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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.