"A Word made Flesh is seldom"

by Emily Dickinson
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 710

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.

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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 made Flesh is seldom” uses the regular rhythm of iambic trimeter, with the added unstressed beat of the anaphora at the end of every other line, which adds to the lightness of the rhythm. Dickinson’s regular rhyme schemes are also undercut by her use of slant or near rhyme with its resultant shift in emphasis.

“A Word made Flesh is seldom” is just one of a number of poems in which Dickinson presents God and religion as contained within poetry. In “I reckon—when I count at all—,” she lists what is important to her: poets, the sun, summer, and “the Heaven of God.” However, when she looks at the list, she concludes that poetry is so comprehensive, it makes the rest of the list “look a needless show,” so she writes “Poets—All.” In “I dwell in Possibility,” she equates poetry with the possible; as her occupation, it encompasses “the spreading wide my narrow Hands/ To gather Paradise—.” This also connects Dickinson to Transcendental authors of the time, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who privilege poets as the ones who see and who can interpret spiritual reality to their fellows.

“A Word made Flesh is seldom” illustrates some of the difficulties of interpretation caused by the editing of Dickinson’s poetry. The capitalization of “Word” in the first line of the poem is an editorial change made by Thomas Johnson; Franklin’s text omits it. It is not clear whether Dickinson intended this emphasis because the original manuscript of this poem is lost. The current texts are based on Susan Dickinson’s copy of the poem. Some scholars consider the poem a note, with Susan as the intended audience.

Susan’s copy includes five introductory lines, transcribed as verse and separated from the poem by a line. This introduction is not usually published with the poem, but the lines do suggest the poem’s occasion. Dickinson seems offended by someone’s (a clergyman’s?) casual, obtuse reference to the passage from John. Her poem is an attempt to correct this attitude.

Dickinson’s use of her poetry as a corrective to problems she sees in institutional religion recurs in numerous poems, often more openly than in “The Word made Flesh is seldom.” One of the most familiar examples is “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—.” Here Dickinson expresses her preference for nature, with a bird for her choir, wings replacing a surplice, and a sermon from God, “a noted Clergyman,” who has the good sense to keep the sermon short.

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