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From Life and Letters of Horace BusKneli (New York: Charles Scnbner's Sons, 1$0ζ), facing 1$4· "Loved Philology": Emily Dickinson's Trinitarian Word SIOBHAN PHILLIPS Emily Dickinson's "A word made Flesh" (Poem 1715) vividly proves her belief in the power of language, and critics have long recognized the poem's importance.1 Our assessment of this power remains incomplete, however, without a consideration of the specific religious heritage on which it draws. Following closely the diction and logic of Poem I7l5> I wish to suggest in this essay how the Trinitarian context of Dickinson's work might further our understanding of her poetic triumph and poetic faith. Recent criticism has returned to the religious environment of Dickinson's time with renewed attention and specificity: Alfred Habegger's biography, for instance, warns that "one of the biggest mistakes we make with Dickinson is to detach her from the religious currents of the 1850s"; James Mcintosh provides a full-length study of the interplay of just these currents, and others, in Dickinson's verse; Jane Donahue Eberwein in recent essays explores Dickinson's religious beliefs through their nineteenth-century context; and Roger Lundin's recently reissued religious biography seeks to limn the "curious mix of Whig republicanism and evangelical moralism " that "framed the religious debate in [Dickinson's] home, church, and village."2 However, no religious study thus far, I would argue, has adequately explored Dickinson's use of Trinitarian doctrine, and none has considered how such doctrine might change our assumptions about Dickinson's definition(s) of language.3 Poem 1715 makes such work essential. Certainly, ESQ I K 51 I 4TH QUARTER | 2005 251 SIOBHAN PHILLIPS one can never prove conclusively which particular religious tenet informed which particular poetic choice in Dickinson's work. But Habegger, Mcintosh, Eberwein, and Lundin (and before these, Barton Levi St. Armand, among others)4 demonstrate how skillfully Dickinson moved among the various doctrines available to her: to know better the possible origins of her religious language and ideas is both to clarify how she changed received concepts and to understand more completely the authority claimed in her art. More generally, such a project might extend recent work reconsidering the relevance of Jonathan Edwards's thought to American literature, by taking into account the ineradicable Trinitarianism of Edwardsian religious philosophy.3 And when applied to "A word made Flesh," this work usefully modifies two approaches that characterize much commentary on the poem. The first is a broadly feminist analysis that finds in Dickinson 's revision or rejection of patriarchal religion a suspicion of hierarchy in general, and a self-empowering endorsement of feminine mutuality. The second, a symbolist or deconstructive reading, argues that Dickinson believes language to constitute within itself a world to which it reflexively points, thereby replacing the paradox of Christological Incarnation with the paradox of the poet's own Word—a replacement that might lead to the disintegration or obfuscation of reference. (These two approaches, of course, far from being mutually exclusive , often combine in common support.)6 Though neither reading ignores the poem's spiritual language, a more specific religious focus suggests important qualifications to both. Dickinson, in "Aword made Flesh," does not contrast an exclusively feminine consensual ideal to a patriarchal religious one; she assumes into her version of a single human word the qualities of a Trinitarian divinity. And through these qualities , a word's internal divisions become part of its divine and creative power rather than a symptom of danger or obfuscation . In what follows, I hope to demonstrate these claims: first, by sketching how the power of language in Dickinson's day was linked to the paradoxes of the Trinity; second, by undertaking a close reading of the poem that shows its tripartite metaphors; 252 "LOVED PHILOLOGY·' and third, by using these connections to suggest what an apotheosis of language might mean in the Trinitarian contexts of Dickinson's place, time, and poetry. In mid-nineteenth-century America virtually any debate on the status of words referred—by heritage if not by conscious intent—to debates on the status of religious authority. The link was at least twofold: First, in a climate of religious...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-021X
Print ISSN
0093-8297
Pages
pp. 250-275
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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