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06 May 2013

They shut me up in Prose —

They shut me up in Prose —
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet —
Because they liked me "still" —

Still! Could themself have peeped —

And seen my Brain — go round —
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason — in the Pound —

Himself has but to will

And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity —
And laugh — No more have I —
                                                                         F445 (1862)  J613

There is quite a bit of power in this poem as Dickinson likens being shut up in “Prose” to being stuck in a closet for not being quiet enough as a girl. It’s a critique on art, gender, and freedom in general.
       Two narratives emerge: the present and ongoing conflict where “They” inflict Prose on the poet, and the past where “They” restricted her freedom in her childhood. One narrative illuminates and informs the other as in both cases the poet’s irrepressible drive to express herself is under attack. In both cases the poet survives to scoff at the would-be prose/quiet enforcers.

The first line is ironic: clearly no one ever really shut Emily Dickinson up in prose. But what she may be saying is that she feels as if she were in a prose (dull, commonplace, uninspired) prison. Her letters reveal a shallow mother, a ponderously lawyerly father, and interminable sermons at Amherst’s First Church of Christ, (to say nothing of school lectures). Dickinson’s quick and startling wit, her fierce and original passions, and her nonconformity (even, perhaps, her self-mythologizing) would indeed have been under societal and family pressure. Except for her beloved sister-in-law Sue, with whom she had a very troubled relationship, and maybe the mysterious “Master,” Dickinson would have been pressured or cajoled on all sides, even by her chosen poetry Preceptor, Thomas Higginson, to rein herself in.

        Part of this reining in involved gender expectations. A little girl should be quiet. A young lady should be proper and aiming to marry. A grown woman should be self sacrificing. Another reining-in involves art. Dickinson’s poetry was ahead of its time, difficult to understand, often shocking in implication. Other poets of her day (excepting Whitman) were extolling flowers, spring, and death in much more conventional terms and in much more conventional poetic and metrical form.
Pounds: sad for puppies,
laughablefor birds
        But perhaps more fundamentally, the poem has to do with freedom. Dickinson identifies here with the bird, a familiar image for her, representing spirit, hope, and freedom. She, like the wayward bird, has been confined in the pound, an enclosure to confine stray creatures. But then the poet scoffs at the idea. What, you think that shutting me up can keep me still? My body, yes, certainly you can restrain that. But you can no more quiet my brain than you can impound a bird for treason. All it has to do is fly away, over the fences or through the bars, laughing at its erstwhile jailors. It would be as “easy as a Star” for it to escape – it only has to “will” it.
     Interestingly, her bird is impounded for “Treason” – a laughable thought, but I doubt that the poet tossed that charge in randomly. She, too, must have been made to feel that, like a traitor, she was in some way betraying her community and culture.

When I read this poem I envision a swan in a family of ducks. Perhaps I fixated too early on “The Ugly Duckling”.  But unlike that fable, in this poem Dickinson makes it quite clear that she knows she is the swan. She is not repentant, not subdued. As she famously said to her niece as she closed her bedroom door behind them and pantomimed turning a key, “It’s just a turn – and freedom, Matty!” Irony again. Confining herself to her room, to her father’s grounds, was to Dickinson her greatest freedom.

Modern readers might also think of Maya Angelou's powerful poem, although it comes from a place of greater oppression:
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and is tune is heard
on the distant hillfor the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.


  1. What do you make of the last line: "No more have I"?

    1. I feel pretty strongly that it means "'no more have I" to do than to will it, and I, too, can escape my impoundment." I don't think the tone or sense of the poem support the idea that she can no longer escape.
      What about you?

  2. I think you are right.

    By the way, "Still! Could themself have peeped -- / And seen my brain -- go round" reminds me of Keats: "gleaned my teeming brain". It is interesting to read to different poets describe the same experience.

    This is a wonderful poem. Thanks for your analysis.

  3. Another possible interpretation for the last line is "The bird has only to will its escape - and laugh. I have done no more than that myself - willed to escape and laughed." I suspect pounds in those days were simply fenced enclosures, good for keeping most animals enclosed - but not birds.