A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘On a Columnar Self’

‘On a Columnar Self’ by Emily Dickinson does something which Emily Dickinson frequently does so well: it takes an abstract idea (the concept of the self) and renders it concrete and vivid, through a well-chosen metaphor.

On a Columnar Self—
How ample to rely
In Tumult—or Extremity—
How good the Certainty

That Lever cannot pry—
And Wedge cannot divide
Conviction—That Granitic Base—
Though None be on our Side—

Suffice Us—for a Crowd—
Ourself—and Rectitude—
And that Assembly—not far off
From furthest Spirit—God—

If your sense of self is as sturdy and solid as a stone column, it will support you, much as a column supports and holds up a building. Even in uncertain or trying times, you can rely and depend on it. Even if you stand alone and feel as though nobody else is on your side, the ‘Granitic Base’, that solid-as-stone basis for how you live your life, will carry you through. Doing the right thing (‘Rectitude’) gives ‘Ourself’ all the reward we need, and knowing you are doing the right thing makes you feel as though a whole ‘Crowd’ of people were behind you, supporting you. And this imaginary crowd in turn are not far from God, the ultimate source of support. So, when you do the right thing, it is as though you can feel the whole world, and God, supporting you.

That’s a loose summary or paraphrase of ‘On a Columnar Self’, but of course the way that Emily Dickinson phrases this sentiment is central to the poem’s effectiveness. Take that opening line – which, in an otherwise untitled Emily Dickinson poem, as is her wont, rushes to fill that vacancy and take on the import, as well as prominence, of a title. ‘On a Columnar Self’. After the prepositional positioning of ‘On a’, and the architectural suggestion of ‘Columnar’, one would be forgiven for misreading ‘Self’ as ‘Shelf’ – an act of misprision all the more piquant when the three succeeding lines all chime with each other (‘rely’, ‘Extremity’, ‘Certainty’) without making room for the expected correspondent of ‘Self’. In other words, this opening line exemplifies Emily Dickinson’s genius for taking the abstract – the idea of selfhood and self-possession – and rendering it concrete. Or, at least, marble.

Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems is well worth getting hold of in the beautiful (and rather thick) single volume edition by Faber. You might also enjoy our analysis of her classic poem ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ and her poem about madness, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’.