There's a certain Slant of light,
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.