When Emily Dickinson was critical about organized religion. A comment on poem 236

I like to make parallels between written text and biography; today the correct term would be biographical criticism. This method of interpreting any text has become quite popular, even if it’s got some obvious traps concerning objectivity. When were left out on information we tend to make own explanations and give in to speculations. THIS becomes obvious when we deal with the life of famous authors. We may possess certain data available to us through various records from archives which can explain why an author wrote as they did.

Poem 236

Some keep the Sabbath going to the Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

 

WHILE it seems obvious the poem takes a critical stance towards organized religion, such as worshipping in churches and listening to long sermons it doesn’t reveal so much on why she’s critical. She also produce an alternative; herself in nature and surrounding herself with nature she says she doesn’t need a church and experience religion through watching the God’s work in nature is enough for her. Let’s dive into some biographical reading on this poem and see if we can find some solutions on why she feels the way she does!

img_0837Emily Dickinson and Religion : Calvinism and revival in Amherst, Massachusetts

Themes like death and immortality are extremely common in Dickinson’s poetry. Plagued by ill-health all her life it’s not totally strange to understand her mind occupied many thoughts on these matters. Her social milieu and the society was governed by religious views and to alienate oneself from the congregation was very rare and likely looked upon as something negative and suspicious. Themes like death, immortality and Religion was not uncommon among nineteenth-century poets. It’s somewhat strange Dickinson’s poems came to be criticized for being so concentrated upon death when so many other poets like Keats and Whitman were on a similar stand and often returned to this topic. Many have tried to categorize Dickinson’s about death and broken up her entire collection of poetic work into four categories on this matter:

  • Poems in which death represents extinction.
  • Poems which dramatize the possibility on the survival of the soul.
  • Poems which embraze a faith in immortality.
  • Poems about God and God’s care of humans.

In a letter to a friend (1850) Emily stated: “I am standing alone in rebellion.” She never joined the Congregational Church in Amherst. Another letter (L13) reveals her ideas on christian faith: “I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die”. I think Emily Dickinson was critical about organized religion. It’s quite clear from her poetry that she does hold some religious views but they are not bound to any traditional faith or system of beliefs.

Works consulted in this post

Emily Dickinson and the Church – Information from The Emily Dickinson Museum.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)