Emily Dickinson, “I never hear the word escape” (77)

Right now, feeling down. Rejected by oh-so-many. It’s easy to dive into a pool of self-pity and never return.

Working with self-pity is challenging. I used to think it was completely useless and counterproductive. But then I realized I was feeling it at moments where I was completely overwhelmed and no one would stand up for me. People in this world are programmed to bully, to make themselves feel better by exploiting perceived weakness. Self-pity in those situations was a signal—albeit a flawed signal—not to look for more pity but to figure out the confidence I wanted. To think with purpose and deliberation about how I wanted to build myself.

Is Dickinson speaking about self-pity in the poem below? I look at the opening of the second stanza: “I never hear of prisons broad / By soldiers battered down.” What I hear is akin to “I never hear of other prisons, I never hear the possibility of escape.” She sounds like she’s perpetually confined; such confinement, though, is not exclusively the province of self-pity.

I never hear the word “escape” (77)
Emily Dickinson

I never hear the word “escape”
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation
A flying attitude!

I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my bars
Only to fail again!

It does seem to be the case that what confines her is herself. “But I tug childish at my bars / Only to fail again!” Never hearing of prisons falling to armies can signal emphasis on her own hearing. But what does she want to escape from? And why is escape so thrilling?

In the first stanza, “escape” is always enthusiasm. It never fails. Hearing it, she has “a quicker blood, / A sudden expectation / A flying attitude!” The word alone makes the heart beat faster. This creates expectation and hope where there was none. She feels like she could fly.

There are plenty of things I’ve wanted to escape which could create this reaction. Dead-end jobs where the smallest praise was always accompanied by a torrent of abuse or dysfunction. Bad relationships where I could be sure I would never be heard. In both those cases, the problems with the job or the relationship created an emotional system within me. I didn’t really have my own emotions. I had a set of ideas and incentives that I internalized, and I thought they could benefit me and others.

You might dismiss this and say “well, it is true that if you change your attitude, you can get more out of a situation.” But I believe I’m pointing at a more subtle problem. Situations in extreme disrepair, situations that are exploitative, won’t allow for a simple change of attitude. You can change your attitude toward a thing or two. What are you going to do when you have 10 different problems that need to be addressed 10 different ways? All you can do is be you.

So I believe this, too. That Dickinson hearing “escape” in situations which are inescapable and incomprehensible is a whisper from something like a soul. A part of the self attuned to one’s survival. It can’t answer with any articulateness and speak what is needed. It can only be an alarm.

Dickinson’s second stanza, on that reading, does contain a real hope. “A sudden expectation” tempered by a reality one can shape. Soldiers will not liberate you from your personal prison. Only you can do that, by removing the bars you helped create. That’s not the same as a “change in attitude,” which those acquainted with notions of tough love think they’re helping effect. It’s a bit of self-criticism which takes incredible courage to contemplate, let alone act on.

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