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03 December 2011

I never hear the word 'Escape'

I never hear the word 'Escape'
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation –
A flying attitude!

I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my bars,
Only to fail again!

                                                                                  - F144 (1860)  77

There are two escapes described here. The first is the “flight” part of the fight-or-flight response. A bird will quickly fly away when it senses a cat or other threat near by.  The word “Escape” triggers this response in the poet: if she just hears the word she imagines herself taking flight.
            The second stanza is the more somber type of escape that is associated with imprisonment. Yes, soldiers have been able to batter down their prison walls, `a la the Bastille, but most prisoners must simply wait, day after day, year after year, for their release. And so the poet feels imprisoned. Despite the hopelessness of the attempt she still tries, in childish hope, to shake or pull the bars loose.  This time the trigger for these feelings of trapped helplessness come over the poet when she hears of prisons – it reminds her of her own.
Agustín Víctor Casasola:
Mirada y memoria
            One can read this as a soul being trapped in a body and wanting to fly free. Birds are typically symbols of the spirit and of freedom. But it may also remind us that life for a uniquely creative woman in her day and place would be very challenging. Especially when Father, Mother and brother exert pressure on the woman to stay home and tend the sick, the kitchen, and the garden. Although Dickinson voluntarily withdrew from larger society, eventually staying within her own property line, her real confinement was in, dare I say it?, not being a man and free to tramp about the world as her male friends did. The creative women she knew were either quite conventional or looked at askance in polite society (her friend and sister-in-law Sue). Better, perhaps, to stay at home and let the mind run free than to battle as George Eliot and other Victorian creative women did for freedom and respect. The fact that Mary Anne Evans took a male pseudonym speaks volumes about that.


  1. Such a thoughtful explanation. Thank you!

  2. What does attitude mean in this story?

    1. Well, 'attitude' means the feelings, thoughts, and ideas you have about something. You might have a cocky attitude one day and a humble attitude the next. In this poem the speaker mentions a 'flying' attitude -- so that's what you want to think about.

  3. thankyou for the explanation

  4. wow you are so underrated and amazing <3

  5. I’m just digging into Emily Dickinson, and these analyses really help me to understand and enjoy her work. Thanks!

  6. I think that in the first stanza she says that whenever she hears the word “escape” (whatever it means to her, I don’t believe that societal pressure was her main problem) it stirs hope. The second stanza states that she’s never heard of prisons battered down by soldiers. Even strong soldiers cannot achieve this. Yet she cannot help tugging at her bars and repeated failure is inevitable. It seems to me that she suggests it would be less painful if she could give up all hope and stop trying.