They shut me up in Prose —

by Elouise


In this somewhat grimly humorous poem, Emily compares her childhood as a ‘little Girl’ with the way ‘They’ treat her as an adult. My comments follow.

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still’ –

Still! Could themselves 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 –

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

What a great word — ‘still.’ They like Emily ‘still.’ We don’t hate you. We ‘still’ like you! In fact, we like you best when you are ‘still’ (silent, quiet or at least more ladylike or upbeat?).

So here’s Emily, now an adult woman, still being locked up. Confined to the Closet for Noisy Girls and Women who can’t control their tongues or their writing. Or so They think.

Emily, however, exults in her freedom. If only They knew what they were missing! Instead of shutting her up by shutting her down, she’s now free to celebrate and record the noise of her unsubdued, unrepentant Brain.

Of course it’s costly and potentially dangerous. Emily’s Brain might be committing Treason. Do They have any idea what she’s thinking and writing?

Imagine a little Bird found guilty of Treason and ‘locked up’ in the Pound. The kind of Pound without a roof, open to the sky above. All the little bird has to do is spread his wings and take flight toward the Stars. Nothing to it.

Yet this little Bird, it seems, has the last Laugh. The final phrase of Emily’s poem sounds like a lament. Why? Perhaps she can no longer laugh at her so-called confinement to the Pound. Or she’s unable to rise above and beyond it in spite of freedom to write as she chooses. Is this because she’s a woman? Unruly? Older? Wiser? Weary?

The ending strikes me as true, yet prematurely sad. Sad because it took her death and the distance of years to make visible the genius of her poetry. Generations later, despite their enigmatic nature, her poems offer a way to puzzle through our own journeys and inner lives, past and present.

Emily wasn’t alone in her feelings. Perhaps you know or have heard Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Pegasus in Pound, written about 30 years later (1893). Longfellow’s depiction of Pegasus, who gets locked up in a Pound, is in keeping with Emily’s cryptic words above.

The point isn’t what happens to Emily the poet (or to Pegasus or Longfellow), but what happens over time with her writing. Emily’s poetry lives on, in spite of attempts to tame it or lock it up in the Pound. In the end, truth and beauty win out as her poetry helps us see ourselves and natural beauty with new eyes.

I empathize with Emily’s short, unexplained lament at the end. I also celebrate her courage. She gave wings to the agony and ecstasy of life, without blinking and without watering down truth, beauty or her own integrity.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 26 November 2016
Bird flying free found at