Exploring Emily Dickinson’s Poems About Words: The Power and Pain of Language

Emily Dickinson grew up in a prominent and prosperous household in Amherst, Massachusetts. Along with her younger sister Lavinia and older brother Austin, she experienced a quiet and reserved family life headed by her father Edward Dickinson. In a letter to Austin at law school, she once described the atmosphere in her father’s house as “pretty much all sobriety.” Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was not as powerful a presence in her life; she seems not to have been as emotionally accessible as Dickinson would have liked. Her daughter is said to have characterized her as not the sort of mother “to whom you hurry when you are troubled.” Both parents raised Dickinson to be a cultured Christian woman who would one day be responsible for a family of her own. Her father attempted to protect her from reading books that might “joggle” her mind, particularly her religious faith, but Dickinson’s individualistic instincts and irreverent sensibilities created conflicts that did not allow her to fall into step with the conventional piety, domesticity, and social duty prescribed by her father and the orthodox Congregationalism of Amherst.

Choosing to live life internally within the confines of her home, Dickinson brought her life into sharp focus. For she also chose to live within the limitless expanses of her imagination, a choice she was keenly aware of and which she described in one of her poems this way: “I dwell in Possibility.” Her small circle of domestic life did not impinge upon her creative sensibilities. Like Henry David Thoreau, she simplified her life so that doing without was a means of being within. In a sense she redefined the meaning of deprivation because being denied something–whether it was faith, love, literary recognition, or some other desire–provided a sharper, more intense understanding than she would have experienced had she achieved what she wanted: “heaven,'” she wrote, “is what I cannot reach!” This line, along with many others, such as “Water, is taught by thirst” and “Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed,” suggest just how persistently she saw deprivation as a way of sensitizing herself to the value of what she was missing. For Dickinson hopeful expectation was always more satisfying than achieving a golden moment.

Writers contemporary to her had little or no effect upon the style of her writing. In her own work she was original and innovative, but she did draw upon her knowledge of the Bible, classical myths, and Shakespeare for allusions and references in her poetry. She also used contemporary popular church hymns, transforming their standard rhythms into free-form hymn meters.

Though her materials were conventional, her treatment of them was innovative, because she was willing to break whatever poetic conventions stood in the way of the intensity of her thought ahd images. Her conciseness, brevity, and wit are tightly packed. Typically she offers her observations via one or two images that reveal her thought in a powerful manner. She once characterized her literary art by writing “My business is circumference.” Her method is to reveal the inadequacy of declarative statements by evoking qualifications and questions with images that complicate firm assertions and affirmations. In one of her poems she describes her strategies this way: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–/ Success in Circuit lies.” This might well stand as a working definition of Dickinson’s aesthetics.

Emily Dickinson was a prolific poet who wrote extensively on a wide range of themes, including love, nature, death, and words. However, she wrote several poems about words, reflecting on their power and impact on our lives. One such poem is “A Word” by Emily Dickinson.

In “A Word,” Dickinson explores the idea that words have the power to both hurt and heal. She suggests that while words can bring comfort and joy, they can also be used to inflict pain and suffering. The poem highlights the importance of choosing our words carefully and using them wisely.

There is a word
Which bears a sword
Can pierce an armed man —
It hurls its barbed syllables
And is mute again —
But where it fell
The saved will tell
On patriotic day,
Some epauletted Brother
Gave his breath away.

Wherever runs the breathless sun —
Wherever roams the day —
There is its noiseless onset —
There is its victory!
Behold the keenest marksman!
The most accomplished shot!
Time’s sublimest target
Is a soul “forgot!”

Dickinson’s poem about words is a reflection of her own experiences with the power of language. She was known for her reclusive nature and often struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation. Her poems about words offer a glimpse into her complex relationship with language and her understanding of its ability to both connect and divide people.

In addition to “A Word,” Dickinson wrote several other poems about words, including “Words are not my own” and “This is my letter to the world.” These poems express Dickinson’s deep appreciation for the beauty and complexity of language, as well as her recognition of its limitations and potential to cause harm.
Dickinson’s poetry is challenging because it is radical and original in its rejection of most traditional nineteenth-century themes and techniques. Her poems require active engagement from the reader, because she seems to leave out so much with her elliptical style and remarkable contracting metaphors. But these apparent gaps are filled with meaning if we are sensitive to her use of devices such as personification, allusion, symbolism, and startling syntax and grammar. Since her use of dashes is sometimes puzzling, it helps to read her poems aloud to hear how carefully the words are arranged. Dickinson’s poems about words remind us of the importance of using language responsibly and with care. Words hurt poems like “A Word” encourage us to think about the impact of our words on others and to strive to use language to build bridges and promote understanding. Through her poetry, Dickinson offers a powerful reminder of the significance of words in our lives and the need to use them thoughtfully and intentionally.