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20 August 2012

There's a certain Slant of light,

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are—

None may teach it—Any—
'Tis the Seal Despair—
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
On the look of Death –
                                                F320 (1862)  258

Slanting winter light and cathedral music bring a solemn and even transcendent joy to many people. Dickinson speaks of the “Heft” of “Cathedral Tunes” and the gravitas of such music is meant to open us to the divine. Likewise, the sun’s rays breaking through the chill clouds of winter may also inspire a sense of awe-full grandeur. Because the sun does not rise so high in the heavens in winter as it does in summer, shadows are more pronounced—particularly as the afternoon passes. The slanting light, though, delivers little warmth. Cathedral music likewise accentuates both shadow and light in its drama of sacrifice, sin, and salvation. Did Dickinson find little true warmth there? Did the composer and musician’s art bring as little comfort as cold light?
            To Dickinson, both winter light and cathedral music convey oppression. We are weighed down by … what? The shadows that limn the light? The reminder of death and the unknowable mysteries beyond?
            Besides oppressing, winter’s slanting light seals an inner despair. It is “an imperial affliction” rather than the sort of uplifting experience Dickinson portrays in her sunrise and sunset poetry. The afflicted light is “Sent us,” but by whom the poet remains silent. The result, though, is a “Heavenly Hurt” that leaves “no scar.” We are changed from the inside, “Where the Meanings, are.”
            The message of the light cannot be taught nor explained. Its hurt is specific to each soul who encounters it.
            What makes this poem so provocative and so powerful—indeed, this is one of Dickinson’s most widely anthologized and quoted poems—is Dickinson’s judgment that certain moments that open us to the Divine deliver “Despair” rather than hope or joy. A certain slant of winter light accentuates the dead season without delivering warmth. In 1862 when Dickinson wrote this, there was no end in sight to the Civil War. This must have added to any existential depression she may have had.
N. Arizona, winter afternoon
            But I suspect Dickinson was contemplating eternity, death, and salvation here (as in so many of her poems). The “Heavenly Hurt” might not mean that God is afflicting us but that a certain type of light in winter reminds us of the cold, distant cosmos, and of the brevity of human life. There is a winter ahead for each of us. The season is a useful metaphor for death—as are shadows. A certain slant of winter’s light accentuates the shadows as well as the bare trees and bushes.
            Throughout her poetry, Dickinson uses spring, conventionally enough, as a metaphor for re-birth, for life beyond death, and therefore for hope. Winter’s light offers the opposite. Despair is an unforgivable sin, signifying that the sufferer has no belief in either salvation or life after death. Dickinson’s claim that despair is sent from “the Air,” surely a metaphor for heaven, is a bitter one.
            In the last stanza, the world itself seems full of dread. The landscape, although lit with the afternoon sun, nonetheless “listens,” and here we are reminded again of the cathedral tunes, as if something momentous is occurring. The idea is developed further in the next line: “Shadows—hold their breath” knowing that when the light fades, they too will fade, swallowed up by the blackness of night. In the dark nothing can be seen. There is a blankness there, certainly in the distance. And that is what death looks like. The absence of light – the inability to see.
            The poem is both rich and suggestive for all its abstractions. There are no specific details: no taste, touch, color, scent or other sensory elements. Instead we go back and forth between the heavenly realm where the hurtful light originates and from where it gains significance, and the earthly recipients: people—the “us,” the landscape, and shadows. It ends in Death, and that is perhaps the most appropriate way to end a poem about the afternoon light on a winter’s day.


  1. Alas, commentary by someone who may have seen this light and knows of what she speaks. I was searching for the stanzas and found so many sophomoric analyses. When you see this "certain slant" you feel all of what Emily wrote. I knew that heavy light when I lived in the northeast., though only rarely. When I first read the poem I shuddered that someone had managed to describe it so perfectly. It still fills me with awe, and as much as I'd love to see it again, I also live in fear of it.

    1. I experienced it in Vermont – but I suspect that even if I hadn't, Dickinson's powerful powerful poem would have made me feel it.

    2. I saw that slant of light for years and years late on winter afternoons on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, when I was a young mother raising my two little children there. I learned that to ward off its spell, I had to go outdoors for a while at mid-day, when the sun was at its brightest (though still very feeble). The invigoration by that mid-day sun at its zenith could carry me through that choking late-afternoon slant of light.
      And E.D. has brilliantly paired that visual oppression with oppressive organ music in Church (though they are an odd pair of oppressors: the too-weak light of the sun, and the too-strong blast of the organ "music".

  2. What an excellent reading! Your interpretation of the ending is such an interesting one - one I hadn't thought of.

  3. My wife and I appreciate your essays as we read a poem or two each night after dinner from Thomas Johnson's Final Harvest collection. Your essay above is one of our favorites (so far!).

  4. If I'm not mistaken, in another poem concerning Despair you mention the Calvinist doctrine that despair is a necessary condition that reminds us of heavenly grace, as long as it does not become so intense as to bring about the sin of hopelessness (or something along those lines). Is this poem's Despair perhaps that imperial affliction sent us from the air?

    1. I wish I remembered which poem and the specifics of my research at the time. I think dying in despair would be Calvinistically more dire than experiencing a feeling of despair at times. And now that I re-read it with your comments in mind I see that the Seal Despair sent by heaven comes and does indeed goes. And we also know Dickinson's frequent poetic invocation of the regenerative powers of Spring, so perhaps you are right in this reading: Despair and then Grace. Thank you for your comment.

  5. Can’t you imagine how effective it might be for professionals dealing with SAD (seasonal affective disorder) to use ED along with vitamin D as therapy? She was so prescient.

  6. interesting to read the analysis and comments here- I'm from MN & know the feeling of that light in winter, especially when it's reflected on the white snow- it's blinding to look upon-so much, that it the same time, it exposes some feeling of contrast with the interior of our being, which can be dark and frightening...Ultimately, as the afternoon light disperses, it becomes extremely dark and very cold...again, summoning a feeling- that of a deathly cold along with bitter loneliness...the words of this poem express my deepest feelings in those moments-- what unexplainable sensitivity and literary genius for someone to express those feelings with such a naked truth...

  7. Both ED's manuscript and Franklin's Variorum show this poem in four quatrains.

  8. Civil war or spurned love, for the depression-prone, winter afternoon light at Amherst’s latitude feels futile, a bad joke. Solstice sun sets at 4:20 pm, and you know you’re in for a long night. Sleep signals Death has passed, for tonight, but don’t relax. He can return tomorrow without warning.