That Perfect Freedom

The drama of the gifted child. To be great is to be misunderstood.

#613, c. 1862

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
Abolish his Captivity —
And laugh — No more have I —

Imagine for a moment that Emily was your daughter. Would you know what to do with her? Probably not. I’ll bet no one knew what to do with her. So she was left alone with herself and her dashes.

I imagine Emily knew what to do with herself as long as people would leave her alone. Why was that not possible? We could blame the 19th century, and the prevailing attitudes toward girls and women. That would be a good place to start. Nothing more dangerous to the status quo than a girl who knows her own mind. Or a girl who is free to roam the physical landscape around her and free to roam the landscape of her thoughts, as well. So Emily was like a bomb in their midst, exploding assumptions about how a girl ought to behave and think. Or not think, really. I’m sure there were other girls like her. But Emily is distinct in her fierce refusal to knuckle under. (at least on paper) Her tenacious loyalty to her own instincts in defiance of all the received wisdom and custom of her society makes her remarkable.

Really when you think what she was up against, she has the courage of a small army.

I’d even suggest here that her resistance to her surroundings made her stronger. Drove her into a deeper embrace of her truth and her passion as a poet. In a perverse way, the restrictions of her society may have squeezed Emily in toward an even closer examination of her life’s purpose. The threat of losing her sense of self made her fight for it more aggressively, which may be how she produced all these diamonds. It was the pressure that squeezed them out. I say this mindful of the fact that Emily is a rare case and that so many of her contemporaries were crushed into silence. They did not strengthen themselves against the resistance, but folded down on themselves and died. A psychic death, at least, if not a literal one as well.

So the 19th century is a good place to start, but there is more. I believe Emily is a mystery to herself. I envision her spending her days in continual discovery. Her mind moves like a bird from here to there and on again. It takes strength to remain curious all the time. This relentless curiosity also puts one in a constant state of loathing for any confinement at all.

Her last stanza here is interesting because she chucks her rhyme scheme completely. Almost as though she lost interest in it. Or maybe she just exploded with frustration at the end and decided: “Hell! I’ll say what I have to say. I will not be confined by my own poem!” Also interesting that she begins by referencing Prose as the symbol of prison. Then in the end she breaks out of the limits imposed by her poem by speaking in prose, unrhymed. The lines are somewhat metered, but c’mon . . . “Star” and “I” . . . we don’t even get a slant rhyme here. There is her divine discontent again. And her complete originality. Self-governed and fearless.

She directs her anger at the end toward God. His perfect freedom is the freedom she feels she ought to have, at least in her mind’s movement. That will to freedom belongs only to God, she says, but she wants it for herself.

She has the guts to say it. She believes her ability to think is God-like in its expansive movement. Or nearly so. Near enough that she can imagine what’s missing. Her perfect freedom.

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