I first encountered this poem through Libby Larsen’s setting of it, which I saw while working as an Editorial Assistant at Oxford University Press in New York. I was immediately and profoundly moved by it, not least because of the way it unifies the Spiritual, Natural, and Human worlds in plainspoken language that is nevertheless deeply musical in its rhythm and cadence and rich in its imagery and emotional associations.
As the son of a Unitarian minister, and a descendant of New England intellectual and literary traditions, Cummings’s spiritual development was highly influenced by the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and other New England Transcendentalists, who rejected social conformity and encouraged each individual to develop a personal and intuitive understanding of the Divine present in every aspect of the world.
The poem does more than offer an all-embracing vision of spiritual, natural, and human existence in the depiction of the humble, welcoming rustic church, its surroundings, and its congregation. By personifying the church and giving it a human voice, Cummings suggests that each of us is also a “little church,” a place where, if we are in tune with the world around us, the Divine also is present and can be experienced.
This musical setting of i am a little church should be performed with great delicacy of feeling, and at all times, a deep sensitivity to the text, which should be conveyed to the audience both clearly and expressively. The soprano solo should be sung without over-embellishment or dramatization, but again, with a strong understanding and feeling for the words and their meaning.