Emily Dickinson, “No Prisoner be” (720)

You relax, it works, the thought strikes. Wait a second, I couldn’t have done this before? I could have hit “Start” and switched the game to “Easy?” You’ve made life a lot easier in one respect. Why can’t you take control of everything? Why should you ever feel oppressed? Heck, let’s go further and say that no one has truly been a prisoner:

No Prisoner be (720)
Emily Dickinson

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

This feels a bit dated after saturation with the Existentialist claim that you can always choose how you feel. No Prisoner be — Where Liberty — Himself — abide with Thee. Still, I hope to memorize and use it. It is not a theorem, but a proposition or declaration. It’s a mantra, said because you’re feeling like you could be a prisoner, could imprison yourself.

It’s a subtle mantra, spelling out thinking about one’s oppression. Of course people are prisoners, of course people are oppressed. You would be worse than foolish — you would be cruel — if you denied that. “No Prisoner be — Where Liberty — Himself — abide with Thee.” Liberty ultimately resides within oneself. The religious language, “abide with Thee,” is next to “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Be godly and God resides within you. Again, I need not list the numerous examples of people being murdered and tortured precisely because they were free or could be free.

So what exactly is Liberty? Is it an attitude of remaining unbroken when pressed? Is it self-control, finding what one can deal with and working from there? Is it a species of reason, something like understanding the terms of one’s confinement or problems? Could it be a belief in the transcendent, that regardless of the mistakes one makes now, those who abused their power will face consequences, and the prisoner shall be set free?

Dickinson has stayed purposefully vague. “Where” and “abide” are the only guides she gives for thinking through this. The path to knowing better is through place. In bad situations, you have to shift the place, as external conditions have to matter far less than how one conditions oneself and responds. That might sound like the same trite self-help talk all over again, but I think you can see the mantra has blossomed. It started with the ludicrous — you might never be a prisoner — and then showed us that our freedom means nothing without us. We have the right to think about what it means to be free in terrible situations, not worrying so much about our answers being wrong. We are right, and the freest of all, when we can model Liberty himself.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *