Emily Dickinson's "There Is a Word"

Updated on October 10, 2019
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp


Introduction and Text of "There is a word"

Many of Emily Dickinson's riddle poems never mention the word or thing her speaker is describing. Examples of two of those mentionless riddles are, "It sifts from Leaden Sieves," and "I like to see it lap the Miles."

While Dickinson's "There is a word" does begin as a riddle, it remains so only until the final line, in which the speaker does reveal what word it is that she is finding so troublesome.

There is a word

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!"


Emily Dickinson's "There is a word" features one of the poet's many poems that may qualify as riddles. She keeps the reader guessing until the end when she finally reveals the "word" that "bears a sword."

First Movement: A Sharp Word

There is a word
Which bears a sword
Can pierce an armed man —
It hurls its barbed syllables
And is mute again —

The speaker begins with what seems to be a riddle by asserting that a certain word exists that carries "a sword." This word must be very sharp, indeed, because it can "pierce an armed man." This sharp word has "barbed syllables," and after it "hurls" those sharp syllables it returns to silence.

The first movement then has set up a scenario in which a certain "word" is dramatized with the unsavory characteristic of a weapon. This claim might offer a contradiction to the little ditty that goes, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."

The "sticks and stone" claim used to be offered to children to assist them in dealing with a bully. It was meant to deflect the child's mind from taking the bullying as a personal affront. If someone breaks your bones with a weapon, you have little recourse but to allow time to heal your broken bones. If someone hurls painful rhetoric at you, you have the option of not keeping your mind focused on that rhetoric and thus, you are not hurt.

However, there is a school of thought that has always found the "sticks and stones" advice wanting, claiming that words can definitely hurt one. And of course, both schools of thought have their merits. A sharp, weaponized "word" hurled even at an "armed man" can pierce the psyche and render untold damage, if the victim finds it difficult to place his/her mind on other things.

Second Movement: A Fallen Warrior

But where it fell
The saved will tell
On patriotic day,
Some epauletted Brother
Gave his breath away.

In the second movement, the speaker metaphorically likens a fallen victim of some weaponized word to a martyr to the cause of patriotism. Like an "epauletted Brother" who fights to protect the citizens of his nation, who willingly gives "his breath away," the victim of this sharp word will be praised by those the brother saved.

This speaker is demonstrating that she is referring to words that hurt the psyche, not necessarily the bones or the flesh. But in order to dramatize the scenario, she metaphorically paints the images in military terms, which she continues through the remaining two movements.

Third Movement: Beyond the Physical

Wherever runs the breathless sun —
Wherever roams the day —
There is its noiseless onset —
There is its victory!

That the sun may be considered "breathless" is an astounding notion. But that notion along with the roaming of the day places the entire scene beyond the physical level of being. The "noiseless onset" is the space wherein that weaponized word has failed to penetrate.

Had that failure of penetration continued, there would have been a great "victory." But that victory does not materialize. It cannot as it is placed in an impossible location where the sun runs breathless and where the day may be understood to have the ability to "roam."

Without breath, the human being cannot utter any word, weaponized or not. And that silent space of time remains a blessed opposition to the battleground where pain and suffering occur. Beyond that battleground, that is, beyond the physical level of existence, those who have achieved the status of "breathless sun" will achieve their victory over those weaponized words.

Fourth Movement: Revealing that Word

Behold the keenest marksman!
The most accomplished shot!
Time's sublimest target
Is a soul "forgot!"

Again, employing the military metaphor, the speaker commands her listener/reader to observe and consider the "keenest marksman" who has accomplished the highest level of shooting ability.

Finally, the speaker reveals that word that she finds to be the one that "bears a sword." That word is the simple word, "forgot." But she has framed that word by claiming it is "Time's sublimest target" which is, "a soul" "forgot!"

The exclamation point following the word, "forgot," is vital to the total meaning of the poem. By placing that punctuation mark outside the quotation marks, the emphasis on the word is removed.

The ambiguity of the following two-line sentence continues to keep the poem a riddle:

Time's sublimest target
Is a soul "forgot!"

That sentence can be understood two ways. First, "The most difficult thing for any human being is that his/her mind has forgotten that s/he is a soul," or "The hardest thing for a person to hear is that s/he has been forgotten by someone else."

Interestingly, the ambiguity of those final two lines, that is, the two alternate interpretations give the poem its depth of meaning. The result of anything that has been "forgot" remains a disfiguring absence to any human being—physically, mentally, or spiritually.

When the two instances of forgetting are bound up into one painful event, even the "armed man" who has been shot by the "keenest marksman" will fall victim and suffer from the barbed syllables hurled at him.

Emily Dickinson


Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.


Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.


Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death that her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publications of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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