On 613

("They Shut Me Up In Prose–") Essay, Research Paper

Paula Bennett

As her persistent use of the first person singular suggests, like

her fellow women writers, Dickinson also seems to have viewed her poetry–at least her

psychological poetry–as her ‘heart’s record,’ the ‘inner truth’ of a domestic life. This

is the genre within which she is writing and, as Walker has so ably demonstrated, she

employs many of the same themes and images her fellow women poets use. But Dickinson took

up these themes with a difference. As Adrienne Rich asserts, for Dickinson the closed door

(the totally private life) was freedom, and this vitally distinguishes her from

other women poets of her day. Unhampered both by the pressures of publishing and, it

seems, by internalized constraints, Dickinson wrote as she pleased. The difference was one

between writers who–consciously or not–sacrificed their freedom to propriety and,

possibly, their desire to publish, and a poet who, by embracing total domestic privacy and

not publishing, ironically made herself free.

Dickinson’s handling of the ‘free-bird’ poem in contrast to a more conventional

treatment of this favorite woman’s theme will illustrate what I mean. Here is

Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, in lines quoted by Walker, on the ‘free-bird’:

A simple thing, yet chancing as it did

When life was bright with its illusive dreams,

A pledge and promise seemed beneath it hid;

The ocean lay before me, tinged with beams

That lingering draped the west, a wavering stir,

And at my feet down fell a worn, gray quill;

An eagle, high above the darkling fir,

. . . . .

O noble bird! why didst thou loose for me

Thy eagle plume? still unessayed, unknown

Must be that pathway fearless winged by thee;

I ask it not, no lofty flight be mine,

I would not soar like thee, in loneliness to


And here is Dickinson on the same idea:

They shut me up in Prose—

[. . . .]

What is striking in Oakes-Smith’s poem is the degree to which the speaker depicts

herself as complicit in her own defeat. Forced to choose between opposites she believes

are irreconcilable–freedom and acceptance, daring and love–the speaker voluntarily gives

up power and restrains her flight. Not for her, she claims, the ‘lofty’ path the eagle

‘fearless’ takes. Fear of loneliness keeps her pinned to the ground. If her woman’s

condition is a prison to this poet, the desire for free flight is an ‘illusion’ from which

she turns in the end. The ‘pledge’ and ‘promise’ come to nothing. The identification

between speaker and bird is broken. She will never fly (live? write?) in this way.

In Dickinson’s poem the reverse occurs. The identification between speaker and bird is

maintained and the prison proves to be the illusion. The attempt to shut her up in ‘Prose’

(the ‘prose’ life of duty-bound womanhood which gives rise to what Walker calls an

‘aesthetic of silence’ ), is no more effective and no more ‘wise’ than trying to hold a

bird in the pound. The brain remains free. It is physically and intellectually unimpeded

and, therefore, the speaker cannot be ’stilled.’ Her power to articulate remains her own.

She does not abandon it nor does she submit it to prevailing cultural beliefs. To

Dickinson, if we are to credit this poem, the choice (between silence and speech,

imprisonment and freedom) was a matter of ‘will.’

Whether other women poets could in fact have ‘willed’ differently than they did is, at

the very least, moot. There were social and personal factors that made their choices

difficult, if not impossible. Theirs was an anguishing situation. But it was not

Dickinson’s situation. By giving up so much that these other women writers had–whether or

not they wanted it–marriage, children, acceptance, a public career, Dickinson obtained

the one thing they lacked, freedom. Nowhere, I would suggest, is this freedom more evident

than in the psychological authenticity (the ‘heart’s record’) of her work.

From Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Copyright ? 1990 by Paula Bennett.

Stephen Cushman

The first line of this poem endows "Prose" with figurative possibilities; it

could function as a metaphor for some dreary domestic or familial situation, a

"Captivity" imposed on the speaker. But the comparison with a bird, one of

Dickinson’s familiar images for the poet, suggests that the speaker is also using

"Prose" to mean a mode of writing. "They" have attempted,

unsuccessfully, to confine her attention to prose. The final stanza could mean that the

speaker can escape from prose into verse as easily as a bird can fly from the pound. As

soon as her captors turn their backs, she can read or write poetry. But the lines

"Still! Could themself have peeped– / And seen my Brain–go round—" show

that the speaker’s liberation is an interior one, a liberation managed within the limits

of her captivity. In other words, as shutting a child in a closet will not necessarily

"still" that child, so confinement to prose will not necessarily shut out the

structures of verse.

Pointing to Dickinson’s mannerism of turning her prose "abruptly into metered

expression" in her early letters to Higginson, Porter comments that she seems to be

trying to demonstrate to him that the rhythms of verse "so pervade her consciousness

that she cannot make the distinction between them and unmetered prose." Discussing

the three "Master" letters, Gelpi remarks that their "diction and imagery

are so much an extension of the poetry that these letters are best read (as are many of

Dickinson’s letters) as prose poems or free verse." Often, however, not only the

diction and imagery of her letters but also their formal structures overlap with those of

her verse. Some letters are far too metrical to be considered prose poems or free verse.

For Dickinson, writing cannot be broken down into two separate modes, the unmetered

language of prose and the metered language of verse. Instead, the metricality of her prose

insists on the continuity and likeness of the two modes.

From Fictions of Form in American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Copyright ? 1993 by Princeton UP.

Mary C. Galvin

In this poem, Dickinson is clearly drawing an analogy between the socialization process

of women and the strictures of "proper" language use, and is defiant toward

both. Obviously, by being a poet, Dickinson has resisted her confinement to

"prose," a form considered more suitable to the limitations of the female mind

than the rigorous demands of poetry. Thus, in overstepping the bounds of genre, Dickinson

is simultaneously overstepping the boundaries of gender. Although the stanza is brief,

Dickinson manages to convey the brutality implicit in the socialization of women to ensure

their poetic silence. For not keeping one’s mouth shut, for refusing to be seen but not

heard, which in itself is a punishing, oppressive attitude, the little girl is subjected

to forced confinement. Physical violence is a requisite corollary to the violence of

indoctrination into the prosaic world of "sense."

Yet she laughs, or sneers, in the second stanza, with the confidence of one who knows

otherwise, one who sees the futility of this attempt at confinement. Her brain is in

motion and cannot be stilled any more than a bird can be held in by fences. The charge of

"Treason" indicates her awareness of the political implications of her

resistance to this confinement. At the same time, she is asserting the absurdity of such a

charge to one who is beyond political or social allegiances. Like a bird, Dickinson is

"disloyal to civilization."

The oppression is only effective in keeping her brain still if she believes it, and

accepts her captor’s thinking. By willing against it from within her mind, she can fly

away, and in a doubly treasonous act, she can defy even the charges of treason by which

she is initially confined. At the end, her laugh of defiance is coupled with the assertion

of her ability to escape as the bird does, through mental determination or will. The dash

with which she "ends" the poem is a poetic enactment of her resistance to

confinement, by resisting closure. Many of Dickinson’s poems "end" with a dash,

leaving the conclusion open-ended, ongoing, and capable of sustaining multiple

interpretations. In this poem, the dash indicates the continuation of the process of

resistance, the fact that the struggle against socialization is ongoing, its outcome


At the same time, the dash heightens the ambiguity of meaning in the final phrase,

"No more have I—." Does she mean she has no more difficulty than a bird or

a star does in evading captivity, that she can do so with ease? Or does she mean that she

has no more will, that the punitive system of socialization has robbed her of will

altogether? As a child she had the strength to resist, but now she has it "No

more"? Given that she wrote this poem in her adulthood, I would lean toward the

former interpretation, but I also see it as implying the limited nature of her resources

for resistance. She has little physical strength or money, and no political power to aid

in her resistance; she must carry on the struggle with no other resources than her will.

from Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers. Westport,

Conn.: Praeger, 1999. Copyright ? 1999 by Mary C. Galvin


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