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29 June 2012

A word is dead when it is said

A word is dead when it is said
Some say –
I say it just begins to live
That day.
                                                F278 (1862)  1212   

There are some fascinating and profound depths to this short poem (which was penned as most of a letter to Dickinson’s cousin).  An unspoken word is alive with possibility. Meditate upon almost any word and its richness of suggestiveness, connotations and denotations will flower and multiply. There are almost endless possibilities of meaning. The word seems to  have a life of its own.  
            But “Some say” that once the word is spoken this life (in a given situation) is over: the word is “dead” and lies inert where it has been rendered, having coughed up its meaning. Like a pinned butterfly it can be observed and described or categorized but it will no longer fly. This reminds me of (what little I know of) quantum mechanics where in the collapse of the probability wave several different possibilities are reduced to one possibility as seen by an observer.
Like a Mandelbrot set fractal, sometimes a person's words
 take on a life of their own
            Dickinson, however, takes the poet’s view: a word pulled from its shadow world of limitless possibilities is only truly alive when it is birthed by articulation. It needs the light of day to breathe. What makes it breathe and live? The very ambiguity at the heart of language and communication. Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said something to the effect of “The main problem with communication is the perception that it has occurred.” Sometimes we replay and replay in our minds what someone has written or said to us. The words have a life far beyond what the speaker or writer had in mind. And how often do we try to explain ourselves to someone who interpreted what we said in a way contrary to what we meant? Or take, for example, the word “love.” As a dictionary word its meaning is fairly clear. But when someone says it to us it comes to life and resonates with real feeling and real consequence.
            There is a similar life-giving process for words in literature: stories, poems, plays and movies. The same words spoken by one actor in one director’s vision will mean something entirely different in another movie. One version might be heroic, another ironic, another manipulative.
            Dickinson herself once asked a writer and mentor if her verse were “alive.” I think she wanted this richness and diversity in interpretation. She did not want to be a poet whose words were dead on arrival: flatly literal or spouting airy generalities. The entire reason I’m going through each of her poems on this blog is because she succeeded in making not only her poems live but the phrases and even many of the very words. As an example, I just selected, with very little searching, the phrase “miles of stare.” This is what the poem says remains after Heaven, like a circus, packs up its silken tents and disappears. The “stare” lives in our startled response to this poem, enlivening both our understanding of the word and our understanding of what absence is. There is a mystery at its heart and so it continues to live.


  1. I'm torn about the editing--I wonder if this is the way Emily wrote the poem. I think Franklin's version is probably the way she wrote it. The way I had previously seen this poem was in two stanzas; each stanza had three lines. The way I read it was

    "A word is dead
    When it is said,
    Some say.

    I say it just
    Begins to live
    That day."

    In this version, I had read three meanings for the word "just." (1) Just could refer to her own whim or fancy--boldly asserting her word over someone else's and giving herself the final say over the matter (as in I just say this instead of that);(2) It could refer to morality, if one takes just to be short of justice (I'm quite partial to this interpretation), (3) just could also refer to "axiomatic truth"--so, whenever a word is uttered it is alive by sheer force of reality (as meanings of words change over time, and attaching meanings to words isn't an easy task, given that words not only evolve but might intrinsically be different for different people, or even have multiple meanings--"just" in this case).

    In my very first reading, I also thought the "word" she was eluding to was "God's word," and that "day" refers to "Salvation day." Except, the day after my reading, I thought (and now think) that she just meant the comparison to take place without endorsing that particular interpretation. In fact, the word she is uttering is her word--"I say..." So, her own peace of mind (or personal salvation) comes from "just" believing her own word is alive.

    1. I can't quite see the "just" as being a shorthand for "justice" as it doesn't fit grammatically and justice doesn't seem (to me) to figure in. Re-reading the poem with your comments in mind, hnowever, I do see the salvation aspect. The words were dead to the uncomprehending of the world; but in truth they were only born -- much as someone would be born again or saved. Saying (or perhaps in Dickinson's case, writing) the words gives them life. It is a form of salvation -- and would be for Dickinson who may have found her 'salvation' in her verse.
      thanks for commenting!

  2. What is your overall thesis of this poem?

    1. I think I went over it pretty well in my discussion. See if you agree with it!

  3. As with all poems, we are given insight into our own souls,a spark of truth and question has come alive!

  4. Wow this was so beautifully written.. Wish i could write like this someday

  5. Replies
    1. It is a philosophical poem inquiring about what we let loose and for how long when we say something. Words are born not buried when we speak: they become alive.

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  7. Franklin (1998) published the poem’s format as Susan K shows above, which matches two Norcross (cousins) transcripts of ED’s original copy sent to them. Mabel Todd (1896) and Johnson (1955) published the poem as a single six-line stanza. No original ED manuscripts survives.

  8. Above, Susan K reminds us that “The same words spoken by one actor in one director’s vision will mean something entirely different in another movie”, and Zefirino elaborates, “meanings of words change over time, and attaching meanings to words isn't an easy task, given that words not only evolve but might intrinsically be different for different people, or even have multiple meanings”.

    As an example, ED used the word “intercourse” in ‘He was my host — he was my guest’ (F1754, undated):

    He was my host — he was my guest,
    I never to this day
    If I invited him could tell,
    Or he invited me.

    So infinite our intercourse
    So intimate, indeed,
    Analysis as capsule seemed
    To keeper of the seed.

    Judith Farr (1992) opined that this and other Master poems “focus on the sexual act itself”. However, the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary reports that use of "intercourse" as a sexual term in general discourse began after 1900. Before the early 1900s, “intercourse” meant “conversation”.