I have Elected – One –
When Sense from Spirit –
files away –
And Subterfuge – is done –
When that which is –
and that which was –
Apart – intrinsic – stand –
And this brief Tragedy
of Flesh –
Is shifted – like a Sand –
When Figures show their
royal Front –
And Mists – are carved away,
Behold the Atom – I pre – (preferred) ferred –
To all the lists of
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript # 304, asc:11377 – p. 1. First published in Poems (1891), 89, as three quatrains, with the alternative adopted.
We begin with this poem because it so clearly uses the language of Protestant “election,” the doctrine that teaches that at the beginning of the world God selected certain souls to be saved and join him in Heaven for all eternity. Dickison adopts this belief to the speaker’s choice of a beloved. In this adoption, the speaker somewhat arrogantly takes the place of God, when in the penultimate line she says, “Behold the Atom – I preferred.” It is hard not to hear “Adam,” as if God had just created man from the dust (“Clay”) and presented him to the Heavenly Host for their admiration. This line also evokes the phrase “Ecce homo,” Latin for “behold the man,” the words Pontius Pilate spoke as he presented a defeated Jesus, bound and crowned in thorns, to a hostile crowd just before his crucifixion (see John 19:5).
Man, not God, is Pilate’s sneering implication, but Dickinson sets her poem at the moment when the body transforms into the soul, when the mists of flesh recede and “Figures” are revealed as “royal.” Despite the joy in this poem, exercising choice seems, for Dickinson, to be bound up with a suffering so extreme, she can only express it in terms of the crucifixion.
Formal aspects of this poem contribute to the complexity of choosing. The rhythm of the common meter, alternating four and three feet lines rhyming abcb, is largely iambic (that is, feet of unstressed and Stressed syllables) except for line 2. There, we can impose the sing-song rhythm with a stress on “have,” but the words force us to read this as a trochee (Stressed/unstressed), stressing “I,” the doer of the action, the agent, thus emphasizing the importance of this act.
Other notable elements are Dickinson’s arresting diction in the phrase “stand create,” the use of the verb phrase “files away” for the separation of body and soul (with its shadow of “flies away”), the singular “a Sand” for what is myriad (compare to “a Hay” in “The Grass so little has to do,”(F379), which anticipates the image of “the Atom” as a way of describing the chosen one, a word stripped of gender, identity and multiplicity–the person reduced to his/her/their/ most elemental. Also, the variant “Drama in the flesh” for “Tragedy of Flesh,” which Dickinson writes directly above the phrase not at the end of the poem, as usual, evokes Dickinson’s beloved Shakespeare.
There are some fascinating readings of this poem. Richard Wilbur argues that
the beloved’s lineaments, which were never very distinct, vanish entirely; he becomes pure emblem, a symbol of remote spiritual joy, and so is all but absorbed into the idea of Heaven.
Helen Vendler reads it as an apocalyptic poem about the Last Judgment, and Mary Loeffelholz understands it as one of many love poems Dickinson wrote using as its model
Christianity’s sacred narrative of incarnation, passion, and redemption.
Loeffelholz, Mary. The Value of Emily Dickinson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016, 37-71.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 98-100.
Wilbur, Richard. “Sumptuous Destitution.” The Networked Wilderness: The Connected World of Emily Dickinson. Amherst College Press, 2017, 113-122.