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Emily Dickinson's "There's a certain Slant of light"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

Introduction and Text of "There's a certain Slant of light"

In "There's a certain Slant of light," Emily Dickinson's speaker is infusing melancholy into her perception of light streaming through a window on a winter afternoon. The poem is composed of four riming stanzas, each featuring her oft-employed rime scheme, ABCB. The speaker creates a little drama based on her intense feeling of spiritual intuition which has been motivated by a simple "Slant of light" streaming through a window on a winter afternoon.

That streaming light through the window seems to tip and tilt, that is, "slant," in a way that causes the speaker to undergo a sense of melancholy, which is no ordinary gloom but hales with it a spiritual aspect.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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—

Reading of "There's a certain Slant of light"

Emily Dickinson

Commentary

Emily Dickinson closely observed and investigated her surroundings; she also keenly examined her own feelings. She then dramatized those feelings in poems.

First Stanza: The Oppression of Tilting Light

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

The speaker begins the drama by asserting that on certain winter afternoons the light shining in through her window comes in at a "certain Slant" and that tilting light "oppresses" her "like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes." Light is weightless, yet to the speaker it seems heavy enough to oppress her mood.

A paradox results from the speaker finding the "light" to be heavy as church music. Music experienced in church is meant to uplift, not weight one down. If something that is meant to uplift does the opposite, then one has to explore the reasons for such oppression.

Why would music that ordinarily would produce a spiritual upliftment become an instrument of oppression—that is, something that is heavy?

Second Stanza: The Human Craving for Meaning

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

The deeply inspiring sound of "Cathedral Tunes" brings the speaker to a place of "Heavenly Hurt." Again, she paradoxically describes her experience: Heaven is spiritually a place where there is no hurt, no pain, no distress, no oppression. The speaker confirms as much when she says this "hurt" never results in a "scar." And it leaves no physical mark like scar because this melancholy is inside of the speaker; it is her soul that has engaged with this music, this light, that has caused this spiritual experience.

The speaker employs the term, "Meaning," — all human beings on all levels of awareness crave meaning in their lives, and the speaker has become aware of the meaning of an inner life that is more important than the corporeal. True meaning come from the soul not the body nor the mind.

Third Stanza: Soul Meaning

None may teach it—Any—
'Tis the Seal Despair—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air—

The speaker then affirms that one cannot be taught this kind of soul meaning. The mystical state of the desire for meaning comes on one unbidden, as casually as taking a breath. "Despair" of the material world often leads one to ask the question, is this all there is to life?

But the individual becomes a seeker when s/he begins to entertain such questions. Divine cravings may be prompted by outward experience such as light tilting in through a window, but those cravings for spiritual reality can only be satisfied through soul-union, which is Divine Awareness. The melancholy of spiritual desire is a first step to that Ultimate Awareness.

Fourth Stanza: The Nature of Reality

When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

After the strong spiritual desire for meaning, that is, comprehending the nature of Reality approaches the sensibility of the individual, all phenomena eventually cease their flux in order to listen—"be still and know that I am God" (KJV, Psalm 46:10).

This speaker creates her drama by asserting that "Shadows — hold their breath." Shadows holding their breath suggests a depth of quietness that is nearly unfathomable. A miraculous awareness engulfs the speaker.

The speaker has discovered that this "heavenly hurt," this spiritual melancholy, changes itself in to the light of understanding. It is "like the Distance / On the look of Death." When death has become merely a distant force, the spiritual aspirant has reached that inner Goal. Death is beaten and given its place to Awareness.

The text I use for commentaries.

The text I use for commentaries.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes