I've heard an Organ talk, sometimes –
In a Cathedral Aisle,
And understood no word it said –
Yet held my breath, the while –
And risen up—and gone away,
A more Bernardine Girl –
Yet – knew not what was done to me
In that old Chapel Aisle.
- F211 (1861) 183
It was William Congreve in his tragedy The Mourning Bride (1697) who said, “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,” and whether or not Dickinson’s breast would count as savage she felt a transcendent calm. Unfortunately, the speaker of the lines (Almeria – and in fact these are the first lines of the play) goes on to say that while music soothes even savage breasts it doesn’t soothe hers. Here’s the pertinent passage:
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
'Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv'd the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg'd
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?
Perhaps Almeria hadn’t heard a majestic organ echoing through the vaulted ceilings and alcoves of a cathedral, which is a place designed to inspire spiritual awe and peace. Now the church Dickinson actually attended when she did attend was not a cathedral but a lovely and no doubt inspirational Congregational church. Dickinson did travel a bit, at least within neighboring states and so no doubt she visited more traditional cathedrals in cities such as Boston.
However, she may have been using “Cathedral” because she uses “Chapel” at the end of the poem and, more importantly, “Cathedral” has the advantage of syllables and stress. The line is quiet and iambic. At the end, “old Chapel Aisle,” uses two juxtaposed accented syllables to draw out the sound, emphasizing the oldness.
|The Congregational Church of Amherst|
that Dickinson attended
Ironically, within a few years of writing this poem Dickinson quit going to church altogether. Although she reflects quite a bit of Christian imagery in her poetry and certainly searches its themes, she was unable to commit to the Christian pledge that so many of her friends and family signed. By way of explanation she wrote that "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" (Letter 13).
But back to this poem. We find the poet holding her breath inside a cathedral while the organ plays – except to the poet the music is so powerfully communicative or at least evocative that she says she heard it “talk.” As if listening to a foreign-language speaker, though, she cannot make out the words. But when the music is over she is subtly changed – a “more Bernardine Girl” – but without knowing how that change came about. Just the power of the music. St. Bernard (who knows why they named a dog after the esteemed 11th century French abbot) was known for his austere simplicity and for instituting strict austerity in his abby. Moved by the music, the poet also wants to live in greater simplicity.