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Dickinson's Satirical Unorthodoxy: An Explication of "Some Keep the Sabbath by Going to Church"

Dani is a college student with a love for dystopian novels, political poetry, and words that are too big to use in normal conversation.

Dickinson used her poetry to evaluate and address religious topics of the Victorian era through careful satire and irony as a form of social commentary. of the most poignant examples of her criticism is the poem “Some keep the Sabbath by going to Church.” This poem is a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the practice of many religious traditions and their trappings that were prominent in her time. She uses a careful concoction of satire and allusions to the natural to craft a witty poem. The stanza of this poem sets the scene and tone for the upcoming lines.

keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome – (Dickinson 1 - 4)

Within these lines, the reader can detect casually the narrator approaches their differences in style of worship. She seems playful and perhaps even teasing of how serious others take the role and how much simpler her methods are. The role of the “Sabbath” – or the last of each week which is reserved for the worship of the Abrahamic deity – played a vital role in Victorian culture. This worship took place somewhere sacred: in a church, temple, or cathedral. The narrator instead insists that she does the same at home. This places a direct social challenge to the authority and traditions of Christian leadership, which placed importance of the hierarchy within the Church. Next, Dickinson makes a comparison to the bobolink – a common type of bird with a song – to a chorister, which was a phrase known by many to mean a young choral singer. The next allusion that the author makes is that of the literal place of worship – the dome of a cathedral to the cover of an orchard. These comparisons lend of authority and protection that both the traditional and Dickinson’s location of worship provide. This first stanza showcases yet another aspect of Dickinson’s writing – her unconventional approach to grammar and punctuation. Nouns that are not typically capitalized, such as “Home” or “Chorister” are made so alongside proper nouns such as “Sabbath.” Dickinson likely chose to capitalize these words to draw emphasis that they are the aspects of this poem, and in some cases, just as important as the “proper nouns” in the sentence.

The next stanza continues this tone, keeping the same basic structure as the first stanza. In it, the narrator says how other people “keep the Sabbath” and then gives her rituals in comparison.

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –

I, just wear my Wings –

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton – sings. (Dickinson 5 - 8)

In this instance, Dickinson compares what she and other parishioners may wear. A surplice, for instance, is a garment worn by all members of clergy in both the Anglican and Catholic church, as well as the aforementioned choristers and other esteemed members. When the narrator says that they just wear their “Wings,” she may be linking herself to the natural predisposition of the birds already mentioned in this poem. It is also possible that Dickinson is making another tongue-in-cheek reference to religious imagery; instead of comparing herself to a bird, she may be calling herself an angel. She further links the poem back to the first stanza, speaking again of the sounds of worship. Dickinson notes that there is no large effort in her service, and that the “little” Sexton – another bird – sings. This is another instance of Dickinson showcasing the casual stance of her religious rituals. There is no grand effort to toll the bell, a bird simply opens its beak and sings.

The final stanza shifts in structure slightly as it sums up the narrator’s thoughts. It is in this last thought that her satire peaks. She speaks about modern clergy by saying what God is not.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along. (Dickinson 9 - 12)

Mentioning that God is a “noted Clergyman” is a direct implication that many do not regard God’s word as highly as they may another earthly clergy. She continues with the implication earthly clergy have lengthy, perhaps unnecessarily, sermons in comparison to God’s original word. Dickinson has spent the majority of the poem talking about how others worship – and the main purpose of worship is to prove worthiness and gain access to Heaven. In this final stanza, she reveals that her ways of worship are so serene that she feels she is in in Heaven “all along.”

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52138/some-keep-the-sabbath-going-to-church-236. n.d. Web page.