A Prison gets to be a friend —
Between its Ponderous face
And Ours — a Kinsmanship express —
And in its narrow Eyes —
We come to look with gratitude
For the appointed Beam
It deal us — stated as Our food —
And hungered for — the same —
We learn to know the Planks —
That answer to Our feet —
So miserable a sound — at first —
Nor even now — so sweet —
As plashing in the Pools —
When Memory was a Boy —
But a Demurer Circuit —
A Geometric Joy —
The Posture of the Key
That interrupt the Day
To Our Endeavor — Not so real
The Cheek of Liberty —
As this Phantasm steel —
Whose features — Day and Night —
Are present to us — as Our Own —
And as escapeless — quite —
The narrow Round — the stint —
The slow exchange of Hope —
For something passiver — Content
Too steep for looking up —
The Liberty we knew
Avoided — like a Dream —
Too wide for any night but Heaven —
If That — indeed — redeem —
F456 (1862) J652
At first glance the poem seems to share similarities to other of Dickinson's work where she is numbed to liberty or otherwise circumscribed or impeded. But Dickinson's use of the first person plural, the frequent "we" and "our", signal that in this poem she is talking about the human condition. The metaphorical prison bars are a "Phantasm" that that we choose – or learn – to observe. We avoid liberty, willingly exchanging it, or at least coming to acquiesce in the exchange, for the quieter, "passiver" state of "Content". Heaven might offer real freedom, but in the last line Dickinson expresses some doubt that heaven can in fact "redeem" us.
|Newgate prison cell, 1856|
Should we mourn the loss of childish freedom when unfettered life is "Too wide" to comprehend or negotiate? Freedom may have been as lovely to a child as the cheek of its mother, but even that image reminds us that children are held in loving bonds to their parents. Childish pleasures, Dickinson implies, give way to a "Geometric Joy" where immersion in confinement produces the sort of mindfulness espoused by sages and ascetics.
If all we can now see of the sun, so long taken for granted, is its light filtering through prison windows at predictable times, we respond with "gratitude". The noisy planks converse with our feet, becoming over time a sweeter sound than that of our childhood "plashing". This is is a walking meditation Dickinson describes. Joy can be found in the geometry of a cell.
This is not indicative of agoraphobia as Maryanne M. Garbowsky ("The House Without the Door: A Study of Emily Dickinson and the Illness of Agoraphobia") has suggested, but rather an insight into transcendence. How do we transcend the prison of our earthly existence? Not, according to this poem, by travel or adventure or the pursuit of wealth or ambition; but rather by self knowledge. For I think that Dickinson's metaphor can be read not only that earthly life is a prison, but that we ourselves are both prisoner and prison.
We exchange the hope of youth, the dreams we had, for contentment, a much quieter and less exciting state of being. We avoid "The Liberty we knew" as something unmanageable and quite beyond our grasp. The transcendence of the "stint" comes when we find the sweetness, the "Demurer Circuit", and that "Geometric Joy.
Despite all that, I do not think that Dickinson is celebrating the "stint"; she paints a rather meager transcendence and an over-all cramped vision of life. And it is rather sad to read the poem written, in Franklin's chronology, just previous to this one, "It was given to me by the Gods" [F455], where she exults in her youthful discovery of poetic talent:
Rich! 'Twas Myself – was rich –To take the name of Gold –
And Gold to own – in solid Bars –
The Difference – made me bold –
It was in her small bedroom where Dickinson dreamed and wrote. She increasingly chose that room over all other places. Adreinne Rich, in her marvellous essay on Dickinson, "Vesuvius at Home", wrote:
Her niece Martha told of visiting her in her corner bedroom on the second floor at 280 Main Street, Amherst, and of how Emily Dickinson made as if to lock the door with an imaginary key, turned and said, “Matty: here’s freedom.”
So while the poem isn't really celebratory, it is a reflection of Dickinson's own transcendence of her "narrow Round" and "Phantasm steel".
The first two stanzas alternate iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter – a common ballad structure. But beginning with the third stanza Dickinson uses iambic trimeter in all but the third line. The effect is to emphasize the last words of the first two lines of each stanza: Planks / feet; Pools / Boy; Key / Day; steel / Night / stint / Hope / knew / Dream.
Each word is one syllable; most have a long, lingering vowels. One exception, "stint", cuts through the slow sounds around it (narrow Round, slow exchange of Hope), adding extra emphasis on the word that in its double meaning of limitation and task is at the heart of the poem.