“Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church” by Emily Dickinson: A Contextual Reading
Context gives a poem its full meaning and purpose. While it may be possible to interpret “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church” by itself without using historical and biographical information to shed light on the text, outside references can add more substance to the poem and possibly offer a new way of understanding it. Most of Emily Dickinson’s poems are personal as they reflect the thoughts and feelings of the author. In the case of “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church,” the speaker’s claims on worship and religion allude to Dickinson’s own personal views. With most part of the poem bearing the author’s imprint, gathering relevant historical and biographical details becomes not only a recommended approach but also a vital and necessary endeavor.
There is an alternative to church going. This in part is what the poem strives to convey. The speaker presents the alternative while creating a contrasting picture between the traditional and the unorthodox way of observing religion. Morgan confirms this when she writes, “This poem wittily contrasts an affectation of child-like naivety against the serious paraphernalia associated with traditional forms of religious worship” (111). According to “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church,” traditional form of worship consists of making appearance at church, performing the obligatory church rituals and, listening to formal sermons. Taking a divergent stand, the speaker opposes this particular expression of worship, preferring instead a personal, less conventional way of connecting with God. For the speaker, participating in the profound, which worship essentially is, can take place in the home and within the carefree space of nature. Having this idea about worship, the speaker concludes that Heaven is not the goal but communing with God and the transcendence everyday of his/her life and at any time he or she wants to. Morgan puts it more succinctly with this statement: “Where transcendence for others usually implies a deferred or anticipated state, Dickinson’s is located in the present” (111). The speaker believes that Heaven is in the moment and not a reward or a destination that can be met after death.
A Historical-Biographical Approach to Understanding the Poem
While it is possible to draw out the basic content of the poem without relying on external sources, creating a mosaic of background information can give the poem a clearer and sturdier picture.
The Religious Environment of Emily Dickinson
Many biographers claim that Emily Dickinson grew up in a strictly Puritan environment or to be more precise in the traditional Calvinist mold. Lundin varies with this finding, choosing to correct it by claiming that “a curious mix of Whig republicanism and evangelical moralism framed the debate in [Emily’s] home, church, and village” (13). It is this context that Dickinson was reacting to in the poem and in much of her religious-themed writings. Although the Edwardian Calvinism still had its traces on Neo-Calvinism, which was the Calvinist version dominating the Amherst region at that time, the updated Calvinism was the religion Dickinson knew the most. Neo-Calvinism along with Whiggism created the world that Dickinson would simultaneously accept and rebel against. Lundin confirms this when he writes, “If Dickinsonwas reacting against anything in her struggles with the Church, it was against this alloy of elements rather than against the undiluted Calvinism of an earlier age” (13-14). Having nothing but these primary systems of thought and belief to believe in and rely upon, Dickinson developed a sense of mistrust, instead of the loyalty and complete surrender, which formal religion expects. McIntosh gives notice to this mistrust when he writes, “As a child of her culture, the fixed positions of her local Calvinism are inscribed in her mind and heart, while at the same time she distrusts them and seeks an alternative faith that will be truer to her moral conceptions” (35). The constancy and persistent demands of her religious environment made Dickinson a curious believer- she believes but does not let her beliefs be carved in stone.
Apart from mistrust, the religious background of Dickinson holds responsibility for her poetic sense of awe. According to McIntosh, “…her attraction to awe also has a basis in a Calvinist habit of feeling and thinking” (5). It is obvious from the way Dickinson romanticizes nature in “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church” that an element of awe defines her relationship with nature.
By refusing to take part in the tradition of church going or formal worship that her family and most people in Amherst had taken to doing, Dickinson is in effect demonstrating her tendency to not submit to a certain and fixed conception while continuing to believe in the spiritual. “Nimble believing” is the term that McIntosh picked to describe Dickinson’s effort to juggle faith and doubt in the way she constructs the world and life. According to McIntosh, “Nimble believing, that is believing for intense moments in a spiritual life without permanently subscribing to any received system of belief, is a key experience, an obsessive subject, and a stimulus to expression for Dickinson” (1). In the poem, Dickinson manifests her refusal to be tied down to a single and popular way of believing and thinking by proposing a nature-centered worship and one that is markedly anti-institutional.
Notion of Circumference
Much of Dickinson’s religious ‘rebellion’ that the poem implies stems from her theory of knowledge. The notion of circumference represents Dickinson’s main epistemological stand. Echoing Dickinson’s conception of circumference, Professor Denis Donoghue claims that circumference “marks an area, on all sides, where consciousness ranges beyond enclosure” (23). This, according to Donoghue, is Dickinson’s “version of the sublime” (23). Dickinson believes that what is contained within the circle cannot create or give off a sense of the spiritual; they are but the ordinariness of common knowledge and understanding. Dickinson busies herself with experiencing that which can be found in the ‘circumference.’ To her, this is the only place that truly matters in her poetic and personal endeavors because this is where transcendence bares itself. This notion of circumference reveals its significance in “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church” as it suggests that church going does not lie in the circumference but in the regions of the knowable and the plain.
Dickinson’s ‘religion’ which the poem describes is influenced by her learned conceptions of God as well as her impressions of Him. For Dickinson, God is both terrifying and kind. The God that punishes and knows all had been shaped by her Calvinist upbringing while the God that is dear and kind had come from her love and adoration of Nature. Bianchi summarizes Dickinson’s conflicting views of God with this evocative conjecture: “That she had terror of God on the Sabbath, and loved his creatures and his sunshine with renewed dearness on Monday is a pretty shrewd guess. The awful God of the Sanctuary, and the God of her flo...