There’s a Certain Slant of Light
There’s a Certain Slant of Light
Emily Dickinson 1861
Written in 1861 at the beginning of Emily Dickinson’s most prolific period as a poet, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” was first published in 1890 by Thomas Higginson in an edited version. It was not available in its original form until Thomas H. John-son’s 1955 edition of Dickinson’s Collected Works. In stark contrast to Emerson’s Romantic spiritualization of nature, this poem portrays nature as a distant, alien, and indifferent force fraught with reminders of death’s universal presence. Dickinson’s poem lays open the dialectic between outer nature and the inner self and places the source of meaning firmly within the interpretive self. In other words, all of the physical and psychological impressions that natural phenomena exert upon human consciousness only receive significance within the individual mind, “Where the Meanings, are.”
“There’s a Certain Slant of Light” also exemplifies Dickinson’s poetic treatment of grief and loss present in so many of her works. On the surface, the poem explores the depression that light deprivation may inflict upon the mind during winter. And yet it also opens out to a cluster of associations that are specific to Dickinson herself. Indirectly, for example, the poem reveals Dickinson’s ambivalence toward God, the force behind this winter light as well as the rest of nature. But overall, this work discloses the feelings of isolation and alienation all grieving people suffer “After great pain.” In brilliantly “cut” gem-like language, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” casts light upon the quiet desperation that misery knows. This poem tells all the truth about pain but tells it “slant,” or indirectly
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, the second of three children to respectable, upper-middle-class Puritan parents. She would later describe her father as domineering and her mother as emotionally distant. Early on, she was a great admirer of and a great rival to her brother, Austin, born nearly two years previously. She was active, precocious, and strong-willed as a child. But in time, she would become increasingly sensitive, shy, and retiring.
After two years at Amherst Academy, Dickinson entered the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College), where she studied for one year until homesickness drove her home. Although only seventeen at the time, Dickinson quietly defied both official and peer pressure to experience a conversion to Christianity. Dickinson later admitted in a letter that she secretly worried that somehow she had willfully put herself beyond God’s grace by her rebellion.
Despite the brevity of her formal education, Dickinson voraciously read all of her father’s books and subscribed to the great literary journals of her time. In fact, her struggle with social Christendom may have actually propelled her into a quest for the sublime in literature. (This Romantic transference from orthodox Christianity to a worship of nature and the powers of the imagination has been described by M. H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp.) By the late 1850s, Dickinson had begun to take herself seriously as a poet, inspired by the successes of George Eliot, George Sand, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the great women writers of her time.
Many speculate that a tragic end to a love affair caused Dickinson’s prodigious poetic output in the early 1860s. The story goes that Dickinson’s heart was broken when clergyman Charles Wadsworth told her, in 1860, that he was journeying to California. There are, in fact, many poems from this period that accurately describe the processes of a severe mental breakdown. Nevertheless, all such speculations are just that—speculations. What is more interesting is that Dickinson so successfully portrayed various life experiences and mental states considering that, by the early
1860s, she had chosen to live in almost total physical isolation from the outside world.
In 1862, Dickinson sent Thomas Higginson, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a letter and included some of her poems. She internalized his observation that she was not ready for publication in a way he never would have suspected. She resolved to continue writing in her own unique style and await future readers that would appreciate her voice, while still sending Higginson poetry for advice she never followed. She lived out the remainder of her life in relative obscurity, caring for her invalid mother until her death in 1882. Emily Dickinson’s own death—from a kidney ailment called Bright’s Disease—followed nearly four years later, in 1886.
There’s a Certain Slant of Light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of cathedral Tunes—
Heavenly Hurt it gives us— 5
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are—
None may teach it—Any—
’Tis the Seal Despair— 10
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—
When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance 15
On the look of Death—
The opening lines of “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” speak of the declination of southern sunlight one always sees on bright winter afternoons. But the unusual syntax of these lines is uniquely Dickinsonian. The comma separating “Slant of light” from “Winter Afternoons” causes “Afternoons” to stand in apposition to “Slant.” In grammar, an appositive is a noun or a noun phrase, set off by commas, that further explains or defines the noun or phrase that immediately precedes it, as in “Celeste, president of our club.” In this particular sentence, we would normally expect a preposition like “on” to govern the phrase “Winter Afternoons” and connect it to “Slant of light” as a temporal adverb telling exactly “when” this “Slant of light” occurs (in fact, this is precisely how Dickinson’s “mentor,” Thomas Higginson, edited the poem for its first publication in 1890). But by making the second line an appositive of “Slant,” Dickinson compresses the two events together to emphasize that the angle of light she is describing can only be seen on winter afternoons.
“Heft,” a word in common use in the New English dialect of Dickinson’s time, means “weight, heaviness, and ponderousness,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It can even signify the force of falling blows or the pressure of circumstances. Given this semantic environment, then, the word “oppresses” reinforces the sense of stress and torment arising from the depression brought on by winter’s southwestern light. But note how Dickinson relates this sense of heaviness to “Cathedral Tunes.” We can actually imagine the sensation of the light in terms of sonic “blows” of an organ blasting out a hymn in full voice into vast, reverberating space. Describing light in terms of weight and sound is an example of synesthesia, that is, a fusion of different sensations. But linking light and sound with weight is also an example of metonymy,
- Produced in 1988 by Jill Jannows for the Voices & Visions public television series of the New York Center for Visual History, Voices & Visions: Emily Dickinson has recently been released in VHS by Mystic Fire Video.
- Reissued in November of 1997 by the University of Missouri, Emily Dickinson: A Certain Slant of Light is a thirty-minute-long VHS documentary of the poet’s life and work.
- Twelve of Emily Dickinson’s poems were set to music by American composer Aaron Copland between 1948 and 1950. In 1992, Music Masters Classics formatted a compact disc of eight of the songs Copland orchestrated in the late 1960s along with other works.
- Dove Books Audio has published three volumes of Fifty Poems, read by Cheryl Ladd, Amy Irving, Glenda Jackson, Meryl Streep, and others. These readings are available on both cassette and CD.
- Meryl Streep also lent her vocal talents to Time-Warner’s Audio Books cassette Into the Beautiful: Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, published in July of 1998.
- Internet Multicasting Service has created an “Internet Town Hall” web-site where you can download “This is my letter to the world,” a 1961 recording of British actress Julie Harris reading assorted poems and letters by Dickinson, by Harper Audio (a division of Harper Books) in three parts. The URL is http://town.hall.org/radio/HarperAudio/012794_harp_ITH.html.
a figure of speech in which the name of one object or concept is used for another of which it is a part or to which it is related. Logically speaking, it is difficult to see how the elements of such a synesthetic experience are metonymically related. But on an intuitive level, the meaning of the image strikes the reader as profoundly revealing of the speaker’s attitude not only toward the “Slant of light” but also toward her experience with the Church.
Besides forming an oxymoron (an image that is incongruous or self-contradictory), the expression “Heavenly Hurt” suggests that the oppression the psyche suffers from winter sunlight has a transcendental source as does “the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes.” But there is also a play on words here because “Heavenly” can refer to either the abode of God, the “Heavenly Father,” or the sun’s place in the sky. But whatever its cause, this resultant injury leaves “no scar.” Its wounds are not obvious to an external observer because of their location within the self.
The wound wrought by the southern light of a winter’s afternoon creates an “internal difference, / Where the Meanings, are—.” These two lines epitomize not only the crux of this particular poem but also Dickinson’s entire approach to writing poetry. “Where the Meanings, are” is the self’s interpretive faculty that ascribes signification to sensuous experience. Not only do all the scars of psychic abuse form there, but all interactions with the external world have also left their marks there. Conversely, this discriminative sense projects meaning upon events and things outside of the individual. The cognitive process therefore primarily consists of assigning meaning to phenomena as they relate to the self.
But this depressing light resists all “instruction” and cannot be changed, no matter how urgently wished for by the sufferer. The word “Any” of line 9 is another example of Dickinson’s challenging syntactical compression. When Higginson first edited this poem, he changed the word to “anything,” which is perhaps the best reading. It could also conceivably act to emphasize “None,” as in “[not] Any,” but this is unlikely.
The word “Seal” in line 10 could mean that the feeling of “Despair” has completely enclosed and locked off the speaker from any hope of finding consolation. But it could also carry various Christian connotations, such as the seal of the Spirit that comes with conversion or the various “seals” broken to open scrolls in St. John’s Book of Revelation. If either of these apply, then “Seal Despair” creates an even greater sense of spiritual emptiness and apocalyptic terror.
Yet another incongruity, “imperial affliction” joins “Heavenly Hurt” and “Seal Despair” to describe the devastating effect of the light. “Imperial” also has a special meaning in Dickinson’s vocabulary. In her letters and poetry, it often refers to the royalty of Deity, to which she attaches negative associations. In other words, what is normally thought of as good is actually quite the opposite. Furthermore, the phrase “Sent us of the Air” presents the same ambiguity as “Heavenly Hurt”: the source of the “imperial affliction” is at once atmospheric and divine.
Employing Romantic poetics, Dickinson utilizes personification (dealing with inanimate objects as though they were human) to emphasize the disastrous enormity winter light represents. The silent “Landscape listens,” and even the “Shadows—hold their breath” as the oppressive light sinks in the West and darkness spreads across the land. The response of the landscape could embody the speaker’s sense of dread. But does suspending the breath and listening intently as the sun sets portend fear or respect? And what does the “Landscape” expect to hear?
At the final setting of the sun and the coming of darkness, the reason for the desolation brought by winter’s “Certain Slant of Light” in the late afternoon becomes clear. In its “Distance” (or, its separation from the normal life-giving qualities of light) caused by its low position in the sky, this winter sun afflicts the speaker’s consciousness with the realization of death’s universal presence in the natural world.
Nature and Its Meaning
From her correspondence, we know that Emily Dickinson was first exposed to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendental philosophy in the early 1850s. A pantheistic reaction to the materialism then usurping traditional Christian belief, Emerson’s thought drew on German Idealism and Hindu Vedanta to support the idea that all of nature was essentially divine. This was actually a compromise between Christian dogmas and the prevailing scientific assumptions about the nature of reality. With
Topics for Further Study
- Dickinson does not directly describe the winter landscape in her poem or even the “Slant of Light” playing across it. She only provides information about their effects upon the speaker’s mind. Write your own prose description or paint a picture that “fills in the gaps.” What colors, shapes, or patterns should this scene have to produce such dire psychological effects? Share your “vision” of despair with others in a general class discussion.
- What images drawn from nature evoke the sense of desolate despair Dickinson sees in that afternoon winter light? Write a poem that uses concrete imagery to tell it “slant.” Share your work for discussion.
- Two of Dickinson’s more famous poems about death, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” have appeared in previous volumes of Poetry for Students. Referring to the texts and commentary of these two poems, along with “There’s a Certain Slant of Light,” compare and contrast Dickinson’s attitudes toward death in all three. How are they similar and/or different? Does Dickinson present a consistent view of death in them? Which poem of the three do you prefer and why?
materialism, his philosophy shared a “monist” perspective (that is, the belief that all phenomena ultimately derive from only one source); with Christianity, it agreed that a single Supreme Being is the source of all beings.
Early on, Dickinson was taken with Emerson’s teachings and the general Romantic view that Nature and God were harmoniously one. But in “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” we encounter a very different sentiment. Nature appears as an alien force entirely separate from and opposed to the human self. Emerson had posited a great “Unity,” a transcendent “Over-Soul,” behind the masks of divergent phenomena and personalities. However, Dickinson implicitly presents the self as a subsistent individual identity, much in the tradition of conventional Christianity. Furthermore, this self is wounded by the cold, loveless indifference of a material world utterly divorced from human desires and wishes. Dickinson explodes Emerson’s unity of God, Nature, and Humanity into disaffected fragments of loneliness and despair.
God and Religion
But as much as Dickinson’s poem rejects the Emersonian idea of Nature, it also implicitly attacks the Christian concept of a “good and loving” Father. The fact that the hurt from “Winter Afternoons” is “Heavenly,” its affliction “imperial,” and its oppressiveness “like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes” suggests that the deathly quality of winter light has a spiritual as well as a physical origin. The poem not only seems to imply the existence of a Creator utterly “other” than and separate from His creation, but also tacitly blames Him for reality’s shortcomings. Still, Dickinson’s letters betray the fact that she was no theologian, that her understanding of Christian doctrines remained rather childlike even to the end of her life. In fact, many critics see her ambivalence towards the Christian God as symptomatic of her ambivalence toward her emotionally distant father. But this is not to suggest that such was her intended meaning here.
Alienation and Loneliness
Without directly describing the slanted light illuminating a winter afternoon, Dickinson metonymically recounts the results that angle of light brings about in the mind. It oppresses, hurts, scars, creates despair in, and afflicts the viewer. When the sun sets, the light is “like the Distance / On the look of Death.” Without any concrete description whatsoever, Dickinson succeeds in conveying the sense of utter emptiness that the light produces in the speaker. One can imagine the silence in the land and the gathering shadows lengthening as the oppressive light disappears below the rim of the world. It is a landscape of utter desolation and despair. The physical light, both engendering and reflecting the speaker’s own inner estrangement and isolation, stands for that unbridgeable chasm of mutual alienation that tears nature and humanity apart.
A review of Dickinson’s many other death poems demonstrates that winter, afternoon, and sunset often represent death iconographically. Nevertheless, this poem does not focus so much upon death as much as it does upon reality’s “brokenness,” which mirrors death’s omnipresence. The signs of death in natural phenomena assault the inward self (“Where the Meanings, are”) with the realization that death and loss ultimately rule all existence. The depression resulting from this realization is organically joined to and inseparable from winter sunlight itself.
The physical phenomena of nature, nevertheless, take on significance only within the “internal difference, / Where the Meanings are.” Consciousness itself therefore informs these phenomena with meaning by noting the “difference” between one event and another. In fact, the use of metonymy as a poetic device establishes the meaning of sensuous experience by “naming” phenomena after their impressions upon the mind. In many ways, then, Dickinson actually anticipates structuralist and poststructuralist theories about language and meaning. These theories contend that words (or “signs”) have no meaning in themselves but that meaning exists only in the mind, which establishes connections between words and the things they represent.
Composed of four quatrains, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light,” as does the rest of Dickinson’s poetry, follows one of many variations of hymn meter. Growing up with volumes of Isaac Watt’s hymns in her home, Dickinson, ever the folk artist, adapted hymnody’s lyric conventions to her own uses. By and large, this particular poem employs alternating lines of seven and five syllables in a trochaic pattern of four stresses followed by three stresses (that is, tetrameters followed by trimeters). Trochees are metric units of two syllables, the first stressed and the second unstressed. If we look at the first two lines of this poem, we can see how this works:
There’s a Cer tain Slant of Light, / Win ter Af ternoons—
The odd foot (metric unit) of each line ends in a monometer (a metric unit with only one stressed syllable). Of course, this pattern doesn’t persist through the whole poem, or the poetry would definitely fall into a singsong rhythm. In the second stanza, for example, there’s a question as to whether “Heavenly” and “difference” should be pronounced with two or three syllables (if three, then these form anapests, feet of one stressed followed by two un-stressed syllables) and whether “imperial” has three or four syllables. If it does, then line nine joins lines thirteen and fifteen to scan with eight syllables to form true trochaic tetrameter.
Another oddity readers encounter in Dickinson’s poetry is her unusual punctuation. Critics are divided over the exact significance of her dashes and strangely placed punctuation marks. It’s safe to say, however, that the dashes are usually intended to make the reader pause between words. Commas, like those between “oppresses” and “like” on line three and between “Meanings” and “are” on line eight, also serve to slow down the reading of the line but with shorter pauses than dashes represent. In other words, these marks are intentionally placed to control the rhythm of the poem and act as a kind of musical notation. For example, “Heavenly Hurt” in line five, linked to “Heft” two lines above by a shared alliteration (the use of repeated consonants to convey musicality and meaning), stands isolated from the more bland assertion, “it gives us,” by the intervening comma. In line thirteen, breath is literally held because the reader is directed by hyphens to pause.
Emily Dickinson was born six years before Ralph Waldo Emerson published Nature, the essay that became the manifesto of the Transcendentalist movement. Although from Germany by way of Great Britain, Emerson’s Transcendentalism is a uniquely American phenomenon because it evolved organically from the very Puritan culture it rejected. It is no wonder, then, that Emily Dickinson, herself a rebel from an even more traditionally Calvinist environment, would have been drawn to Emerson’s thought. In fact, two generations of American writers—from romantics to realists and idealists to pragmatists—worked under or against Transcendentalism’s allure. Transcendentalism fostered a brief release of creative energy during the New England Renaissance, a time of great visionary hopes that would soon be dashed by war and capitalistic greed. To appreciate Transcendentalism’s actual significance both in Dickinson’s work and in American culture, however, we must locate it within its full philosophical and religious contexts.
The various revolutions that have jolted European and, now, world culture for the last five hundred years have a common source in the dyad (a unity of two parts) of the Renaissance-Reformation.
Compare & Contrast
- 1861: On July 21, roughly equal forces from the North and South met near Manassas, Virginia, in an engagement now known as the Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the American Civil War, also called by historians the first modern industrialized war. Although at first successful, federal troops were nearly routed by day’s end. The fratricide between North and South would continue for another four years. More Americans died in the Civil War than in World Wars I and II and the Korean and the Vietnam Wars combined.
1936: Beginning on July 17, with a military uprising in Spanish Morocco led by General Francisco Franco, the Spanish Civil War would continue until the fall of the Spanish Republic to fascist forces on March 28, 1939. Even at the start, the war took on international political and ideological importance. Fascist Italy sent thousands of ground troops and Nazi Germany provided planes, pilots, arms, and technicians to aid the nationalists, while the U.S.S.R. sent weapons and advisors to help the republicans. Europe was given a preview of all the horrors of blitzkrieg and total war they were soon to experience themselves.
1994: On February 10, after exactly two years of intense fighting and genocidal mass murder and rape (known as “ethnic cleansing”), NATO finally issued a ten-day ultimatum to the Bosnian Serb forces besieging Sarajevo, declaring that their heavy weapons must be withdrawn 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the city or risk attack by NATO aircraft. This began the process that would eventually lead to a brokered “peace” and an official end to the Bosnian Civil War. NATO troops still occupy and police a fragile peace in Bosnia and Hercegovina.
1994: After years of ethnic hatred and rivalry between Hutu and Tutsi tribal peoples in Rwanda, President Habyarimana was killed in a suspicious plane crash on April 3. Almost immediately, a wave of planned and orchestrated ethnic violence released a blood bath that took the lives of an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu. After the Rwandan Patriotic Front gradually gained control of the country and installed a new government of national unity headed by a moderate Hutu president and prime minister on July 19, more than one million Rwandans, mostly Hutu, crossed the border into a remote area of neighboring Zaire in the greatest mass flight of refugees in modern times. Before long, there were four million displaced Rwandans in various countries of the region.
Today: NATO has again entered the Balkans to prevent a genocidal civil war, this time in the former Serbian autonomous region of Kosovo. Problems began when the Serb government revoked Kosovo’s self-rule in 1990 and again in 1992 when the Kosovars, mostly ethnic Albanians, voted in favor of union with Albania. With the ensuing liberation struggle, Serbs once again began to apply “ethnic cleansing” to regain control of the province.
- 1886: Austrian physicist Ernst Mach (1838-1916), a thorough-going positivist and strict empiricist, wrote his essay, The Analysis of Sensations, in which he challenged the Newtonian model of absolute space and time as a “metaphysical” notion not in keeping with strict empiricism. By admitting that models of reality intrude upon our apprehension of reality (a Kantian, not an empiricist idea), Mach opened the way for non-Newtonian physical models of the universe.
1900: During his studies of blackbody radiation in 1897, Max Planck (1858-1947) discovered that at long wavelengths it did not obey the distribution laws previously given by Wilhelm Wien. This discovery led him to yet another, that an oscillator could emit energy only in discrete quanta, contrary to classical physical theory. Planck’s constant and this inchoate quantum theory was used by Albert Einstein to explain the photoelectric effect and later by Niels Bohr to propose a model of the atom with quantized electronic states; the rudimentary theory later developed into quantum mechanics.
- 1905: While working in a patent office without scientific research texts or colleagues with whom to discuss his ideas, Albert Einstein (1879-1955), inspired by Mach’s ideas and Planck’s discoveries, developed his Special Theory of Relativity and brought about the beginning of the end of the Newtonian model of a universe of absolute time and motion.
1927: After extended conversations with Einstein and Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), Bohr’s student and protégé, advanced his uncertainty principle that holds that the accurate measurement of one of two related observable quantities produces uncertainties in the measurement of the other. In other words, physical phenomena, at least on a quantum level, are not susceptible to completely accurate “empirical” measurement.
Today: Cosmologists and physicists continue to seek a unified theory to explain both quantum mechanics and general relativity. Hawking’s theory of “unbounded boundary conditions” incorporates quantum mechanics into the general theory of relativity and postulates that there is no need to define the beginning and end of the universe. Super String Theory and other cosmological theories prepare us to enter the twenty-first century on a quest to understand (if that is at all possible) how the infinitesimal meets the infinite. But in all these theories, human consciousness is always factored into the matrix of observation. In the end, human consciousness is science’s only limiting horizon.
Many writers treat these two events of modern European history as separate entities, but this is to ignore the fact that the Reformation is itself a child of the Renaissance and that each cultural stream fed and reinforced the other until the scientism of the Renaissance turned to materialist atheism during the Enlightenment period. Even the social and political revolutions of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries could never have occurred without the Protestant revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Because of their common origin in rationalism, the Reformation and Renaissance cultures have seen many attempts to harmonize them since they first began to drift apart.
After René Descartes (1596-1650) changed the thrust of Western metaphysics from the study of being as such to a study of epistemology (how the mind knows), Western philosophy began to distrust humanity’s ability to discern “absolute truth.” Beginning with Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) scientific method, British skeptics maintained that one could really only trust empirical results from carefully constructed and repeatable experiments to create conjectural models to explain observable phenomena. Any question of a transcendent reality or a Supreme Being was, for them, a proposition that could never adequately be scientifically tested. But philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) had previously taught that, at the time of birth, the human mind is a tabula rasa, a “blank slate,” entirely dependent on sensuous experience for its concepts. Human understanding must correspond, in his opinion, to an exterior and consistent reality. So, given an ordered and perceivable universe of absolute time and space, whose existence Sir Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) physics had demonstrated, the existence of some sort of Deity could be inferred. Seizing upon this shred of hope that God could rationally be said to exist, the Deists arose, proclaiming a scientifically observable God whose existence could be inductively proven but whom one could never personally experience. The formal denominational expression of this idea was the new belief system called Unitarianism.
For obvious reasons, such a dry, rationalist faith excluded the affective sensibilities of the human heart. At the same time, German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) took Locke’s epistemological theory to task. Drawing on concepts from Platonic philosophy, Kant opposed Locke’s tabula rasa with what he called transcendental forms, innate ideas that structure the mind’s experience of the world. Kant maintained that our understanding actually prescribes laws to nature instead of just inferring them from sensuous experience. Kant’s intellectual counterrevolution to materialism inspired a generation of German philosophers to propound philosophical Idealism. These ideas converted British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge from Unitarianism, and through his direct influence, Emerson, himself a Unitarian minister, sought an immediate perception of God’s presence in the human mind as well as in nature.
Still, Emerson’s Transcendentalism was not so much formal philosophy as it was a philosophical religion. In many ways Transcendentalism retained Unitarianism’s basic critique of Calvinism. Where Calvinism taught that humanity was integrally and irredeemably flawed by Original Sin without an infusion of irresistible grace, both movements countered that the world and humanity are essentially good and that “grace” is a natural, not a supernatural, endowment. The two also withstood Calvinism’s theology of Predestination which so denigrated the freedom of the individual will as to conceive of people as puppets at the end of God’s strings. The major difference that separated Transcendentalism from Unitarianism was its belief that intuition, not reason, was the place where God could be known, where God’s essential oneness with creation could be perceived.
However, changing material circumstances and intellectual opinions in America doomed Emerson’s philosophical faith to history’s curiosity shop. During Dickinson’s relatively short lifetime, America finally succumbed to the forces of industrialism. In fact, the Civil War demarcates the turning of the tide from rural agrarian society to urban industrialism. With the triumph of capitalism’s materialism, the power elite of America largely turned away from both Puritan Christianity and Emerson’s idealist religion, though both survive as cultural forces in America to this day in the various Protestant churches and theologies and in the so-called “New Age” movement. In many ways, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light,” written at the beginning of the Civil War, mirrors America’s movement away from idealism and toward realism. Admittedly, Dickinson’s poem operates from Emerson’s assumption that subjective consciousness is the arbiter, if not creator, of meaning, but it rejects his belief in the fundamental goodness of nature.
In critic Charles Anderson’s opinion, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” is Dickinson’s “finest poem on despair.” Anderson’s 1960 interpretive study of one hundred of her poems, Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise, the first truly extensive critical examination of her poetry, provides a thorough and thought-provoking explication of this poem. He notes that the speaker’s “internal experience is not talked about but is realized in a web of images that constitutes the poem’s statement, beginning with one drawn from nature, or rather from the firmament above it, and returning to it in the end with significant change of meaning.” This change consists of a movement from the physical to the spiritual. The speaker’s despair “comes from the sudden instinctive awareness of man’s lot since the Fall, doomed to mortality and irremediable suffering..... When the psyche is once stricken with the pain of such knowledge it can never be the same again.” In other words, it is “sealed” by despair. Despite such an encompassing despair, however, Anderson does not rule out Dickinson’s belief in possible redemption, although he admits it isn’t present here.
Even though he calls “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” Dickinson’s “best poem on the winter season,” Ernest Sandeen, in his essay, “Delight Deterred by Retrospect: Emily Dickinson’s Late-Summer Poems,” sees this poem as another example of Dickinson’s method of presenting “a highly internalized experience which is at the same time submitted to a detailed analytical examination.” Beyond the first line, none of the poem’s similes and metaphors really have anything to do with winter but form “figures of the inner life, analyzing and defining an introspective, not a physical reality.”
In his 1974 study, The Landscape of Absence: Emily Dickinson’s Poetry, Inder Nath Kher interprets this poem from the perspective of “archetypal criticism” in the tradition of Northrop Frye, who viewed literary motifs in terms of universal mythic forms. Extolling “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” as one of Dickinson’s finest works and a perfect expression of what he calls “the spirit of absence-presence,” Kher says this poem “makes concrete the experience of despair and death,” but he sees the slant of light’s “spiritual significance” in positive terms: the psychic wound from the light is actually “providential” and “creates the internal difference or the psychological metamorphosis.” For Kher, “absence-presence” represents the “inner-outer movement” between the poet’s consciousness and the surrounding world. It is an intense moment of present insight into what is ever fleetingly absent. The “landscape of absence” (Kher’s name for Dickinson’s poetry) “is paradoxical and suggests something tangibly intangible, concrete yet vanishing, near and remote, apprehensible and elusive.” With this in mind, he maintains that “to read the poem for negative despair, depression, and desolation is to read it incorrectly.”
In the following essay, Monteiro argues that the light in this poem corresponds to divinity, not despair.
Readings of Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” agree on two main points: (1) the conceit that light has the effect upon the poet of a great physical weight is indicative of the poet’s characteristic originality; and (2) the poet’s theme is one of despair and darkness. The tone of current interpretations can be illustrated by Clark Griffith’s remarks in The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’s Tragic Poetry (1964). He finds the poem to be marked by naturalized romanticism: “Seeing Nature in a way that Emerson never would—as the source of pain rather than of benevolent tidings—Miss Dickinson still manages to stay well within the Transcendentalist tradition...... Nature acts, while the human observer is acted upon...... The light gives her an injury, and the air has sent her the Seal Despair. Furthermore, both light and air are portrayed as symbolic of God, so that they become agents through whom God imposes His Heavenly Hurt upon the speaker, or maims her with His imperial affliction.”
There is no question that Emily Dickinson wrote anti-Emersonian poems, just as we can no longer deny that she wrote Emersonian poems as well. The point is, however, that it distorts this poem to read it as either pro- or anti-Emerson. To do either, in fact, one must ignore the poet’s traditional use of the historical idea which is at the center of the poem. Griffith’s reading of the symbolism of the poem misleads us precisely because it does not allow for historical and biographical context. It is as if the poem were totally modern, even though by some miracle written over a hundred years ago. But the contextual evidence points us to something else: the poet’s commitment to certain Puritan and Pauline ideas concerning the ways of divine Grace. Precise interpretation of the central “light” symbolism in context indicates that the poem is less existential, written less out of anguish and the concomitant desire to express anguish—in short, that it is less “modern” in every way—than current readings have made it out to be. There are, of course, many Dickinson poems that look ahead to the poetry of the twentieth century; this one does not.
Though the poet has been widely commended, as noted, for the conceit of “light” that has physical weight—for her ingenious crossing of the senses of sight and touch—this figure is not original to Emily Dickinson. In conceiving of the “heft” of “Cathedral Tunes” and the weight of “light” on “Winter Afternoons,” the poet draws upon the Biblical idea of glory (“light”) which has the literal meaning of weight. To her Puritan ancestors, steeped in the Bible, the idea was commonplace. As Cotton Mather put it [in Right Thoughts in Sad Hours], “the hebrew word for glory signifies the same that your own sense of affliction feels—a weighty thing. Well, from one weight you shall pass to the other. Your crown of thorns will shortly be exchanged for a crown of glory; a weighty, a massy, a never-fading crown.” The Puritans had derived this idea, at least in part, from Second Corinthians, a book which was among Emily Dickinson’s cherished favorites. As Saint Paul promises, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (II Corinthians, IV, 17). We are fortunate in knowing just how the poet herself interpreted this passage. At the time of her mother’s death she explained that “The sunshine almost speaks, this morning, resembling the division, and Paul’s remark grows graphic, ‘the weight of glory’” (The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, 1958, III, 771). The emphasis here—the poet’s own—reveals her acceptance of the idea that the experience of glory is literally one of physical weight. Here she narrows in on the Puritan concept of a divine grace that is both violent and a violation of the self. Grace is “a holy kind of violence,” wrote one Puritan divine; it does not come through “morall perswasion” but through God’s “powerfull operation, an omnipotent hand put forth for such a purpose” (quoted in Richard Chase, Emily Dickinson, 1951, p. 148).
Thus it is clear that when Emily Dickinson talks about an “affliction” that results from “light” she refers to that “affliction” which is part of the experience of “glory.” This traditional equation resolves the seeming paradox which emerges when the poet characterizes the “Hurt” that is inflicted as “Heavenly” and the overall “affliction” as “imperial.” Such characterizations are fully consonant with Paul’s remark made “graphic” by sunlight, as the poet notes, just as the “internal difference” caused by this experience of “light” is one of renewal, recalling Paul’s promise that “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (II Corinthians, IV, 16).
The remainder of the poem rounds out this fundamental idea. In the line “’Tis the Seal Despair,” for instance, “Despair” is itself a divine “Seal”—
What Do I Read Next?
- To get at the core of Transcendentalism and to judge for yourself how Dickinson’s thought converges with and diverges from Emerson’s, read the work that started the American Renaissance. Shambala Books published Emerson’s Nature and Other Writings, edited by Peter Turner, in 1994.
- Japanese Dickinsonian scholarship has traditionally viewed her as a Transcendentalist mystic poet similar to William Blake. Shoei Ando, Professor of American literature from Okayama University, gave a series of lectures comparing American Transcendentalism with Zen Buddhism at San Jose State College in the 1962-63 school year. In 1970, he published his notes in book form as Zen and American Transcendentalism: An Investigation of One’s Self, still available from the Hokuseido Press.
- In her 1984 study, An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich (published by the University of North Carolina Press), Professor Wendy Martin of the Claremont Colleges’ Graduate School demonstrates with thorough historical and critical detail that Puritanism and the women’s movement are organically linked. This work shows Dickinson’s pivotal place at America’s transit from Puritanism to post-modernism.
- Sharon Cameron’s fascinating book, Choosing, Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles (published in 1993 by the University of Chicago Press), allows the student into the hidden world of literary editing. Dickinson actually published her own work by sewing her poems into packets called fascicles. Editors since Thomas Higginson have had to choose which readings to accept or to reject and in which order to present her work. This book lets the reader decide.
the “White Sustenance” she names in a related poem. The divine “Seal” forced upon the poet is honorific and desirable; but “Despair” is its human price, for “Despair’s advantage is achieved / By suffering—Despair.” In the last stanza the poet makes the simple and direct point that the disappearance of winter’s afternoon light has the same effect upon her that she experiences whenever she encounters “the Distance / On the look of Death.” The Dickinson canon abundantly documents the importance the poet attached to that distant look in the eyes of the near-dying and the just-dead. To Emily Dickinson that look signaled man’s contact with eternity.
Sunlight on a winter afternoon provided the poet with one of her direct experiences of Divinity: “Glory is that bright tragic thing,” runs another poem, “That for an instant / Means Dominion.” Experiences like the one behind “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” were piers to sustain those moments when she could genuinely believe in a “long Paradise of Light.”
Source: George Monteiro, “Dickinson’s There’s a Certain Slant of Light,” The Explicator, Vol. 31, No. 2, October 1972.
Michael Lake is a published poet who holds a master’s in English from Eastern Illinois University. In the following essay, Lake explains why “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” “makes for an excellent example of Dickinson’s esthetic sensibility and poetic technique.”
First-time readers of Emily Dickinson’s poetry are often confused or put off by her unusual vocabulary and word usage, her oftentimes disjunctive sentence structure, and her compressed language and distorted imagery. But the more of her poems one reads, the more understandable her style becomes and the more impressed one grows with her self-taught genius. A consummate folk artist, she pressed Isaac Watts’s hymn meters into service to create lyric meditations very much in the tradition of seventeenth-century Puritanism. For this reason, she has often been compared with seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets, such as John Donne or George Herbert. Despite their extreme differences in language and style, the poems of all three poets, in fact, often reflect upon the evanescence, or the fleeting quality, of life. For as Dickinson once wrote, “All we secure of Beauty is its Evanescences” (Letter 781), a statement that distills both her esthetics and her poetics.
The evanescent, or fleeting, perception of beauty cannot be captured or made fast. It exists in a flash of intense insight, a moment of recognition that can only be savored within the reflective soul. But as soon as the perception of beauty comes, the moment that brought it forth is gone. The poet’s job, for Dickinson, is to compress and concentrate imagery and language so that the moment of recognition can be re-created in an almost crystalline form for the apprehension of the reader. In other words, the reader participates in the poet’s recognition of beauty’s truth, but, as Roland Hagen-büchle said in his essay, “Precision and Indeterminacy in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” “what previously could be experienced as a sustained mood is now compressed into a single moment; the myth is reduced to an act of pure consciousness.”
“There’s a Certain Slant of Light,” although its subject is despair before death’s ubiquitous presence in nature, makes for an excellent example of Dickinson’s esthetic sensibility and poetic technique. Following Hagenbüchle’s statement above, we could say that this poem “reduces” the Greek myth of Pluto’s rape of Persephone to the “pure consciousness” of death’s haunting habitation within the heart of winter. But the poem imparts this awareness indirectly. In fact, Dickinson prefers an indirect path to communicate the perception of beauty and truth, for, in this way, the reader truly participates in the meditative discovery of the poem’s meaning. Ironically, one of Dickinson’s terms for indirect communication is “slantness,” as in her poem, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (Poem 1129 in Johnson’s edition). As line two of her poem says, “Success in Circuit lies.” Dickinson’s poetry seldom “tells it straight” because she prefers the gnomic quality of proverbs, riddles, and hymns for their evocative powers to elicit an intuitive comprehension to the “mere prose” of straightforward exposition. “Circuit,” like “circumference,” another of her favorite expressions for indirectness, “goes round” the periphery of the subject to encompass its truth without stating it explicitly. The indirect light of this “certain Slant of light” succeeds in exposing “all the truth” about nature from Dickinson’s point of view. Where in traditional Christian symbolism light stands for grace and the kingdom of God, it represents, when viewed in its “Slant” or indirect aspect, a state of affliction. “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” uses the poetic tools of “slantness” to bring about the evanescent realization that both nature and the God of nature are flawed because death, loneliness, and isolation predominate within the natural world and afflict the human soul.
To communicate this perception indirectly, Dickinson uses metonymy (literally Greek for “a change of name”), one of her preferred rhetorical devices. However, Dickinson’s metonymy itself is “slant” when compared with that of classical Greek orators. When, in the first stanza, the speaker compares that “Certain Slant of Light” with “the Heft / Of cathedral Tunes,” the resulting imbalance produces a synesthetic effect. The metonymy is unbalanced because in no way is a “Heft” or weight logically a part of or related to sound. This componential or relational aspect of metonymy is violated by Dickinson’s choice of words. But bringing these unrelated elements together conjoins two different sensuous experiences into one and jolts the reader into an entirely new apprehension of both the winter light and church music. Twentieth-century poet T. S. Eliot used a similar technique, which he dubbed the “objective correlative.” In Dickinson’s practice, the correlation with the metonymically objectified sensibility can only be inferred from the evanescent impressions left in the reader’s mind.
Although she was a poet and not a philosopher, Dickinson was far ahead of her time in her depth of understanding of how language and consciousness work. For example, in his basic text on language and logic, the Categories, Aristotle wrote, “Those things are called relative, which, being either said to be of something else or related to something else, are explained by reference to that other thing.” Accordingly, correlatives relate objects to their attributes or qualities with external reference to or comparison with something else. In other words, “double” implies that a quantity is twice as much as some other quantity. Similarly, metonymy, originally a rhetorical device, not a “logical category,” applies the name of one thing to another with which it shares connected experience or close association. But as Dickinson has proven, there does not have to be any relational symmetry between the
“Dickinson prefers an indirect path to communicate the perception of beauty and truth, for, in this way, the reader truly participates in the meditative discovery of the poem’s meaning.”
two objects sharing a name if what relates them together does not exist in any “objective” sense but lies solely in the personal associations of the perceiver. Dickinson thereby reverses a long-held Western philosophical tradition that maintains that language is a reflection of reality. She thereby embraces an implicitly Kantian position that language is a reflection of our thought about reality. At the moment of evanescent insight, the so-called “real” object disappears altogether.
The “Slant of Light,” then, inflicts a “Heavenly Hurt” that leaves “no scar” but instead creates an “internal difference / Where the Meanings, are—.” In other words, the wound wrought by the southern light of a winter’s afternoon creates an inward transformation where consciousness ascribes signification to the phenomena of the outer world. Meaning therefore lies within the “signifier,” not in either the “sign” or the “signified.” As a maker of meaning, the poet wrestles “signs” (words) into new relationships with the objects “signified.” This, in fact, explains how “Heft” and “cathedral Tunes” are metonymically related. Their associational connection exists entirely in the speaker’s mind and now the reader’s consciousness, “Where the Meanings, are.” But once expressed, the objective correlative (in this case, the “Heft” of church music) disappears as an objective phenomenon that can be symmetrically related to another experience or object, as in the case of a true metaphor (Greek for “a transfer”) or a simile (Latin for “a likeness”). Or as Hagenbüchle said of Dickinson’s method, an object’s “ideal presence in the mind presupposes absence in actuality.” And as Dickinson herself wrote in Poem 1071 of Johnson’s edition, “Perception of an object costs / Precise the Object’s loss—.”
But Dickinson uses other “slant” poetic tools than just metonymy to effect this “Perception” and “loss.” Notice how alliteration binds “Heft” with “Heavenly Hurt.” Repeating the initial “H” sound creates a phonic—and thus an associational—link to cleave these images together. The connection between them is further extended through parallelism with “Heavenly Hurt” to include “Seal Despair” and “imperial affliction.” The metonym, “Heft / Of cathedral Tunes,” thus finds reinforcement in these three oxymorons to produce an “internal difference” in the mind of the reader. The overall effect is “apocalyptic” in its desolation. The word “Seal,” after all, carries Christian baggage, as do “Heavenly” and, in Dickinson’s private lexicon, “imperial.” A person is sealed for glory in the Calvinist tradition by God’s irresistible grace in an intense moment of transformation. If we take “Seal” in this sense, to be sealed with “Despair” then amounts to a reversal of the confirming seal of the Spirit at conversion. If, however, we take “Seal” to refer to the various seals opened in the Book of Revelation, then the “Seal Despair” assumes an even greater cosmic implication: this dying light mirrors the death inherent in all created beings, and there is no hope of escape from it.
In keeping with such a cosmic catastrophe, the setting winter sun draws forth a response from the landscape. Dickinson uses personification to project the awareness of the light’s—and therefore of life’s—transient passing into nature itself. Here again, the real object disappears, and all that remains are its effects upon consciousness. But the setting of the winter sun is even more explicitly catastrophic, for “’tis like the Distance / On the look of Death—.” Having witnessed so many deaths in her lifetime, Dickinson knew only too well the faraway look the dead often get in their glazed, open eyes. However, all kinds of distance are reminiscent of death, such as separation from the beloved, inward isolation even in the midst of friends and family, and, indeed, alienation from one’s own life. All of these little deaths are comprehended in that “Certain Slant of Light,” because just as within the seeming fullness of life lurks the emptiness of death, so too the rending sorrow of loss resides potentially within the joy of love.
Through its poetic “slantness,” Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” illuminates more than a desolate winter landscape; it reflects in that pale, cold light the broken nature of the world and the transcendental failure of the world’s Creator because of the death, loneliness, and alienation that devastate both creation and the soul. And yet, instead of seeing this conclusion as an indictment of God and reality, we should perhaps view the whole poem more as an insight into the lonely heart itself. After all, what Kher calls “absence-presence” works at once both outwardly and inwardly. While critic Sharon Cameron in her book, Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre, may be right in saying the light in this poem is a “figura” of death, it may also be true to say that both the “Slant of Light” and “Death” itself are really figurae of heart-wrenching loneliness. To paraphrase Dickinson, then, we can say that all we secure of alienation is its “Evanescences” within our minds.
Source: Michael Lake, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
In the following essay, Eulert suggests that readings of “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” should focus on emotion rather than philosophy.
Careful attention to the emotional movement of one of Emily Dickinson’s best poems is informative not only of her methods in general, but also of the Procrustean stretching and lopping to which she was subjected by her critics of the last decade. Dickinson scholars, notably Charles R. Anderson [in his Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise] and Clark Griffith, have seen “There’s a certain Slant of light” as a philosophical-theological treatise variously treating nature, the Fall, Redemption, God, and man’s role in the world. To Griffith [as noted in his The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’s Tragic Poetry], the poem demonstrates Dickinson’s anti-Emersonian view that nature acts as an extension of God in a deliberate plot to injure and oppress the human.
Dickinson does sometimes use poetry to illuminate her sense of universal ideas, but generally she is not writing philosophy in poetry, and should not be explicated as if she were writing an Emersonian (Melvillian?) poetry in which phenomenological images unfailingly reflect a transcendent reality. As with much of her best work, we are not justified in making this poem an intellectual cipher, to discover either a judgment of Nature of the nature of the Judge in a simple “Slant of light.” In this poem, a real, physical “Slant of light” comes and goes. Meanwhile, an elusive mutation that is emotional, not philosophical, occurs. Thus we must read the poem in terms of how it works to inform us emotionally: how the experience is. What happens is unsayable. It leaves no scar, only an internal difference that “None may teach.”
In this poem, the reader, shaped by Dickinson’s conditioning language, may come to understand an “affliction” of despair. Whether we can follow Dickinson to the brink of her emotional crisis, and beyond it to and through the experience itself, depends critically on our use of the first four lines where Dickinson colors her “Slant of light” to bring us into her emotional condition.
Her “imperial affliction” took place on a winter afternoon; the moment crowning it was connected to her observation of “a certain Slant of light.” In common-sense terms, we don’t believe slanting light caused all the “internal difference.” But the slant of light was evidently a focal event in the causal chain. More important, perhaps, the poet can use it as an emotional touchstone, can shape it to contain all the emotional elements of cause. For example, besides that slant of light, other elements must have been focusing on that despair: memories of other afternoons, a prior emotional set, even the fact that she was tired. But the poet takes a single focus and colors it with the other factors. Thus a single communicable image can be true to the total emotional condition in which she saw the light. On this winter afternoon, the other unnamed emotional sets added to this focus are best called up by saying that the light oppresses like “Cathedral Tunes.” Of course Dickinson has a habit of substituting one sense for another, perhaps because the technique “Distills amazing sense / From ordinary Meanings” (#448). For instance, this technique is bright and playful in “Resonance of Emerald” (#1463) and “Pianos in the Woods” (#348). But here in making her slant of light oppress “like Cathedral Tunes” she manages to integrate sight and sound in a suggestive conceit that involves the reader’s senses and channels his emotions to Dickinson’s own emotional set. The “Slant of light” becomes not only a definitive emotional focus of depression but a surrounding tonal matrix of despair.
In order to be explicit about the winter afternoon, then, she first presents its emotional focus— the slanted light. In order to control how we are to feel about this, she compares it to something that communicates her sense of setting the mood—the sound of organ music. The choice is a masterful integration of sight and sound that together produce the psysiological-psychological effects she wants to define. To get this effect, she manages a kind of metaphysical conceit that makes the sight and sound fused already in cause.
This sense of complementing mood is only one reason why I hear an organ rather than carillon bells of Charles R. Anderson. Since the light is slanted, it must be partly blocked somewhere, and has length; it is a “bar” of indefinite length, held in this setting like a solemn organ chord. The experience even seems to be set in an atmosphere of closeness, suggestive of a surrounding and oppressing organ chording. A “Slant of light” in this context even suggests the slanting light inside high cathedral windows. Moreover, Miss Dickinson plays the organ notes for us; we cannot overlook the “Heft,” the weight that oppresses. In terms of sound, a constant press of heavy sound has more weight than fragmented bell sounds. The press of organ chording is heard in “Afternoons ..... oppresses ..... of Cathedral Tunes.” They are dark long sounds, not bright round ones.
Anyone giving the first stanza a careful reading must notice that the last three syllables call for accents, but each one less and therefore slightly further down the scale. He must also notice that the “oo” of “noons” is the longest sound in the stanza, and that its pitch is crossed by the descending sounds of “.....èdràl Tunes.” Because of its length and the emphasis of rhyme, “noons” is still echoing when I read the last sound, “Tunes.” What results is an emotionally depressing minor chord, since that lowest pitch, “Tunes,” strikes discordantly and darkly with the held-and-waiting sound of “noons.” I hear that discordant, oppressing cord throughout the poem; since “it goes” in a faded sight/sound in line 15, there is structural evidence that we should hear it all the while. As a conceit, the auditory light is not much used in the middle stanzas, but it echoes until it is integrated again in the last stanza when “the Landscape listens.”
I do not want to belabor the point of the music in the first stanza, nor do I mean to overlook the connotative senses of “Winter Afternoons” and “oppresses.” The point is that with the sense and the sound, and their mixture in metaphor, a careful reader should be ready to come to the brink of Emily’s emotional crisis of despair.
Moving to the middle stanzas, descriptive of what happens, we are likely to find them as inadequate and unclear as the “internal difference” itself is inherently ambiguous and unclear. At any rate, the “difference” is not well defined by such phrases as “Heavenly Hurt,” “Seal Despair,” and “imperial affliction.” These semi-playful phrases take the reader out of the poem to do intellectual analyses of meaning. For participation in the poem’s mystic experience (of which it is at least a minor sort) I am better informed by the emotional matrix of the experiences in the first and last stanzas. The middle two serve mostly to indicate the height of the experience; they do not, I think, indicate her philosophical position or allow a rational determination of this irrational experience.
But to give “meaning” its due, “Heavenly Hurt” I would take minimally to indicate that the “Hurt” is not of an earthly (ordinary) sort, but strikes instead at the spirit. Realizing Dickinson’s habitual use of biblical language for metaphors of the simplest moments, I see no justification in saying that she is charging God with visiting pain to man. The rest of the stanza is consistent to my reading; it emphasizes simply the internal nature of the “Hurt.” Dickinson likely chose “Heavenly” because it also allows her to continue the metaphor of oppression caused by the slant of light. The light comes from above, but to insist it shines from theological heavens strains textual evidence.
The next four lines again name the despairing mood, noting that the chorded slant-of-light is the “Seal” of despair—another indication that this natural phenomenon is only one among others, but is their “sealing” emotional focus. It is not a metaphor of God’s visitation, the agency sent by air; so that it does not stand singularly as symbol. Also in this stanza occurs another phrase which critics use to bring a personal God into her fit of depression: “imperial affliction.” I read simply a statement that the “affliction” of this mood has her as a subject in its “ruling” grip.
We cannot find out explicitly what Emily Dickinson saw or felt, then, from these static stanzas. She goes back to the linear experience and working conceit in the last stanza. Now the chorded slant-of-light serves to stand not only for stimulus, but comes to stand for the experience as well. When it comes, “the Landscape listens— / Shadows— hold their breath.” All sentient nature is involved in a revelation. In terms of communicating the awesomeness of her experience, this metaphorical expansion not only gives us a renewed sense of the “affliction,” but also allows conjecture about what she experienced. At its most general, despair involves loss of optimism and a questioning of purpose; when even nature holds its breath, the question of purpose seems directed to existence itself. And if there is a question of the meaninglessness of life, its corollary is a glimpse of death. We do not know explicitly, of course, that Dickinson had an unveiled look at the face of death, but, if not, her experience was somehow like that; when the “chorded” mood passes into the distance, it has the same look as the distance on the look of death.
Three interrelated things are working in “like the Distance / On the look of Death.” First of all, the experience passes. It began in the first stanza with (a) the logical movement of cause-to-effect, and with (b) the emotional movement of the chorded slant-of-light. Both of them now move away. Growing from this fact is a second consideration. Perhaps she can now give her best description of what happened to her, as she looks at the experience receding. That it is like the “Distance / On the look of Death” seems a straight-forward description. But the reader does not know how literally to understand the use of “like.” But I take “like the Distance” to indicate a third facet of these lines: that once the experience is past, it is not possible to know it. It is impenetrable, like glimpsing death and then trying to remember how it looked. To recast these lines: “In passing, this despair already has the look that death has, namely, a look of distance.” In making a comparison for clarification, any writer compares the unfamiliar with something he assumes the reader knows more familiarly. In this case, Dickinson must assume that we recognize this distance on the look of death, a distance provided by the interposing intellect—at all times save moments like this one just past. Afterward, the intellect can look only at the outside countenance of such an internal affliction, the way it sees death.
What really happened inside her cannot be attested by a scar, cannot be taught, and cannot be explicated. That is why a reader must read the poem from first to last in terms of emotion and sense, or he misses the poem and only plays with it from the distance of intellect. The last stanza gives an expansion of the emotional conceit begun in line one, and adds a glimpse of what she saw as well, before closing off the experience. Even then the relief we expect from the passing of a traumatic experience does not take place. For one thing, we do not believe life can be resumed quite the way it was before (there has been an internal change “Where the Meanings, are”). And that the mood has receded is not much relief because it still has the “look of Death.” And finally there is our subjective response to the way description of the mood begins with the word “oppresses” and ends with the final word “Death.”
Source: Donald Eulert, “Emily Dickinson’s Certain Slant of Light,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4, Spring 1972, pp. 164-66.
Anderson, Charles, Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960.
Cameron, Sharon, Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
Chase, Richard, Emily Dickinson, New York: William Sloan Associates, 1951.
Donoghue, Denis, “Emily Dickinson” in Six American Poets from Emily Dickinson to the Present: An Introduction, edited by Allen Tate, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969, pp. 9-44.
Griffith, Clark, The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’s Tragic Poetry, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.
Ford, Thomas W., Heaven Beguiles the Tired: Death in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson, University: University of Alabama Press, 1968.
Hagenbüchle, Roland, “Precision and Indeterminacy in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1974, pp. 33-56.
Kher, Inder Nath, The Landscape of Absence: Emily Dickinson’s Poetry, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.
Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita, The Voice of the Poet: Aspects of Style in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.
Porter, David T., The Art of Emily Dickinson’s Early Poetry, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Sandeen, Ernest, “Delight Deterred by Retrospect: Emily Dickinson’s Late-Summer Poetry” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 40, 1967, pp. 483-500.
Tate, Allen, “New England Culture and Emily Dickinson” in Collected Essays, Denver: Swallow Press, 1959, pp. 197-211.
For Further Study
Diehl, Joanne Feit, Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
For those interested in discovering how Emily Dickinson evolved from and transcended her roots in Romanticism, Joanne Diehl’s study is rich in literary and cultural history and makes its arguments firmly from within the body of Dickinson’s work. In Diehl’s opinion, Dickinson’s gender determined her relationship with the Anglo-American Romantic tradition. As a woman and a poet, Dickinson was truly a revolutionary.
Miller, Cristanne, Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Cristanne Miller’s study takes the student deep into the magic of Dickinson’s unique use of the English language. Miller’s book elucidates some of Dickinson’s most challenging passages, but it also provides the linguistic tools necessary for an intelligent explication of Dickinson’s poetry.
Patterson, Rebecca, Emily Dickinson’s Imagery, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.
Although controversial for its interpretive examination of Dickinson’s possible sexual orientation, Rebecca Patterson’s study does a great job of penetrating into the archetypal deeps of Dickinson’s imagery. Patterson collates the whole of Dickinson’s corpus to establish Dickinson’s symbolic lexicon.
St. Armand, Barton Levi, Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society, London: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Drawing upon all of the gilded culture of America’s gilded age, Barton St. Armand, as an expert in American studies, has sought to explain Dickinson’s art as well as her concerns and obsessions from within the artistic and cultural milieu of her time. St. Armand’s work is always interesting and full of little-known facts, even if one does not always share his conclusions.