A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘They shut me up in Prose’

‘They shut me up in Prose’, whilst not one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems – it certainly isn’t up there with ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’, or ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’ – is nevertheless sometimes anthologised, and occasionally quoted for its suggestive opening line. (And few poets have known how to write a suggestive opening line better than Emily Dickinson.) Before we proceed to an analysis of the poem, here’s the text of ‘They shut me up in Prose’.

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 —
Himself has but to will
And seen my Brain — go round —
They might as wise have lodged a Bird

For Treason — in the Pound —
And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity —
And laugh — No more have I —

‘They shut me up in Prose’. If prose is male, poetry is female – at least, in the rather reductive and old-fashioned binary that Emily Dickinson certainly would have been aware of, growing up in a Calvinist family in New England in the mid-nineteenth century. The three lines which follow that arresting opening line give a clue to the links between poetry/prose and female/male:

As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet —
Because they liked me ‘still’ —

‘Girl’ is the key word here, uneasily ‘rhymed’ with ‘still’ – itself enclosed, if not quite shut up, in those quotation marks. And one of the triumphs of this poem about the restrictions placed upon young girls growing up in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society is the way in which Dickinson says one thing while using her verse to undermine it: ‘They shut me up in Prose’, she says in verse, with her trademark dashes suggesting quite the opposite of enclosure. ‘Prose’ and ‘Closet’ can hardly be called rhymes, and so fail to snap together with the satisfaction of a lock, although they are so near – close, we might say – to providing a full rhyme: Prose/Close. ‘Girl’ and ‘still’, as already noted, refuse to rhyme fully either, opening the poem out neither to the blandness of prose nor the anarchy of free verse. They move assonantly towards each other, but ‘Girl’ refuses to sit still: it wriggles free.

And of course, Dickinson is not simply drawing a link between gender and writing here: she’s saying that female writers face a completely different set of obstacles from those men face. In her own lifetime, as we’ve observed before, Emily Dickinson was far better known as gardener than as a poet; she barely published any of her work, with much of it only seeing the light of day after her death in 1886. It wasn’t unheard-of for girls to be told that writing was not for them. Certainly, Dickinson’s own childhood was hardly inspiring: her parents were not artistic, and her strict religious upbringing must have made her feel ‘shut up’, restricted, from the start. And there is deliberate double meaning in that opening line: ‘They shut me up in Prose’ means not only ‘they imprison me in a world of commonplace dullness’ but also ‘they silence me with their prosaic lectures and sermons’.

But there’s no shutting up Emily Dickinson. If they had peeped inside and seen her brain working overtime, and glimpsed the imagination and creativity within, they would have realised that to try to keep her shut up was as futile as shutting up a bird in a pound (for ‘Treason’: itself an absurd idea), because a bird can easily escape a pound by flying off, as easily as a star ‘flying’ free in the night sky. Flight is key here: as with Keats’s imagination in his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the sky’s the limit.

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