Emily Dickinson, “The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman” (1487)

The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman (1487)
Emily Dickinson

The Savior must have been
A docile Gentleman —
To come so far so cold a Day
For little Fellowmen —

The Road to Bethlehem
Since He and I were Boys
Was leveled, but for that ‘twould be
A rugged billion Miles —


This is about religious experience. Our marking of Christ’s birth is held, for us, during a cold time of year. We make Him come to us; we feel He does. Only instead of the Son of Man, on a divine mission to redeem the world of its sin, we get a “docile Gentleman.” The world is too much with us, as this is our imagining. There is nothing docile about the Prince of Peace: justice must run down as waters, righteousness an ever-flowing stream. And “gentleman” is the ultimate construct of civil society. We dictate what man ought to be to painful extremes, so much so we demean ourselves, put ourselves in a lower class.

So much for the first stanza. Peculiar about this popular vision of Christianity is that, in a way, it was intended. Maybe there is nothing problematic about Christ as a docile gentleman. The prophet declared the Lord would make every mountain and hill low (Isaiah 40:4). That leveling unifies a number of disparate times: we, hundreds of years removed from His adolescence, are the children come unto Him. We’re there, equal with Him through such direct access. Only, a slight problem – it is, in effect, a wide, easy road. “A rugged billion miles” may overstate how difficult it sometimes can be to achieve a proper, true, moral vision, but then again, a rugged billion miles is literally life on earth.

1 Comment

  1. “must have been A docile Gentleman to come so far so cold a Day for little Fellowmen”— anti-idiom kind of expression that immediately provokes thoughtfulness, till it dawns on the reader that “docile gentleman” can be stretched to rediscover the virtue of meekness, which in the Sermon on the Mount links “beatitude” and “inheriting the earth.”

    “The Road to Bethlehem since He and I were Boys
    Was leveled, but for that ‘twould be a rugged Billion Miles” — “leveled” to enable access, to end the alienation of inequality, in the Magnificat even to end in the indicting reversal of status, certainly a non-docile outcome in the more conventional sense of being docile.

    But this start-up jolt only primes up for the main paradox in the poem: it seems to have been set, that Christmas, which was so forgottenly buried in layers of past histories, seemingly negated by the trends in the formations of cultures, so that the way back involves the impossibilty of trekking a “rugged Billion Miles.”

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