Mary C. Galvin: On 613 ("They shut me up in Prose--")

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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Criticism Overview
Title Mary C. Galvin: On 613 ("They shut me up in Prose--") Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Mary C. Galvin Criticism Target Emily Dickinson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers
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