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15 March 2012

I've heard an Organ talk, sometimes –

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. 


  1. She was probably molested by someone. I was listening to Aaron Copeland's Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson. I'm just assuming maybe this is what happened to her.

  2. Ms. K, I agree with your suggestion of a choice. I think the poet's spirituality and definition of the word "love" are both evolving though she doesn't yet know all the answers.

  3. Art, in this case music, and love can have the same exhilarating affect. What causes it is unknown, and is to some frightening. It is to ED, in fact, when it is over she wishes to become a more "Bernadine Girl", and she concluded with: [I] know not what was done to me In that old Chapel Aisle, and I don't want to feel that way again.
    She has expressed this before.

    1. Yes. In another poem she talks about a shaft of winter light having an internal effect (not a pleasant one) -- 'where the differences are'.

  4. Oh My God!!!

    Commenters “Lovetosing8”, 3December 9, 2015, and “Unknown”, December 26, 2021, just set off alarm bells I felt after reading an early poem (F43, 1958) and letter (L30, 1850). We know for certain that ED was psychologically abused repeatedly at Holyoke Female Seminary, which she attended August 1847-May 1848, when she was 16-17.

    When I read Stanza 4 of F43, ‘Through Lane it Lay’, I felt suspicious she had also been sexually abused. Later, I read L30 to Jane Humphrey, which virtually confirms sexual abuse. Now we have this poem (F211, 1861) repeating the same accusations, this time naming the place where it happened.

    Please forgive this long comment, but here are F43 and my verbatim responses to it:

    Through lane it lay—thro' bramble—
    Through clearing and thro' wood—
    Banditti often passed us
    Upon the lonely road.

    The wolf came peering curious—
    The owl looked puzzled down—
    The serpent's satin figure
    Glid stealthily along—

    The tempests touched our garments—
    The lightning's poinards gleamed—
    Fierce from the Crag above us
    The hungry Vulture screamed—

    The satyrs fingers beckoned—
    The valley murmured "Come"—
    These were the mates—
    This was the road
    Those children fluttered home.
    J9, Fr43 (1858)


    1. How about Fr101 (I had some things that I called mine)? That one seems pretty suspicious.

  5. Larry B April 15, 2022 at 6:32 PM

    This poem [F43], written in 1858 by the 28--year-old poet, may reflect what she felt in August, 1847, as her father, Edward Dickinson, drove a frightened, shy, and naïve 16-year-old to Mt Holyoke Female Seminary. Amherst Road, a narrow country lane, ran 10 miles from Amherst to Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, including a 2-mile stretch that threaded through a narrow notch


    between Bare Mountain


    and The Devil’s Garden


    in the wilderness of the Mt. Holyoke range.

    He “left [her] there alone for the first time in her life out in the strange, wide world; the Holyoke range shutting her away from all the geography of her previous existence more obdurately than any remote distance of modem latitude and longitude could devise.” (Bianchi 1924. The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson, Page 21.)

    Although she professed to be happy in her many letters to family and friends, she was not. In fact the founder and headmistress, Mary Lyon, repeatedly humiliated her in the presence of her classmates because she would not, literally, stand up for Jesus in the required weekly hour of Christian advice.

    The headmistress separated her girls into three religious categories: those who were "established Christians," those who "expressed hope," and those "without hope"; Emily Dickinson was the only one “without hope”. Finally, a few weeks before the end of the spring semester, she wrote her father and asked him to come get her. He sent Austin to bring her home.


    The first three stanzas of “Through lane it lay” seem transparent enough; Emily is scared to death, especially when they passed through the notch, with towering rocky hills on either side. But then the poem suddenly goes darkly sexual:

    ‘The satyrs fingers beckoned—The valley murmured "Come”—‘.

    Given that satyrs were often depicted in paintings as horny half goat, half man creatures, sometimes with enormous erections, I wonder what else happened at Mt Holyoke beside the weekly psychological abuse.

    The final three lines remind us of what Dickinson apparently felt had happened at Holyoke: these were her classmates, this was the road, those were mere children who fluttered home like butterflies, quickly and quietly.

    Susan KornfeldApril 15, 2022 at 8:47 PM
    Thank you -- puts an interesting spin on the poem 'story'

    Larry B, April 29, 2022 at 7:05 AM

    Letter [L30] from Emily Dickinson to Jane Humphrey. ED met Jane at Amherst Academy, which ED attended for 7 years, 1840-1847.

    “23 January 1850

    "Dear Jane.


    "Oh ugly time - and space - and boarding-school contemptible that tries to keep us apart - laugh now if you will - but you shall howl hereafter! Eight weeks with their bony fingers still poking me away - how I hate them - and would love to do them harm! Is it wicked to talk so Jane - what can I say that isnt? Out of a wicked heart cometh wicked words –

    Very sincerly yrs-
    Emily E. Dickinson.”

  6. Aaron Copland set this poem to music in 1950. Its last line chills my bones. Tenth song on this youtube recording: