“They shut me up in Prose”

The poem I have chosen to break down my confusion about is “They shut me up in Prose.” In this title alone we see an interesting use of capitalization and word choice. The ‘they’ is capitalized as the first word of a sentence normally is, but then the Prose is also capitalized. I understood this to be an emphasis on the fact that she is able to voice her opinions in poetry even though the unknown ‘they’ have restricted her from expressing herself through normal writing. The way she words the sentence saying “in Prose” I’m guessing is the proper way to word that sentence. There is no rhyme pattern with the word prose later in the stanza that would cause it to be written that way. However, if the sentence is read in iambs, shut, up, and prose are stressed which could be important. Then again, I could think this sentence is weird because I do not know proper English and this is proper.
Moving on, the first stanza seems simple, she illustrates the way she has been quieted by using the simile of a little girl. The capitalization in this stanza has me stumped with no explanation. In the next stanza she is angered to be silenced. If only they could see what she is thinking and understand it. Then she makes reference to a bird in a pound for treason. The only reason for connecting these three separate things would be to underscore the stupidity of the ‘they.’ Nobody would think that a bird would commit a crime, especially treason, and then to throw it in the pound is usually an idea synonymous with dogs. It is possible that the bird has symbolic meaning and treason is representative of some greater idea, but literally it expresses her feelings toward ‘they.’
The last stanza is broken up strangely in the end, but makes sense up until the last line. “Himself has but to will” (9) means that all he has to do is try, try to see what he is doing to her. The next two lines could represent the captivity she feels she is being held in and because a star is so high in the sky, it would be easy for it to look down. Here the line breaks perhaps as a dramatic pause like in a play. She builds hope for ‘him’ to see his mistake and then, just as we think he is going to change his ways, right his wrong, he just laughs at her. Her spirit is broken and she laughs no more.

1) Who are they?
2) Has anyone read this poem differently? Maybe she’s not upset and I should stop analyzing poetry. A different view could change this poem and be good for a class discussion.

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7 Responses to “They shut me up in Prose”

  1. Rahul Roy says:

    Writing this right after an argument with my parents, I could not help but relate this poem to my personal feelings. The “They” can represent anyone who has pushed her away and held her back from expressing herself. Whether it be her parents (hahaha), her teachers, “friends”, or bullies I feel is irrelevant. The discussion of the importance of the bird in the poem, however, is quite ambiguous and that’s reflected above me. I agree with Rachel on her saying that birds aren’t associated “with captivity.” However, the bird doesn’t have to be held captive. It can just be an outcast, a lone bird who is away from its flock. A lone bird that can be seen walking the streets of the city looking as lost as myself. “They” don’t have to be the ones that force her to be quiet, “They” can just not exist and in return give her no reason to express herself. I get a sense of sadness and also a sense of a confined freedom. A freedom that is not so free because it cannot be shared.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Reading this poem the first few times I was rather confused. The use of the bird was certainly an odd choice of symbol for me and I was unable to figure out the purpose of its use until reading your post and realizing that I disagree that it represents captivity and in fact realize that birds are the most free animal in that they can fly. The bird represents freedom perhaps that the author feels she did not have because of the other. Additionally, I like the way you read the title in iamb and therefore placing stress on words that would otherwise have been unstressed.

  3. Rachel Olshin says:

    I agree with the comments above that above that the “They” are her parents, greater society, and anybody who is “Other” to her (or perhaps, have “othered” her). I read the poem slightly differently; the choice of the bird is peculiar to me because a bird by its nature is not associated with captivity. Birds are a symbol of flight, of freedom, and of movement. The metaphor of the bird is confusing in this poem, in the beginning the animal seems to be “in the Pound”, then it seems to break free and “easy a star, look down upon captivity.” Which makes me think that the narrator too has broken out of her closet or prose, but I am are unsure at the end, as she says, “No more have I-“. I would venture to say that she never breaks free, and that the bird surpasses her in ways, and she stays locked in her Prose. That it is not he, the bird that cannot change his ways, but it is the persona that cannot.

  4. Marc says:

    Personally, I see the “they” in this poem as the narrator’s teachers throughout her life, beginning from when she was “a little girl”. She feels trapped by these traditional teachers and describes herself as being “put in the Closet”. Her poetic creativity always has been limited because of her teachers’ view of what she should be taught and involve herself with, as her teachers clearly lack an appreciation of creativity. All in all, in my opinion, the narrator seems to feel somewhat regretful that she had not been paired with teachers who could appreciate her talent and even enhance her creative abilities.

  5. Debra Zarny says:

    It is definitely possible that I am reading too simply into this, but I think the “they” in the first line of the poem references her parents, and that they were not accepting of her writing. Therefore, the rest of the poem can be read as Dickinson linking this disapproval to her childhood, living with her parents. I think of the last line of the first stanza, “Because they liked me ‘still’,” to be a memory she had of her parents once saying something along the lines of, “Even though we are punishing you, we still love you.” The next stanza shows her frustration with them. I think she feels that her parents believe that there is something wrong with her behaviorally, and the line “Could themself have peeped— and seen my Brain- go round-“ is her plea to them, trying to tell them that she is a good child and is undeserving of their punishments, which she compares to a pound. However, the last stanza confuses me as I am unsure of what it means and why it seems to have an abrupt ending.

  6. In response to Steven’s question, who are “they,” I would think that Dickinson is referring to the general public, the people who read her poems. I don’t know her background, or how her poems were received, but perhaps she was shunned or scorned for her poetry at some point. This poem is her reaction to her readers, and she is telling them that she feels constricted for no good reason. As Steven wrote, “nobody would think that a bird would commit a crime, especially treason.” Dickinson seems to be comparing herself to this bird and saying that if you think about it, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with her writing poetry, and she shouldn’t feel shut up with prose.

  7. I agree that this poem is about the restriction of her creativity by the mysterious “they”. It appears from the title that her poems and creativity were “shut up” and she was forced to only write in standard prose. In the third stanza, I believe her to be saying that, as “Himself has but to will”, she was able to break out of the standard prose writing and has become a “star” in the world of American poetry.

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