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Here is the poem "The Soul selects her own Society" by Emily Dickinson.

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone

The book SAT II Success: Literature which I use to prepare for the SAT exam (a multiple-choice test for high school students in the US) asks the following question about the poem:

Which of the following elements of style are not present in the poem?

(A) Metaphors
(B) Similes
(C) Grammatical irregularities
(D) Slant rhyme
(E) Figurative language

In my opinion, every choice is present: metaphors ("Valves"), similes ("[l]ike Stone"), grammatical irregularities (punctuation), slant rhyme ("pausing"/"kneeling"), and figurative language (this one includes metaphors and similes).

However, the book says otherwise. Here is an explanation for this question:

The correct answer is (B). Remember to pay special attention to the word except in this question. “Chariots” and “Emperor” are clearly metaphors for wealth and power, which makes choice (A) true. Dickinson is known for her sharp, concrete images, like “Door,” “Chariots,” “Gate,” “Mat,” and “Stone,” making choice (B) untrue because they are not similes. Choices (C), (D), and (E) are clearly evident, and therefore do not meet the criteria of exception. Choice (B) is the right answer.

The book says that "[l]ike Stone" only includes an image of stone, but isn't it a simile?
According to Wikipedia:

A simile (/ˈsɪməli/) is a figure of speech that directly compares two things. Similes are a form of metaphor that explicitly use connecting words (such as like, as, so, than, or various verbs such as resemble), though these specific words are not always necessary.

So why is "[l]ike Stone" not a simile in this poem?

6

Taking the elements of style in turn:

(A) Almost every concrete noun in the poem is used metaphorically, including door, chariots, gate, emperor, mat, nation, valve.

(B) You are right that “I’ve known her close the Valves of her attention — Like Stone” contains a simile. There's some ambiguity and ellipsis here: you can read it as “I’ve known her close the valves of her attention like stone [closes the valves of its attention]” or as “I’ve known her close the valves of her attention [so that it is] like stone” but in either case there is a simile.

(C) ‘Grammar’ is sometimes used so as to include spelling and punctuation (in addition to the usual elements of inflection and syntax), so in this sense the unconventional choice of punctuation (dashes instead of commas and stops) counts as a ‘grammatical irregularity’.

(D) The poem has two slant rhymes: gate / mat and one / stone.

The rhyme pausing / kneeling would not normally be described as a ‘slant rhyme’, I think, because the stressed syllables (paus- / kneel-) have no similarity in sound. Rhymes where only the unstressed syllables (here -sing / -ling) are similar, are known as ‘unstressed rhymes’:

There is also “unstressed rhyme,” where the rhyming syllables are both unstressed or weak: e.g., honey / motley, mysteries / litanies, wretchedness / featureless. But there is some question whether this constitutes rhyme at all.

Stephen Cushman, Clare Cavanagh, Jahan Ramazani, Paul Rouzer (eds.), The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition, p. 1187

(E) Metaphors and similes are types of figurative language, so this follows from (A) and (B).

All elements are present in the poem and so this question is unanswerable as written. This isn’t the only case where the book is in error: see here for another. I guess SAT II Success: Literature must have been put together with some haste or lack of care.

  • And "I've known her ... choose one" is a grammatical irregularity, so you don't even need to call punctuation grammar. – Peter Shor Sep 6 '18 at 23:58
  • I am surprised by the quote from the Princeton Encyclopedia. The convention in poetry (very much in accordance with iambic meters) is that if the last two syllables of a word are unstressed, but the third last is stressed, then the last syllable is treated like it was stressed. Keats (Ode to a Nightingale): eglantine and wine, Hippocrene and green, happiness and numberless. T. S. Eliot (Prufrock) argument and intent, universe and reverse, peacefully and me. Certainly, they're not as good rhymes, but except for cases like honey and motley or pausing and kneeling, they rhyme. – Peter Shor Sep 10 '18 at 19:11
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It's a simile.

A simile is a direct comparison and if we note that we have:

The soul ... unmoved ... like stone

We see we have a simile.

This reading is corroborated by reading the rest of the poem: a stone is unworldly and unaffected by the pomp and circumstance of the world. Likewise (Emily's) soul, presumably at the point of time when Emily wrote this poem. She was something of a recluse later on in life - firmly closing the door on the world outside.

It rather reminds me of Liebniz's Monadology where souls are described as windowless monads. Which makes me wonder whether she knew of Liebniz and was referring to this.

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The book is correct; the last line uses the image a stone but, strictly speaking, not a simile.

When Robert Burns writes, "O My Luve's like a red, red rose", he makes a comparison between two things: his love and a rose.

In Book IV of Paradise Lost, Milton wrote,

(...) As when a prowling wolf,
Whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for prey,
Watching where shepherds pen their flocks at eve
In hurdled cotes amid the field secure,
Leaps o’er the fence with ease into the fold:
(...)
So clomb the first grand thief into God’s fold;

These lines compare Satan and the way he moves to a wolf and a wolf's movements.

Compare this with Dickinson's last stanza. The soul "close[s] the Valves of her attention": this is a description of an action or a change. However, this action is not compared with anything a stone does. And when you look back from the last line to fine something that is being compared to the stone, you don't find anything; from a syntactic point of view, "I have know her (...) / Like Stone" doesn't seem to make sense either. The stone just sits there as an image, isolated, which somehow fits the theme of the (relative) isolation of the soul. I think that is what the authors of SAT Literature Success were after.

  • I've upvoted this answer even though I think this definition of "simile" is too pedantic, because it's a probable explanation for why the SAT authors said the poem doesn't contain similes, which is also an interesting question as well as whether or not they were right. – Rand al'Thor Sep 7 '18 at 2:16
  • @Randal'Thor Calling it pedantic does not prove it incorrect, though. – IkWeetHetOokNiet Sep 7 '18 at 9:09
  • Sure, pedantic usually means correct :-) But too pedantic is more like hypercorrect. – Rand al'Thor Sep 7 '18 at 10:34
  • The comparison in the simile is between the "closed valves" and "stone". It's not a direct comparison between two things explicitly mentioned in the poem, but if that means it's not a simile, they're using a rather narrow definition of simile. – Peter Shor Oct 25 '18 at 20:37

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