They shut me up in Prose (F445A, J613)

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 –

Link to EDA 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 First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 34, with the alternative not adopted.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.

This poem of defiance and resistance employs some of the imagery we have seen in earlier poems in this group. It implies that female genius cannot express itself without struggle. The speaker, identifiable as a “girl,” is “shut up,” with the double meaning of made silent and locked into a room defined as “Prose.” This could refer to the prosaic expectations of women in her small town, chained to domesticity, subservience and humility, or the denial of her intellect imaged as her restless “Brain,” obstacles other women of genius experienced as well. Although it has been suggested that this poem describes a traumatic childhood experience of Dickinson’s, we have no definitive evidence of it. We do know, from their biographies, that George Sand (1804-1876), pen name for the French author Aurore Dudevant, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), the English poet, both favorites of Dickinson, suffered restraint and repression of their gifts in their childhoods.

There is also bird and crime imagery here. The physical captivity of the girl’s body cannot fetter her mind or spirit, which she compares to the attempt to keep a bird “For Treason – in the Pound.” According to Dickinson’s Webster’s,

Treason is the highest crime of a civil nature of which a man can be guilty.

It is a deliberate flouting and betrayal of the government, of patriarchal rule. Despite the speaker’s defiance, birds, which Dickinson connects with the artist figure, can be captured: the caged bird was a frequent symbol of women imprisoned by marriage. Still, the bird in this instance looks down from a height and laughs at “Captivity,” just as the speaker does, or wishes to do.

Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 21 during 1862 (the year after Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death, we might note), and it appeared on the left hand page opposite another poem relevant to our week’s theme. “This was a Poet – It is That” (F446A, J448) describes the process of genius, how the poet (referred to here as “He” but in many ways resembling Dickinson)

Distills amazing sense
From Ordinary Meanings –
And Attar so immense.


Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University,, 2007.

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 203-204.

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