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Commentary on Emily Dickinson - "They Shut Me Up in Prose."

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Declaration of Independence, 1776.

They shut me up in Prose – (445)

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

Look down opon Captivity –

And laugh – No more have I –

“Emily Dickinson’s poems… have quietly attained the rank of an American classic.” George F. Whicher.[1]

The landscape of American literature owes itself to a wealth of poets who challenged the preconceptions of their society and encouraged free thinking in direct correlation with American ideals of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ At the forefront of this poetic movement is Emily Dickinson who’s array of posthumously published works in the late 19th century directly contested the attitudes and behaviours of Americans at the time and who’s radical and non-conformist use of poetic techniques created a revolutionary understanding of poetry and its influence on society. These ideals are greatly prevalent in her lesser-known poem, They Shut Me Up in Prose, believed to have been published around late 1862, and which critiques the attitudes towards women and their place within society. This essay will argue that Dickinson’s use of poetic devices such as metaphor and exclamatory imagery and her unconventional poetic style and construction in the selected poem, convey early feminist rhetoric, considered revolutionary for her time. This essay will further argue that it is this commentary of feminism, both in regard to a woman’s role within society and within the poetic landscape, that directly challenges American ideals of nationhood, namely ‘that all men are created equal’ and the understanding that all Americans are ‘endowed’ with the rights of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

Dickinson’s feminist rhetoric within her poetry directly critiques the American ideals of equality by challenging the traditional feminist role within a society who oppressed and underappreciated the lives of women. It is this unalienable right of life which Dickinson accentuates in They Shut Me Up in Prose, in regard to the repressive treatment of women, “especially indicative of Emily Dickinson’s femininity…drawn from domestic life,” as stipulated by poetry critique Ruth McNaughton.[2] This is reflected with the use of a metaphor in the first stanza, “They shut me up in Prose,” to attribute “Prose” to the social conventions that dictated the lives of women. Within this poem, “Prose” is used to refer to any form of non-poetic writing such as legal writings or literature that constrained women and reinforced their place under the thumb of men. By further using the word “Prose” in it’s literal meaning, Dickinson is commenting upon the power of poetry and how an individual can find freedom from the constraints of their everyday life, simply through imagination and written expression. Cavallo furthers this idea by stipulating that Dickinson herself felt repressed by a society in which she believed did not appreciate the impact and influence an educated woman could have, particularly upon the world of poetry.[3] As a result, Dickinson strayed from the gendered conventions of her time as she “decided by choice not to seek for (herself) a traditional female role,” instead working towards contributing new age ideas and thought of femininity on a poetic level.[4]

In a similar manner, this critique of the traditional roles of women is furthered through the use of exclamatory language in “Because they liked me “still” – Still!” which enables Dickinson to challenge a society where men were generally exalted and not to be overshadowed. In the poem, the speaker expresses that she feels restrained by society’s pre-conceived ideas of the role of women and that society would rather her remain silent and “still”. This line reveals Dickinson’s commentary on feminism and her ideals which abolish the belief that women were simply to be 'seen and not heard.' This is reflective of the societal standards of Dickinson’s day, whereby women were domestic aides and responsible for rearing children, not speaking out against the societal norms through poetry. The exclamation at the end of “Still!” is a mockery of the traditional role of the woman and reflects Dickinson’s “contempt for the straight-laced gentlewoman of her day,” as stipulated by McNaughton.[5] This is reflective of Dickinson’s attitudes towards the repression of her own freedom as a woman in a male-dominated society and in a community where female poets were shunned and outcast. Therefore, Dickinson is not only offering a critique of societal understanding towards the role of women, but to the ideals held within the national American identity at large as she openly opposes the idea that all Americans are created equal. Instead, she accentuates that the lives of women are dictated by a society that favours men and thus life as an unalienable right is regulated and controlled by the male dominated society of the time.

Coinciding with Dickinson’s criticism of the societal constraints over the life of a 19th century American woman is her assertion that through poetry and the power of one’s imagination, women can liberate themselves from these constraints. The idea that freedom from societal confinement can be found through poetry was particularly radical for a woman of her day, “given the reigning view that the woman poet was a neurotic nursing her injuries borne of sentimental disappointment,” according to Cavallo.[6] The very premise of women needing freedom from societies preconceptions greatly challenges the American ideal of ‘liberty’ as an unalienable right, and thus Dickinson critiques that women are not truly free. This idea is expressed in They Shut Me Up in Prose through the use of metaphorical language, by comparing the speaker to that of a bird, “They might as wise have lodged a Bird For Treason – in the Pound -”. This affords the speaker the ability to free herself from her societal imposed 'captivity' through her mind, much like a bird can simply fly away from its cage. The use of the word “treason” is important as it suggests that a woman who uses her brain and rebuffs societal standards and expectations of women has committed a crime and must be punished. By further associating the metaphor of the “Bird” with “treason” of escaping captivity, Dickinson is commenting that women can free themselves from the constraints that society places upon them and to be caged in this way, is to “laugh” at the captivator. This is evident through the use of mockery in “Could themselves have peeped – And seen my Brain – go round,” to imply that constraining the speaker is foolish, as it is her imagination that will free her from the captivity that society attempts to restrain her in. Thus, this reflects the importance of consciousness as “Dickinson celebrates the potential for a mediating consciousness to free rather than confine,” as expressed by philologist Thomas Finan.[7] Finan suggests that Dickinson herself employed this technique in her self-isolation and that by simply focusing on her poetry, she was able to escape the confinements of her everyday life, as well as her literal self-imposed confinement.[8] In this sense, Dickinson enabled herself to “Look down upon Captivity,” metaphorically and literally liberating herself.

Similarly, Dickinson’s figurative desire to escape confinement is reflected in her poetic construction and use of non-traditional poetic style in They Shut Me Up in Prose. Not only does the title of this poem reflect her mockery of society attempting to “shut her up” with conventional “prose” but her use of randomised capitalisation and line breaks strays from traditional poetic techniques that was common poetic practice of her day. Literary critique Harrison Dietzman comments that “a true literary genius writes against an epoch’s prevailing taste,” reflective of Dickinson’s non-conformist poetic style.[9] They Shut Me Up in Prose was written in a free verse style, with minimal use of rhyming patterns and traditional metre. It is this style which reflects Dickinson’s belief that poetry cannot be constrained by traditional boundaries and can offer numerous possibilities to the poet and the reader. This is apparent through the use of a line break to conclude the poem “No more have I –” which creates a feeling of anticipation and continuance, to suggest that poetry and the possibilities it possesses to the individual is endless. The numerous line breaks through the poem stray from traditional grammatical conventions and forces the slowing of the tempo which allows the lines to resonate more profoundly with the reader. In addition to this, the random capitalisation throughout the poem such as “Girl” and “Still” are used to stress important words and emphasise their meaning more clearly. An example is the capitalisation of “For Treason – in the Pound –”, to create an image of crime and imprisonment which further creates a metaphorical reflection of women shunning gendered roles within society. It is the “Treason” and “Pound” which Dickinson uses to critique the qualities of American nationhood and contradicts the liberty with which all citizens, men and women, are entitled to.

Ultimately, Dickinson’s contribution to American literature is profound and reflects her lasting influence and impact upon a society that has undergone great change since the publication of her poetry. The late 19th century can be considered a time of great oppression and constraint of femininity, not just within the societal roles of women, but within the poetic landscape as a whole. Dickinson’s non-conformist ideals, both within the widespread treatment of women and her use of the poetic medium, revolutionised the way in which societal standards were understood and changed in correlation with American nationhood. It can be argued that Dickinson’s poetry, particularly They Shut Me Up in Prose was a direct commentary on American ideals as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, in relation to women. Dickinson initiated creative discourse in the Victorian era surrounding the ideals of equality of all Americans and the unalienable rights of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ by accentuating the experiences of the average woman of her day. It is this revolutionary discourse that projected Emily Dickinson to “genius status” according to Dietzman and solidified her place among the literary brilliance of American poets.[10]

Written by Megan Adler.

BA, BCMS (DS), MTeach (Sec).

[1] George F. Whicher, ‘This was a poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson’ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938), p. 262. [2] Ruth F. McNaughton, ‘The Imagery of Emily Dickinson’, Papers from the University Studies Series, New Series no. 4 (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1949), p. 11. [3] Susana Cavallo, ‘Emily Dickinson and Flannery O’Connor: Lives Beyond Convention’, English Studies, vol. 100, no. 5 (2019), p. 540. [4] ibid. [5] McNaughton, ‘The Imagery of Emily Dickinson’, p. 11. [6] Cavallo, ‘Emily Dickinson and Flannery O’Connor’, p. 547. [7] Thomas E. Finan, ‘“Captivity is Consciousness”: Consciousness and its revisions in Dickinson’s poetry’, The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 24, no. 2 (2015), p. 28. [8] ibid. [9] Harrison Deitzman, ‘“A wholly new and original poetic genius”: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson, and the Literary Immortality’, The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 28, no. 1 (2019), p. 50. [10] ibid, p. 44.


-Cavallo, Susana. ‘Emily Dickinson and Flannery O’Connor: Lives Beyond Convention’. English Studies, vol. 100, no. 5 (2019), pp. 539-551.

-Dietzman, Harrison. ‘“A wholly new and original poetic genius”: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson, and the Literary Immortality.’ The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 28, no. 1 (2019), pp. 43-61.

-Finan, Thomas E. ‘“Captivity is Consciousness”: Consciousness and its revisions in Dickinson’s Poetry’. The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 24, no. 2 (2015), pp. 24-45.

-McNaughton, R. Flanders. ‘The Imagery of Emily Dickinson’. Papers from the University Studies Series, New Series no. 4. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1949, pp. 1-64.

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