"A Word made Flesh is seldom" Summary
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 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.
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.