Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Both Dickinson’s strict Calvinist upbringing and her awareness of changes to the religion of her time figure in her poetry. She uses the language of the Bible and Congregational theology, but she is not uncritical in her examination of religion and its relationship to life’s problems. She portrays a God who seems both awe-inspiring and arbitrary, but her real spiritual connection is to a Christ who is kind and human. “A Word made Flesh is seldom” considers Christ’s courageous act of becoming human, with all that entails, and the analogous act of poetry, which allows Dickinson to question, to dramatize her spiritual quest, and to express both her belief and disbelief.

For Dickinson, the unknown is both necessary and troubling; her poetry dwells in uncertainty much of the time. “This World in not Conclusion” exemplifies this. Here Dickinson pictures what lies beyond our knowledge as both beckoning and baffling—a riddle that cannot be solved by the philosopher or the scholar. The narcotic offered by the preacher does not dull the feeling either. The poem ends with the possibility of an afterlife still “nibbling” at humanity.

The experience of possibility is significant to Dickinson. She is uncertain about many elements of religion, but she is sure of the power and lasting importance of poetry and the word. In “A Word made Flesh is seldom,” she expresses how it feels to experience the power of words. This ritual needs to be approached carefully, perhaps, but it is ecstasy, and the taste of this “food” strengthens one. The fact that she parallels this experience to that of approaching Jesus through the religious sacrament of communion illustrates Dickinson’s openness and questing spirit.