Study Guide

"A Word made Flesh is seldom"

by Emily Dickinson

"A Word made Flesh is seldom" Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The second child of a prominent Amherst family, Emily Dickinson spent most of her life in the town (and the house) where she was born. Her conservative father, Edward Dickinson, generally considered to be a strict tyrant, was an important influence on his daughter, who considered home to be a holy place. Her early religious experience was in the Calvinistic Congregational Church, where the sermons on damnation terrified her as a child. She rejected the idea of sin and gradually overcame her terror, largely because of the influence of her friend, the Josiah Gilbert Hollands, whose theology was more liberal than that of her father. However, she was never comfortable with organized religion, and that attitude is reflected in many of her poems.

Also important to Dickinson’s poetry is her knowledge of the Bible, which was extensive, and her interest in religious reform and the new, more imaginative sermon style of the mid-nineteenth century. Her father disapproved of this new style, which included a mixing of the sacred and the secular, but her friend Charles Wadsworth was an important innovator and practitioner. His sermons plus the popular writing of women such as Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton) influenced Dickinson to apply the language of religion plus her love of paradox, humor, and ambiguity to a wide variety of subjects. It also allowed her to focus on the human side of Jesus.

Dickinson’s rhythm and rhyme have a religious connection as well. Many of her poems use common measure, also known as hymn stanza (the rhythm of many nineteenth century Protestant hymns), and variations on this regular rhythm. These are often used to contain controversial subjects or ironically undercut traditional ideas. “A Word...

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"A Word made Flesh is seldom" Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Burr, Zofia. “The Canonization of Emily Dickinson.” In Of Women, Poetry, and Power. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. This study of five American women poets begins with how Emily Dickinson’s poetry has been edited and received since the 1890’s, how this connects to her relationship to audiences, and how the critical expectations of other women poets have been affected by what critics have valued in Dickinson’s work.

Doriani, Beth Maclay. Emily Dickinson, Daughter of Prophecy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. Using feminist and historic readings, Doriani examines Dickinson’s use of Judeo-Christian scriptures and new sermons of nineteenth century Protestants to claim her place as a woman prophet among self-proclaimed male prophets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.

McIntosh, James. Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. In a letter to Judge Lord, Dickinson notes believing and not believing “a hundred times an hour” as the basis for nimble believing, which McIntosh defines as having an intense spiritual life without embracing any specific belief system. He examines variety in Dickinson’s religious experience.

Monte, Steven. “Dickinson’s Searching Philology.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 12, no. 2 (2003): 21-51. Monte reviews current material criticism of Dickinson, then argues for reading her poetry philologically; he does an extended philological reading of “A Word made Flesh is seldom” to illustrate.

Smith, Martha Neel. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992. Smith analyzes the conventional picture of Dickinson, then reexamines her approach to publication and the importance of her relationship with Susan Dickinson.

Stronum, Gary Lee. The Dickinson Sublime. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. Stonum views Dickinson’s work as focused on the sublime. He analyzes how Dickinson’s sublime, which he sees as a stimulant to her reader’s imagination that does not provide closure, differs from the romantic view.