0008. Emily Dickinson's "There Is a Word"

Updated on December 30, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

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.

* The numbers included with the Dickinsonian titles refer to the number of each poem from Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson..

Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "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 only remains so until the final line, in which the speaker does reveal what word it is that she is finding so troublesome.

0008. 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!"

Commentary

First Movement: "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 —

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: "But where it fell"

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: "Wherever runs the breathless sun —"

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: "Behold the keenest marksman!"

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.

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