E Emily Dickinson

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – by Emily Dickinson

‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ is one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems. It features the poet’s growing disbelief regarding the customary Christian rituals and her intention to seek salvation without resorting to the conventional means.

Emily Dickinson wrote this poem, ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ when she was disillusioned with the fact that God resides in one’s heart. A rigorous follower of Christian rituals may get the divine blessing but one who seeks Him within the soul need not crave such blessings. As God communicates directly with that person. Through this poem, Dickinson makes it clear that if one truly wants to attain salvation, they can get it by staying at their home. Only one condition must be followed. They have to be true at their heart. Otherwise, this process will prove futile.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – by Emily Dickinson

 

Summary

‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ by Emily Dickinson describes how the poet prays to God without bending to the compass of religious rituals.

This simple poem can be summarized in a single sentence. It is about finding God within one’s heart or soul without caring much about how others are maintaining the orthodox rituals.

In the first stanza, Dickinson’s speaker talks about how she stays at home without keeping the sabbath and going to the Church to pray. She prefers a Bobolink’s song for choral music. While in the second stanza, she refers to the surplice that is worn for Church service. She just wears her informal dress and prays to God.

In the last stanza, the poet ironically compares God to a clergyman whose sermon is not long like the preached ones. Instead of hoping for the last destination that is heaven, she focuses more on the path that leads there. On that path, she is all by herself. The only assistance she gets on her path is directly from God.

 

Meaning

There are layers of meanings inside the text. At a surface level, it seems that the poem is about the poet’s belief concerning the way to communicate to God. But, after getting to the core, it can be found that it is not a subjective idea of spirituality. It’s a fact that true spirituality never encompasses the customary rituals observed during a religious ceremony. It’s much more than that. And in this poem, Dickinson throws light on this concept.

In each stanza, she unleashes what seems to her the idea of spiritualism. Firstly, she deals with the concept of Sabbath and how she sits at home, listening to a bird. Then comes the external vestments that are worn during a devotional session. She does not think that it is essential for communicating with God.

The last stanza, the most important section for decoding the overall idea of the poem, deals with how God can be found in simple things as well as one’s soul.

 

Structure

This poem is separated into three sections. Each stanza consists of four rhyming lines. Dickinson uses the ballad stanza form while writing this poem. For this reason, the rhyme scheme of the text is ABCB. The poet utilizes this form for hinting at the essential truth of spirituality.

The first two stanzas from a unit as there is not any stop-mark. A full stop is present at the end of the second stanza. While the last stanza stands alone as it speaks of the speaker’s argument concerning her attitude prescribed in the previous stanzas.

While metrically analyzing the text, it can be found that the most frequently used meter is iambic. There are a few metrical variations. Whatsoever, readers can find the use of iambic tetrameter, iambic trimeter, and iambic pentameter in the text.

 

Literary Devices

The poem, ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ contains some important literary devices that help readers to decode the poet’s idea. First of all, they can find the use of irony in the very first line. The first two lines form a unit and explore an ironic point. Through these lines, Dickinson presents a contrast as well.

In this line, “With a Bobolink for a Chorister,” Dickinson refers to the song of Bobolink and that of the choristers as well. This line contains metonymy. In the next line, she uses two symbols. The “Orchard” is a symbol of flexibility and openness. While the “Dome” is a symbol of convention and rigidity.

The first line of the second stanza contains a repetition of the “s” sound. It is a use of alliteration. In the next line, Dickinson uses a metaphor by using the term “Wings.” It is a reference to her casual dress that symbolically represents freedom and flexibility. There is onomatopoeia in the phrase, “tolling of the Bell”.

In the third stanza, the poet uses sarcasm to bring home her idea of spirituality. Here, she also makes use of epigram for describing the idea of God. In the last two lines, she uses a paradox.

 

Tone

Throughout this piece, Dickinson’s speaker talks in a calm mood. She does not regret her decision. While others are busy keeping the sabbath and going to church, she feels rather pacified by staying at home. In the first two stanzas, her tone is direct and emotive. She speaks what’s on her mind. There is nothing in her belief that is wrong. Therefore her tone is quite forceful and has clarity.

While in the third stanza, her tone changes a bit. It creates a humorous effect in this section. The use of a satiric tone lessens the complexity. But, it also paves the way for the complex idea present in the last two lines. In the end, the tone of this poem becomes straightforward as the speaker presents her thoughts disregarding the religious norms.

 

Themes

Dickinson taps on several themes in ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ For example, she presents the theme of convention in the very first stanza. Besides, there are the themes of the orthodoxy of religion, individualism, spirituality, and nature as well. The last two lines of this stanza contain the theme of romanticism. According to the speaker, one can find divinity in nature itself. There is no need to seek God elsewhere.

In the second stanza, readers can find the theme of materialism and worldliness. To be specific, here Dickinson taps on the theme of materialism vs spirituality. While in the last stanza, she welcomes the theme of salvation. But the idea does not resemble what is prescribed by orthodox religion. Rather it is about the true meaning of salvation. According to the poet, enjoying the journey is much more rewarding than merely focusing on the end.

 

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

The title of Dickinson’s poem ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ is the very first line of the first stanza. Readers are aware of the fact that most of her poems are written without a title. The editors later included the title while publishing Emily Dickinson’s poems after her death. They also struggled to find apt titles. Therefore using the first line as the title was preferred to keeping the poems untitled.

Whatsoever, the first stanza opens with a statement that topples the belief behind orthodox rituals. According to the poetic persona, she stays at home in contrast to those who keep the sabbath and go to church. Besides, she listens to a Bobolink’s song rather than keeping her ears busy with routined religious songs. For her, the orchard nearby is the best place to find God. He is not present inside the huge domes of Churches.

Let’s have a close look at each line of this stanza for understanding the overall idea of the poet.

 

Line 1

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

In the first line, the speaker casually refers to the Christians who devotedly obey the orders written in the Holy Bible. They keep Sabbath and go to church to pray to the almighty. Their attitude towards religion is somehow influenced by the fear of God. They do what others tell them to do without enquiring much into the reason to follow them. Therefore they are spiritually blind.

Dickinson uses capital letters at the beginning of two words namely “Sabbath” and “Church”. What’s the reason for doing so?

Firstly, the sabbath is a day of religious observance and abstinence from work. Most Christians keep sabbath on Sunday. This inactivity is a tribute to the supreme lord. After devoting their whole day to Him, they generally go to church to pray. The poet particularly emphasizes those words to hint at two ideas. One is related to the rituals and another point at their source.

The church, a metonym for who controls the church, lays down the rules for the mass and they have to follow it blindly. There is a rigidity in the sense that it is an order to be followed, not for introspection. None can question against such orders.

Readers can take note of the fact there is a repetition of the “s” sound and the words containing this repetition are closely related to each other.

 

Line 2

I keep it, staying at Home –

To create a contrast, the first-person speaker proclaims she keeps the sabbath. But she stays at home. It is important to mention here that as the poem is told from the first-person point-of-view, it is an example of a lyric.

For understanding the interpretation of this line, the first line has to be read again. There the speaker talks about others who blindly follow the religion. But, she is not one of them. She is also a religious person. But it does not mean she is liable to go to church.

She can keep the sabbath and pray to God by staying in her homely environment. The church is a place for gathering. If one is true at their service to God, they can create a church-like environment within their home. Spirituality starts from one’s soul. So there is no need to go elsewhere for being spiritual.

The decrease of syllable count in this line increases the pace of the poem. Besides, the sudden clipping of this line, makes one focus on this line. The idea, present here needs no special mentioning. As it reveals Dickinson’s strong individualism.

She capitalizes the word “Home” for the sake of emphasis. A home is a place where one’s thoughts can freely evolve. There is no other force that comes into action except that of the owner. Therefore, it becomes a symbol of freedom.

 

Line 3

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

In the third line, there is another epigrammatic idea. Readers can find the use of auditory imagery here. Dickinson refers to a Bobolink first. Why is this bird special?

Bobolink is a small blackbird that is known for its unique call. So the name of the bird onomatopoetic. Besides, it is also known as the “Rice Bird,” found mainly near paddy fields during harvest season. Dickinson likes the call of the bird more than the devotional song sung by a chorister (a member of a choir).

The speaker likes Bobolink’s song as it sings without any intention. While a chorister sings with a purpose. For this reason, the bird’s song seems purer than the chorister’s song.

In this line, readers can find two symbols. The bird represents nature. It explores the idea of finding God in nature. While the “Chorister” is a symbol of orthodox religion. In this way, Dickinson creates an antithesis of ideas.

 

Line 4

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

The last line of the first stanza explores a similar contrast. Like, in the previous line, Dickinson presents a difference between romanticism and orthodoxy, here she taps on a similar concept.

According to the speaker, an orchard is the best place to contemplate God and his creation. Whereas the “Dome” signifies rigidity. Besides, it hints at the institution of religion. There is a lack of flexibility and it hinders one’s free-flowing thoughts. Therefore the church does not seem a fine place for being pious. The speaker thinks the openness of nature expands her heart. She can think peacefully when she is close to nature. The same does not apply to when she goes to the church.

 

Stanza Two

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –

I, just wear my Wings –

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton – sings.

In the second stanza of ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ the speaker firmly proclaims her individualism. According to her, it is mandatory to wear a surplice while attending church services. While she wears her informal dress and prays to God. She likes the song of a little bird, referred to as “little Sexton,” more than the tolling of the church bell.

Let’s analyze each line of this stanza for a better understanding of the ideas present here.

 

Line 1

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –

The first line of this section resembles the first line of the previous stanza. Formerly, the speaker talks about going to church. While in this section, she talks about another custom. It is about wearing the surplice. The surplice is a loose white linen vestment varying from hip-length to calf-length. It is worn over a cassock by clergymen and choristers at church services.

Wearing a surplice is mandatory for attending the church services. If readers look at the word “some” at the beginning of the first line, they can understand that it is worn by a few, not all of them. As others are growing conscious about the fact that for being spiritual it is not mandatory to obey every rule prescribed in scriptures. If a Christian is true at their service, they can attain salvation in their informal vestments.

In this line, there is a repetition of the “s” sound. And the repetition occurs in the words that are important for decoding the meaning of the lines. Those words are capitalized too for the sake of emphasizing the point.

 

Line 2

I, just wear my Wings –

In this line, the speaker says she wears her “Wings”. What does it mean? From the meaning of the first line, it becomes clear that it is a reference to her informal dress that she wears in her home. There is a comma just after the word “I”. The short pause helps one to stress on that pronoun. It sounds like a proclamation. That she prefers to stay in her casual dress during prayer. She doesn’t feel like wearing a surplice for being pure. The purity engenders from one’s thoughts and above all from the soul.

The word “Wings” is a metaphor. Like the wings of a bird helps it to soar higher in the sky. It keeps the body warm during winter and helps it to protect its inner parts. Likewise, the personal thoughts of the poet protect her soul. Those ideas help her to stay apart from the crowd and reach heaven. So the “Wings” is a symbol of freedom of thoughts and individualism as well.

 

Lines 3–4

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton – sings.

In these two lines, Dickinson uses enjambment for hinting at a contrast of ideas. It is not that only here the device is present. The poet uses it throughout this piece.

In the third line, the speaker says she doesn’t toll the bell for the church. While in the following line, she metaphorically refers to the Bobolink and says its song is more sonorous than the tolling of the church bell. Before going deeper into the meaning of these lines, it is better to know the meaning of the word “Sexton”. A sexton is a person who looks after a church and acts as a bell-ringer. Here, the bird is compared to a sexton.

As mentioned earlier, Dickinson creates such an environment in her home that it feels like she is in a church. This church is quite personal and nobody is allowed here except her. In an actual church, there is a sexton to ring the bell to mark the time of prayer or other things. But in the speaker’s church, there is no such sexton. Here, the bird sings in such a manner that it feels like it is tolling the bell. It helps the poet to keep on her devotional track.

Readers are wondering how Dickinson fuses the orthodox images associated with the church with nature.

 

Stanza Three

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.

The third stanza of ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ is ironic enough. Dickinson’s speaker associates the idea of God with a clergyman. He is not a common one rather he is noted of all the clergymen.

According to her, the actual sermon delivered by God is never long in comparison to those that are preached in churches. Besides, she wants to be on the path of spirituality all along rather than thinking of getting to heaven at last. In this way, the poet highlights the importance of the path, not the end. The discussion is further expanded below.

 

Line 1

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

In the lines quoted above, Dickinson uses sarcasm to present her point. According to her, “God preaches.” It means she follows what is dictated by the supreme creator. What is preached in churches by the clergymen holds little value to her. Besides, she thinks God is “a noted Clergyman.”

Readers have to wait here before advancing to the next line. They can see throughout the poem, Dickinson uses capital letters in front of the important words. Likewise, she uses the term “Clergyman” as a proper noun. As one has to write the first letter of “God” in capital letters, the same goes for the word “Clergyman”. But why is it done? The reason is the poet uses a metaphor here and compares God to a clergyman.

 

Line 2

And the sermon is never long,

Whatsoever, the poet is of the view that God is the real clergyman who preaches just for redeeming mankind and making their mind peaceful. In place of that, the worldly clergymen always think of their benefits. In this way, Dickson highlights the corruption in churches.

On top of that, the sermons preached by those worldly saints are always lengthy and cumbersome, thus boring. It never attracts the speaker. Whereas the sermon of God is short, apt, and interesting. Like a poet, He incorporates complexity in simple expression. For this attitude of God, the speaker prefers to learn directly from him instead of resorting to preachers.

It is important to mention here that the poet uses epigram in this line for presenting her idea.

 

Line 3

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

In the last two lines of this stanza, Dickinson uses irony to present her point. The speaker of this work cuts off all connections with orthodox religion. Therefore she does not think like others. Others crave getting to heaven. But she does not think like that.

They only think of the afterlife and live in the future. Whereas the speaker focuses more on herself without thinking much about what she will get in return. So others try to be spiritual for the desire of heavenly bliss hidden inside their subconscious mind. It appears they are true at their service to God. But, in reality, they are not.

If readers closely look at the third line, they can understand that the comma has something to do with the meaning of this line. It makes one halt for a moment before uttering the phrase, “at last.” Why does the poet especially emphasize this phrase? She does so by highlighting the fact that others only think of the reward that may be waiting for them at the end.

 

Line 4

I’m going, all along.

Again there is another comma in the last line, “I’m going, all along.” It divides the sentence into two parts. The first part refers to continuity. Whereas the latter associates the idea of unending time. It seems the speaker is trying to say that she is more devoted to her service to God. And, she wants to be engrossed in this only rather than desiring for anything in return.

In this line, there is a repetition of the “ing” sound in the words, “going” and “along”. This alliteration creates an internal rhyming between the important words. In the line, “I’m going” the speaker refers to a process. While in the next part, she unfolds how she progresses on that path. It seems she has God assisting her all the time. Therefore she can easily continue her journey in a constant direction that will eventually lead her to heaven.

 

Historical Context

For understanding why Dickinson wrote the poem, ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ the historical background has to be referred to. In 1845, a protestant religious revival took place in Amherst. It resulted in 46 confessions of faith among the peers of Dickinson. According to her, she felt perfect peace and happiness during that spiritual revival. It appeared to her as if she had found her Savior. Later she remarked it was her “greatest pleasure to commune alone with the great God & to feel that he would listen to my prayers.”

However, the experience did not last. She attended church services for a few years only. When her church-going finally ended around 1852, she composed the verses of ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ Through this poem, she made an implicit declaration of her faith. Besides, Dickinson’s speaker also makes it clear that God can be found in the homely environment. There is no need to seek him in austerity.

 

Similar Poetry

The following poems are similar to the themes present in Emily Dickinson’s lyric, ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’

You can also look into the best poems about God and the best of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

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About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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