Emily Dickinson, “No Prisoner be” (720)

No Prisoner be (720)
Emily Dickinson

No Prisoner be —
Where Liberty —
Himself — abide with Thee —

Comment:

This is a strange poem. Isn’t “Liberty” usually female? “Himself” seems to invoke Christ, and “abide with Thee” shows up in one way or another a number of places (using the KJV):

  • Leviticus 19:13 – Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob [him]: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning.
  • John 14:15-17: If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; [Even] the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.

And obviously I’ve changed “Thee” to you, bringing up a whole bunch of other verse possibilities. So let’s just try to find the problem the poem presents. “Prisoner” brings up themes of law, punishment, slavery. “Liberty” emphasizes mainly the last of those themes. “Himself” and “Thee” are both capitalized, making me wonder if we are only talking about God here.

The two Bible quotes I’ve chosen give some clarity, but it is familiar territory for those of us studying political philosophy. The Leviticus quote is probably what Dickinson’s speaker has in mind. It is literally a law telling you not to treat another as a slave. There is the threat of divine punishment: the wages are not to “abide with thee,” but rather the spirit of the Lord. One has to wonder, with “Liberty,” whether or not Dickinson wonders how dependent the American enterprise is on the “spirit of the law.” You’ve got to be scared of denying another his just due. That’s not the same as justice, but it is a far cry from “I’m free and can do however I like.” Is that “spirit of the law” necessarily divine, though?

The quote from Leviticus emphasizes taking others seriously. “Liberty” is connected to the fact we “abide” with others: justice is explicit, fraternity is implicit. Christ’s words from John are absolutely beautiful – if you want to hear them sung: Thomas Tallis, “If Ye Love Me.” Following the law is a kind of punishment at times – it feels like servitude – and we need help. But I wonder if the otherworldiness of individual virtue, even the virtue of loving thy neighbor, creates the problem of “Himself” and “Thee.” It almost makes “Liberty” redundant: of course God Himself is free. Then again, God is free because He knows how to dwell with Himself and others. The theme that this poem seems to speak loudest is that despite “Himself,” there is nothing isolated about “Liberty.” There is no such thing as moving away from society and calling oneself free.

3 Comments

  1. Recently came across a contention by Louis Lavelle, to the effect that “to the degree I am conscious of a state of affairs, however oppressive and limiting, I transcend it.” Doesn’t Pascal say someplace that the whole trouble is we can’t sit quietly in our room?

  2. This is obscure enough that you can read it anyway you like…i’m partial to something like: no one can make you prisoner no matter what they do to you- physically- if your reliance is on the Almighty.

    I gotta say i like you reading though…Good work …keep bringing out Emily Dickinson

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