(I submitted this to my Modern Poetry class on Coursera)
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 –
This topic of this poem is the soul's relationship to itself. There are two descriptions of this relationship which wrap around each other throughout the poem - master and enemy.
Let's consider the phrases of the poem individually.
"The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend –"
The first concept introduced is the "Soul". The soul is the entire essence of a person - his identity, his thoughts, his emotions, his desires, and his will. The soul is a complex thing with multiple dimensions. Plato thought that it had three parts - roughly the animal appetites, the rational being, and the will which arbitrates between them.
"Soul" is similar to the words "self", "being" or "consciousness". But "soul" is a richer and more complicated description of a living thing than any of those alternatives.
Soul language is used in many passages of the Bible which Dickinson would have been familiar with. In the creation story, god blows life into the lungs of the first man and "he became a living soul". The word "soul" is also used to refer to animal life in the Bible, and god himself is described as having a soul.
The first line introduces the topic of the poem - "The Soul unto itself". The second line contains a first attempt at describing this relationship - "an imperial friend". So the soul is in command of itself, an emperor. But the relationship the soul has with itself is warmer and closer than between an emperor and subject - it is also a "friend".
Describing the soul as its own emperor makes for a complicated relationship. An emperor and subject are two different people. So too when the soul perceives itself there is a strong sense of a distinction between the perceiver entity and the perceived entity. The soul is a singular thing that paradoxically fills multiple roles in relation to itself.
When an emperor commands his subject, compliance is not automatic. The subject can disobey. An emperor's nominal authority is not sufficient by itself to run an empire. He needs to build armies and bureaucracies to enforce his decrees. Managing our souls is a similarly complicated affair. We all act against our better judgment and desire. A large amount of life activity is devoted to soul-management: planners, todo lists, support groups, church, self-help books, classrooms, and more. Dickinson's metaphor hints at the difficulty of self-control.
The next lines introduce an alternative description of the soul's self-relationship as a counterpoint:
"Or the most agonizing Spy –
An Enemy – could send – "
Why is the soul the most agonizing spy possible? Because it knows itself better than anyone else. The pain of betrayal is strongest when it comes from someone close to us. There is nobody closer to a soul than itself.
For whom does the soul spy? Who is the "Enemy"? Again, itself. If we temporarily change the first dash to a comma, we get the phrase "Or the most agonizing Spy, An Enemy". The dashes can be translated multiple ways to get sentences with multiple meanings, and the ambiguity is purposeful.
In these lines the poet introduces the warring kingdoms contained within a soul. There are many sovereigns within a soul - the sovereign who is on a diet and the sovereign who likes chocolate cake. They are all constantly spying on each other, looking for advantage - and they all know, love, and hate each other intimately. They are agonized at the idea of letting another kingdom have control.
Now moving on to the second stanza:
"Secure against its own –
No treason it can fear –"
This phrase illustrates the soul's vulnerability and its strength. A soul is strong because it cannot be hurt by anything from the outside world. The invincible soul is illustrated by the example of sages who calmly face their own execution. Again, this recalls biblical language: "fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul".
However, the soul is very vulnerable because it can never be safe against itself. It can always betray its own intentions and values. It is always divided against itself. It can never hide from its own spying eyes.
These lines also show the obscurity of the soul. It is the only thing that can know itself. Barriers prevent it from being known by outside eyes. That is why it would fear no treason if it were secure against its own.
Finally the last two lines:
"Itself – its Sovereign – of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe – "
Building on previous images, "Itself - its Sovereign - of itself" is the line that most clearly states the paradoxical oneness and multipleness of the soul. Standing in awe is an action that we usually take when perceiving something grandiose and external, such as a mountain range. Standing in awe of itself, the identity of the soul splits and multiplies.
The author concludes by describing the feelings that characterize the souls relationship with itself. She suggests awe as the proper emotion to show to a sovereign. However, we have previously gone through the emotionally-loaded words "friend", "agonizing", "Enemy", and "fear". So the complete emotional palette that a soul feels towards itself contains the warmth of friendship, agony, hatred, fear, and awe.