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Analysis of Poem 'They shut me up in Prose' (F445A) by Emily Dickinson

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson and a Summary of 'They shut me up in Prose'

'They shut me up in Prose' is a short Emily Dickinson resistance poem in which the first-person speaker opposes the idea that she can be denied poetic creativity—shut up in Prose, like a little girl in a closet.

The poem is made up of three short stanzas with typical idiosyncratic Dickinson characteristics: short lines often broken up by dashes, no conventional punctuation and dashes at the end of lines. Quirky syntax, but this is the way all her poems were written.

  • The main theme is defying convention; the idea that the poetic mind cannot be stilled and that creativity will prevail despite familial, societal, editorial or political restrictions.
  • Prose represents boring convention, imprisonment—females at the time the poem was written were expected to fulfill traditional roles within the house, marriage and family. The opposite is poetry—exciting, dangerous and rebellious.
  • Dickinson's use of language reflects the division between restrictive order (prose) and the liberating creativity (poetry) inherent in the brain. So we see shut me up, put me in the closet, still, Treason - in the Pound, Captivity . . . contrasting with Brain - go round, a Bird, easy as a Star, And laugh.

The tone is defiant, the speaker using the context of family history, childhood, metaphor, simile and symbol to reinforce the notion of absurdity—they could never confine the movement of the brain, or deny the joy of rhythmic poetry.

Emily Dickinson wrote other poems using this idea of being confined and silenced, shut out:

  • Tis true - They shut me in the Cold - (F658A)
  • Why - do they shut me out of Heaven? (F268A)

She seems to invoke a 'little girl' presence in these poems, which perhaps derives from her actual childhood experiences, where authority in the inevitable acts of discipline common to all parents is at times fought against and questioned.

They shut me up in Prose has a little girl in the first stanza, a strong opening image which suggests severe restriction and censorship, as well as punishment and deprivation. A closet is a dark place.

To be shut up is to be confined, imprisoned even, locked away in the mundane, but there is also the idea of shutting up—being quiet, being told to be quiet in no uncertain terms.

Emily Dickinson used the word Prose often enough in her writings. To her its meaning was clear: the everyday, the conventional, the mainstream, the closed mind. She wrote this in a letter to her best friend and confidante, Susan Dickinson, wife of her brother Austin:

'we are the only poets, and every one else is prose.'

-Letter to Susan Dickinson, The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas Herbert Johnson and Theodora Ward (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958), 144, L56.

And again she is emphatic in another of her three stanza poems:

I dwell in possibility —

A fairer house than prose —

(F466A)

The speaker goes on to mock those who want to deny her poetic creativity. The bird, absurdly locked up for Treason, readily escapes, easy as a star, looking down and laughing at the notion of captivity.

Emily Dickinson's poem opens up possibilities for all those feeling trapped.

'They shut me up in Prose' (F445A) by Emily Dickinson

They shut me up in Prose -
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet -
Because they liked me "still" -

Read More From Owlcation

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 -

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'They shut me up in Prose'

Three short stanzas, rhythmic trimeter lines and some slant rhyme plus one full rhyme make for a relatively quick read and much food for thought.

There is enjambment (lines with no punctuation that run on into the next), metaphor—a Bird for poetry—and plenty of those unusual dashes that Emily Dickinson used in place of commas and other punctuation.

First Stanza

The opening line can be a bit of a puzzle for the first-time reader. How can someone be shut up in Prose, the ordinary way of writing? Prose becomes a metaphor for the ordinary life, the conventional way of doing things.

This seems to be a punishment of some kind, the speaker being locked up, likening this act to that of a child kept in a closet because they aren't 'still', that is, quiet and compliant.

Short lines and dashes, strong imagery: typical Dickinson.

Second Stanza

Repeating the word 'still', reinforcing the idea of conformity, (women's rights and freedoms were still severely narrowed when Dickinson penned this poem), the speaker suggests figuratively that had her captors 'peeped' at her brain they would have known how nonsensical their actions had been.

The image of the bird, found guilty of treason (which is absurd but does hint at a political side to this poem) in a pound (a jail) neatly sums up the situation. All a bird has to do is spread its wings and take to the sky.

The only full rhyme occurs here—round/pound—and knots the meanings together.

Third Stanza

Himself—does this mean the bird, or is the speaker referring to God or the Lord or another deity? It makes sense if the bird is implied for it rises up and like a star is able to look down on captivity.

The laughter is personification, the bird, the star, given a human quality. The speaker is having a go at those who would confine her in prose, she is laughing, mocking them and the situation they have created.

That last line, with the laughter and the first person I . . . there is no more captivity. To the speaker, the whole idea is ludicrous.

What Is the Meter of 'They shut me up in Prose'?

The majority of lines are iambic trimeter, that is, three feet (six syllables) with a formal iambic beat, unstressed/stressed syllable pairs.

Let's scan the first stanza:

They shut / me up / in Prose -
As when / a litt / le Girl
They put / me in / the Closet -
Because / they liked / me "still" -

So, lines 1, 2 and 4 are classic iambic trimeter . . . daDUM daDUM daDUM . . . but line 3 with seven syllables has an extra beat, sometimes called a hyperbeat or feminine ending because it is unstressed. It stretches the line slightly.

The rest of the poem is similarly iambic trimeter, with only the next to last line being different:

Look down / opon / captiv / ity

This line has eight syllables, the word captivity containing four, the end foot scanning as a pyrrhic (relatively no stresses).

Sources

  • Manuscript View for Houghton Library - (182d) 'They shut me up in Prose', J613, Fr445 (edickinson.org)
  • Mary C. Galvin: On 613 ('They shut me up in Prose--') | Modern American Poetry
  • Link to EDA manuscript. Poem manuscript Originally in Packet XXXIV, Fascicle 21, ca. 1862. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 34, with the alternative not adopted. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, http://edl.byu.edu/index.php, 2007.
  • Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 203-204.
  • The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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