I’m drawn into Emily Dickinson’s “You Cannot take itself – ” by the assumption in the first two lines that a conversation has been taking place all along.  Perhaps about problems that come and go, but that cannot do lasting destruction on one’s essential self.  As though the speaker is simply continuing the dialogue between “us.”

By the very act of making me feel a part of a conversation, I see the first hint of the motivation behind this short verse.

You cannot take itself
From any Human soul –
That indestructible estate
Enable him to dwell –
Impregnable as Light
That every man behold
But take away as difficult
As undiscovered Gold –

The poem “assumes” I, the reader, know what I can do. while speaking to what I cannot.  Foreknowledge of the meaning of the imprecise “itself” anticipates the indefinite but universal quality of “Light”.

I put this poem in that category some call “teaching poems.”  It has a comforting tone. Not the soothing language we might speak with a child. But an adult conversation that precedes and extends beyond the perimeters of the poem.  While often the phrase, “This, too, will pass,” is said somewhat dismissively, the poem is respectful and solemn about that great question, “who am I?”, which is implied throughout the poem.

As one who has struggled most of my life with contradictory desires and inconsistent abilities, I am sensitive to this poem’s focus on an identity crisis.  But, of course, life offers up its own threats with external forces against our sense of self. Like many others I am not a stranger to these, in the form of death, loss and disaster.

First, (the poem counsels), as divergent as desire and motivation may be, this is not the same as removing the soul from within the self.  The first two lines assert that self and its soul are inseparable. Even though trauma, tragedy and turmoil may make me feel carved up, bisected and quartered.  The soul and the self are “That indestructible estate”.

Beginning with the fourth line, “Enable him to dwell – ” the poem moves me out of the realm of confusion and fear about the integrity of my inner being. From there the fundamental question of whether my “ear” can be destroyed when the need arises to listen to my inner self, finds reassurance in the comparison of the soul to light. Light, a universally cherished element of illumination. Either physical brightness or emotional luminescence.

Fear not, the poem seems to say, your soul cannot be destroyed by conflicting desires, nor by upheaval or anguish, any more than light itself can be erased. For, the soul is the essence of being; what “Enable him to dwell – ”.

The soul, too, is as “Impregnable as Light”. Someone might as well try to steal a precious metal that has not even been found; “But take away as difficult / As undiscovered Gold – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

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