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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 - age 17 - retouched daguerreotype

Emily Dickinson - age 17 - retouched daguerreotype

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

Emily Dickinson's speaker in "There's a certain Slant of light" reveals a mood of slight melancholy as she muses on a shaft of light streaming in through her 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 that sense of melancholy, which is no ordinary gloom but brings with it a spiritual aspect.

This poem is composed of four riming stanzas, each featuring Dickinson’s 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 in through the window on a cold, winter afternoon.

(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"

Commentary

A simple viewing of a shaft of light streaming into the room on a winter day engenders in this speaker a melancholy prompting this little drama. The spiritual experience thus is rendered in paradox—the ultimate literary device for communicating the ineffable.

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 in the way the heavy tones of sacred chants might do. Although light is weightless, to the speaker in this particular mood, it seems heavy enough to oppress her into melancholy.

A paradox results from the speaker finding the "light" to be as heavy as church music. Music experienced in church is meant to uplift, not weigh 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 produces 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 a spiritual place where there is no hurt, no pain, no distress, no oppression—only bliss.

The speaker confirms as much as she avers that this "hurt" never results in a "scar." And it also leaves no physical mark such as 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 from the body that changes and dies, nor from the mind that knows nothing but change.

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 after she begins to entertain such questions. Divine cravings may be prompted by any 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, transforms itself into the light of understanding. Death loses it grip and meaning after such a level of awareness is achieved, no longer grasping the heart and mind of the individual.

After death has become merely a distant force, the spiritual aspirant sees more clearly all other forces that operate in her sphere. The speaker has thus reached that inner Goal. Death is beaten and given its place to Awareness.

The Symbolism of Light

That a simple "Slant of light" should engender a deep mystic state of awareness in this speaker is quite apt. Regarding the nature of light, in his spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda has explained that the material universe is composed of light: "Many modern discoveries help man to apprehend the cosmos as a varied expression of one power — light, guided by divine intelligence."

Paramahansa Yogananda has also explained that only differing rates of vibration account for the differing forms that exist throughout the cosmo:

Modern science has shown that everything in the universe is composed of energy (light), and that the apparent differentiation between solids, liquids, gases, sound, and light is merely a difference in their vibratory rates.

Also in his autobiography, the great spiritual leader has explained in detail the nature of light, comparing it to other "waves":

Among the trillion mysteries of the cosmos, the most phenomenal is light. Unlike sound waves, whose transmission requires air or other material media, light waves pass freely through the vacuum of interstellar space. Even the hypothetical ether, held as the interplanetary medium of light in the undulatory theory, may be discarded on the Einsteinian grounds that the geometrical properties of space render unnecessary a theory of ether. Under either hypothesis, light remains the most subtle, the freest from material dependence, of any natural manifestation.

The individual who has achieved the realization that "the essence of creation is light" is thus capable of operating the law of miracles. The term miracle simply applies to any phenomenon whose operation science has yet to discover. What the soul knows will always be running miles and years ahead of what physical science knows because physical science can explore and examine only the created cosmos not the Creator of that cosmos.

Emily Dickinson’s employment of light in this poem thus results from her deep intuitive awareness that light is the building substance of the cosmos. Therefore, "light" becomes a symbol for that intuition that would continue to guide the poet as she continued to create her garden of poetry.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

The text I use for commentaries.

The text I use for commentaries.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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