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31 July 2011

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!"

                                                         J8,  Fr 42 (1858)

By use of quotation marks around the word 'forgot' at the end of the poem we know it is the word described in the first stanza that bears a sword and hurls its 'barbed syllables'. I find the first stanza metaphor a bit weak: the word both bears a sword and hurls deadly syllables--but then itself falls. Be that as it will, it is a deadly word and can kill even a decorated soldier. Being forgotten in this sense reminds me of being left behind, in the sense that the saved are spared and go to glory while the rest are forgotten by God and left to die. Cheerful thought! But it is perhaps better than thinking of soldiers left behind on the field of battle to die, forgotten by their mates.
     The second stanza goes into more description about this killer. It has a 'noiseless onset' during the day--anywhere and everywhere. It is always victorious. But then there is a switch: instead of the word wielding a sword and hurling barbs, Time becomes the marksman. The 'soul "forgot"' is its target. What to make of that?
     Perhaps the poet is telling us that being forgotten is a function of time. It is, almost by definition, a quiet doom. It is only when the sufferer comes to awareness, articulates his fate as having been forgotten, that he is pierced by the word. It is a particularly cruel vision to have Time, the abstract entity often considered as something that heals all wounds, become a killer targeting the forgotten, and yet there is truth in it. The longer one is forgotten the more undermining it becomes. 
     A copy of the poem was sent to Sue, and while it is tempting to think that Dickinson meant the poem as a barbed reminder of Sue's neglect of their friendship, it seems overly histrionic. I think Dickinson typically addressed a deeper question even when making a limited point to a correspondent. Here, because the broadness of the sun's entire range--which leaves it breathless because it must run--the subject is clearly not just one woman forgetting another, but the Forgotten everywhere. Wherever the sun shines, there has someone fallen victim to having ceased to matter. For when we do matter we are not forgotten. Those who realize their fall from grace (they are no longer among the 'saved'), are as good as dead. 

Dickinson divides two tetrameter lines into two dimeter lines: the first two, thereby emphasizing the 'word'/'sword' rhyme; and the fifth and sixth, emphasizing the 'fell' / 'tell' rhyme. She does not break the tetrameter line that begins the second stanza, despite the internal rhyme of 'runs'/'sun' because keeping it together gives the sense of the breathless sun.   


  1. Hard not to think of this as also the poet's fear that she will be forgotten, either by particular person/s or "the world" itself. "I'm Nobody..." of course explores similar turf, though by the time readers encounter "Split the Lark and you'll find the music" it seems clear this woman was confident her music would be found and not forgotten. This blog proof she is not "forgot." Not a poet of Whitman's brash confidence he would always be with us, but one who, by the time she was sewing those verses up into booklets and leaving them where she knew they'd be found, knowing also the quality of what she had sung.

    1. That is one of the most compelling things about Dickinson. As a poet she was isolate. Perhaps only Sue and Helen Hunt recognized her uniqueness as genius rather than the work of a talented amateur. Yet Dickinson knows how good she is. She may have a fear now and again that she will have written all those poems for nothing, but her confidence is much more compelling than her doubt – and more frequently expressed.