Paula Bennett

As her persistent use of the first person singular suggests, like her fellow women writers, Dickinson also seems to have viewed her poetry—at least her psychological poetry—as her 'heart's record,' the 'inner truth' of a domestic life. This is the genre within which she is writing and, as Walker has so ably demonstrated, she employs many of the same themes and images her fellow women poets use. But Dickinson took up these themes with a difference. As Adrienne Rich asserts, for Dickinson the closed door (the totally private life) was freedom, and this vitally distinguishes her from other women poets of her day. Unhampered both by the pressures of publishing and, it seems, by internalized constraints, Dickinson wrote as she pleased. The difference was one between writers who—consciously or not—sacrificed their freedom to propriety and, possibly, their desire to publish, and a poet who, by embracing total domestic privacy and not publishing, ironically made herself free.

Dickinson's handling of the 'free-bird' poem in contrast to a more conventional treatment of this favorite woman’s theme will illustrate what I mean. Here is Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, in lines quoted by Walker, on the 'free-bird':

A simple thing, yet chancing as it did
       When life was bright with its illusive dreams,
A pledge and promise seemed beneath it hid;
       The ocean lay before me, tinged with beams
That lingering draped the west, a wavering stir,
       And at my feet down fell a worn, gray quill;
An eagle, high above the darkling fir,
. . . . .
       O noble bird! why didst thou loose for me
Thy eagle plume? still unessayed, unknown
       Must be that pathway fearless winged by thee;
I ask it not, no lofty flight be mine,
       I would not soar like thee, in loneliness to pine.

And here is Dickinson on the same idea:

They shut me up in Prose—
[. . . .]

What is striking in Oakes-Smith's poem is the degree to which the speaker depicts herself as complicit in her own defeat. Forced to choose between opposites she believes are irreconcilable—freedom and acceptance, daring and love—the speaker voluntarily gives up power and restrains her flight. Not for her, she claims, the 'lofty' path the eagle 'fearless' takes. Fear of loneliness keeps her pinned to the ground. If her woman's condition is a prison to this poet, the desire for free flight is an 'illusion' from which she turns in the end. The 'pledge' and 'promise' come to nothing. The identification between speaker and bird is broken. She will never fly (live? write?) in this way.

In Dickinson's poem the reverse occurs. The identification between speaker and bird is maintained and the prison proves to be the illusion. The attempt to shut her up in 'Prose' (the 'prose' life of duty-bound womanhood which gives rise to what Walker calls an 'aesthetic of silence' ), is no more effective and no more 'wise' than trying to hold a bird in the pound. The brain remains free. It is physically and intellectually unimpeded and, therefore, the speaker cannot be 'stilled.' Her power to articulate remains her own. She does not abandon it nor does she submit it to prevailing cultural beliefs. To Dickinson, if we are to credit this poem, the choice (between silence and speech, imprisonment and freedom) was a matter of 'will.'

Whether other women poets could in fact have 'willed' differently than they did is, at the very least, moot. There were social and personal factors that made their choices difficult, if not impossible. Theirs was an anguishing situation. But it was not Dickinson's situation. By giving up so much that these other women writers had—whether or not they wanted it—marriage, children, acceptance, a public career, Dickinson obtained the one thing they lacked, freedom. Nowhere, I would suggest, is this freedom more evident than in the psychological authenticity (the 'heart's record') of her work.

From Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Copyright © 1990 by Paula Bennett.

                                                       Stephen Cushman

The first line of this poem endows "Prose" with figurative possibilities; it could function as a metaphor for some dreary domestic or familial situation, a "Captivity" imposed on the speaker. But the comparison with a bird, one of Dickinson's familiar images for the poet, suggests that the speaker is also using "Prose" to mean a mode of writing. "They" have attempted, unsuccessfully, to confine her attention to prose. The final stanza could mean that the speaker can escape from prose into verse as easily as a bird can fly from the pound. As soon as her captors turn their backs, she can read or write poetry. But the lines "Still! Could themself have peeped– / And seen my Brain—go round—" show that the speaker's liberation is an interior one, a liberation managed within the limits of her captivity. In other words, as shutting a child in a closet will not necessarily "still" that child, so confinement to prose will not necessarily shut out the structures of verse.

Pointing to Dickinson's mannerism of turning her prose "abruptly into metered expression" in her early letters to Higginson, Porter comments that she seems to be trying to demonstrate to him that the rhythms of verse "so pervade her consciousness that she cannot make the distinction between them and unmetered prose." Discussing the three "Master" letters, Gelpi remarks that their "diction and imagery are so much an extension of the poetry that these letters are best read (as are many of Dickinson's letters) as prose poems or free verse." Often, however, not only the diction and imagery of her letters but also their formal structures overlap with those of her verse. Some letters are far too metrical to be considered prose poems or free verse. For Dickinson, writing cannot be broken down into two separate modes, the unmetered language of prose and the metered language of verse. Instead, the metricality of her prose insists on the continuity and likeness of the two modes.

From Fictions of Form in American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Princeton UP.

                                                       Mary C. Galvin

In this poem, Dickinson is clearly drawing an analogy between the socialization process of women and the strictures of "proper" language use, and is defiant toward both. Obviously, by being a poet, Dickinson has resisted her confinement to "prose," a form considered more suitable to the limitations of the female mind than the rigorous demands of poetry. Thus, in overstepping the bounds of genre, Dickinson is simultaneously overstepping the boundaries of gender. Although the stanza is brief, Dickinson manages to convey the brutality implicit in the socialization of women to ensure their poetic silence. For not keeping one's mouth shut, for refusing to be seen but not heard, which in itself is a punishing, oppressive attitude, the little girl is subjected to forced confinement. Physical violence is a requisite corollary to the violence of indoctrination into the prosaic world of "sense."

Yet she laughs, or sneers, in the second stanza, with the confidence of one who knows otherwise, one who sees the futility of this attempt at confinement. Her brain is in motion and cannot be stilled any more than a bird can be held in by fences. The charge of "Treason" indicates her awareness of the political implications of her resistance to this confinement. At the same time, she is asserting the absurdity of such a charge to one who is beyond political or social allegiances. Like a bird, Dickinson is "disloyal to civilization."

The oppression is only effective in keeping her brain still if she believes it, and accepts her captor's thinking. By willing against it from within her mind, she can fly away, and in a doubly treasonous act, she can defy even the charges of treason by which she is initially confined. At the end, her laugh of defiance is coupled with the assertion of her ability to escape as the bird does, through mental determination or will. The dash with which she "ends" the poem is a poetic enactment of her resistance to confinement, by resisting closure. Many of Dickinson's poems "end" with a dash, leaving the conclusion open-ended, ongoing, and capable of sustaining multiple interpretations. In this poem, the dash indicates the continuation of the process of resistance, the fact that the struggle against socialization is ongoing, its outcome indeterminable.

At the same time, the dash heightens the ambiguity of meaning in the final phrase, "No more have I—." Does she mean she has no more difficulty than a bird or a star does in evading captivity, that she can do so with ease? Or does she mean that she has no more will, that the punitive system of socialization has robbed her of will altogether? As a child she had the strength to resist, but now she has it "No more"? Given that she wrote this poem in her adulthood, I would lean toward the former interpretation, but I also see it as implying the limited nature of her resources for resistance. She has little physical strength or money, and no political power to aid in her resistance; she must carry on the struggle with no other resources than her will.

From Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Mary C. Galvin


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