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 upon Captivity—
And laugh—No more have I—
“They shut me up in Prose—” was originally published in Dickinson’s 1935 collection Unpublished Poems. This poem comments on social conventions that restricted Dickinson creatively, perhaps written as a response to the denunciation of Dickinson’s radical structure of poetry, as critics believed that Dickinson’s uses of spaces and dashes were technically unsound. The manuscript of the poem differs from the published version in two fairly significant ways. The first contrast is that the words “a Bird” stand alone, creating five lines in the second stanza instead of four. The second is a note written at the bottom of the poem that adds “and abolish his” to the last line, meaning the bird in the poem not only “laugh[s]” at “captivity” but destroys it.
“They shut me up in Prose—” consists of three four-line stanzas. There is rhyme used in parts of the poem, but it is not consistent. The first stanza uses off rhyme rather than the traditional ABAB rhyme scheme: “still” and “Girl” both end in similar sounds with the letter “l,” while “Prose” and the first syllable of “closet” differ slightly, subtly complementing each other. In the second stanza, the second and fourth lines use regular end rhyme with the words “round” and “Pound.” Though the use of the word “themself” in the second stanza is not grammatically correct, Christopher McCarthy insists that editing it to “themselves,” as Dickinson’s niece has done, “does not connote the antagonists’ lack of individuality in the way that the manuscript’s ‘themself’ does.” The bird in the poem is personified because it “look[s]” and “laugh[s]” as a person is able to. Dickinson uses metaphor to draw a comparison between a bird that is caged for committing an impossible crime and a girl who is inanely blamed for her individuality. The exclamation point after “still” in the second stanza indicates the scornful attitude of the speaker and her impatience with the “they” named.
As is characteristic to most Dickinson poems, “They shut me up in Prose—” has words throughout that are capitalized seemingly at random; the emphasis becomes purposeful upon closer examination. Dickinson’s writing has been categorized as prose, a label which she finds restrictive. As Stephen Cushman explains, “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.” The word “Girl” calls attention to the speaker’s gender and further suggests that sex has something to do with the poem’s theme of creative oppression. “Treason,” as a highly serious offense to one’s country, is a very politically charged word. The speaker could also feel like she is committing treason because she is different, treated like a traitor by the traditional people that surround her. By equating something as major as treason to a “little Girl” being creative, Dickinson indicates that the “they” mentioned feel threatened just by the prospect of a female writer with new ideas.
Dickinson wrote about feeling trapped in other poetry as well, such as the poems “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” (340) and “I never heard the word Escape” (144). Because this poem was published in collections with hundreds of others after Dickinson’s death, there is no commentary on its critical reception as an individual work. Though the beginning of the poem is dismal, Dickinson ends on the hopeful note of overcoming injustice. Like the bird described, the speaker is able to rise above her “Captivity” because she knows that power comes from within, therefore no one can ever stop her brain from going “round.” Like the bird’s need to fly, it is essential to the speaker’s nature to continue to write without inhibition, therefore the rules of style imposed by “they” cannot restrict her, despite their worst intentions.
Bibliography and Further Reading Christopher McCarthy. Notes on “They shut me up in Prose—.” Dickinson Electronic Archives. Emily Dickinson. “They shut me up in Prose – (445) by Emily Dickinson.” Poetry Foundation; “Manuscript View for Houghton Library – (182d) They shut me up in Prose, J613, Fr445.” Emily Dickinson Archive; “‘They shut me up in Prose-“.” Dickinson/Higginson Correspondence: Poem 327. Modern American Poetry: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).
Credits Composed by Lexi Palmer, Fall 2018. Reading by Lexi Palmer.