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("There’s A Certain Slant Of Light") Essay, Research Paper


The three poems which combine [Emily Dickinson's] greatest power with her finest

execution are strangely on much the same theme, both as regards the idea embodied and as

regards the allegorical embodiment /293/. They deal with the inexplicable fact of change,

of the absolute cleavage between successive states of being, and it is not unnatural that

in two of the poems this theme should be related to the theme of death. In each poem,

seasonal change is employed as the concrete symbol of the moral change. This is not the

same thing as the so-called pathetic fallacy of the romantics, the imposition of a

personal emotion upon a physical object incapable either of feeling such an emotion or of

motivating it in a human being, It is rather a legitimate and traditional form of

allegory, in which the relationships between the items described resemble exactly the

relationships between certain moral ideas or experiences; the identity of relationship

evoking simultaneously and identifying with each other the feelings attendant upon both

series as they appear separately. [The three poems are], in the order of the seasons

employed, and in the order of increasing complexity both of theme and of technique:

["A Light exists in Spring," "As imperceptibly as grief," and

"There's a certain Slant of light"]. . . . /294/ In the seventh, eighth, and

twelfth lines of ["A Light exists in Spring"], and it is barely possible, in the

seventh and eighth of ["There's a certain slant of light"], there is a very

slight echo of the brisk facility of her poorer work; the last line of ["As

imperceptibly as Grief"], perhaps, verges ever so slightly on an easy prettiness of

diction, though scarcely of substance. These defects are shadowy, however; had the poems

been written by another writer, it is possible that we should not observe them. On the

other hand, the directness, dignity, and power with which these major subjects are met,

the quality of the phrasing, at once clairvoyant and absolute, raise the poems to the

highest level of English lyric poetry.

The meter of these poems is worth careful scrutiny. The basis of all three is the

so-called Poulter’s Measure, first employed, if I remember aright, by Surrey, and after

the time of Sidney in disrepute. It is the measure, however, not only of the great elegy

on Sidney commonly attributed to Fulke Greville, but of some of the best poetry between

Surrey and Sidney, including the fine poem by Vaux on contentment and the great poem by

Gascoigne in praise of a gentlewoman of dark complexion. The English /296/ poets commonly

though not invariably wrote the poem in two long lines instead of four short ones, and the

lines so conceived were the basis of their rhetoric. In ["A Light exists in

Spring"], the measure is employed without alteration, but the short line is the basis

of the rhetoric; an arrangement which permits of more varied adjustment of sentence to

line than if the long line were the basis. In ["As imperceptibly as Grief"], the

first stanza is composed not in the basic measure, but in lines of eight, six, eight, and

six syllables; the shift into the normal six, six, eight, and six in the second stanza, as

in the second stanza of the poem beginning, "Farther in summer," results in a

subtle and beautiful muting both of meter and of tone. This shift she employs elsewhere,

but especially in poems of four stanzas, to which it appears to have a natural

relationship; it is a brilliant technical invention.

In ["There's a certain Slant of Light"] she varies her simple base with the

ingenuity and mastery of a virtuoso. In the first stanza, the two long /163/ lines are

reduced to seven syllables each, by the dropping of the initial unaccented syllable; the

second short line is reduced to five syllables in the same manner. In the second stanza,

the first line, which ought now to be of six syllables, has but five metrical syllables,

unless we violate normal usage and count the second and infinitely light syllable of

Heaven, with an extrametrical syllable at the end, the syllable dropped being again the

initial one; the second line, which ought to have six syllables, has likewise lost its

initial syllable, but the extrametrical us of the preceding line, being unaccented, is in

rhythmical effect the first syllable of the second line, so that this syllable serves a

double and ambiguous function—it maintains the syllable-count of the first line, in

spite of an altered rhythm, and it maintains the rhythm of the second line in spite of the

altered syllable-count. The third and fourth lines of the second stanza are shortened to

seven and five. In the third stanza the first and second lines are constructed like the

third and fourth of the second stanza; the third and fourth lines like the first and

second of the second stanza, except that in the third line the initial unaccented position

is filled and we have a light anapest; that is, the third stanza repeats the construction

/297/ of the second, but in reverse order. The final stanza is a triumphant resolution of

the three preceding: the first and third lines, like the second and fourth, are metrically

identical; the first and third contain seven syllables each, with an additional

extrametrical syllable at the end which takes the place of the missing syllable at the

beginning of each subsequent short line, at the same time that the extrametrical syllable

functions in. the line in which it is written as part of a two-syllable rhyme. The

elaborate structure of this poem results in the balanced hesitations and rapid resolutions

which one hears in reading it. This is metrical artistry at about as high a level as one

is likely to find it. . . .

Emily Dickinson differed from every other major New England writer of the nineteenth

century, and from every major American writer of the century save Melville, of those

affected by New England, in this: that her New England heritage, though it made her life a

moral drama, did not leave her life in moral confusion. It impoverished her in one

respect, however: of all great poets, she is the most lacking in taste; there are

innumerable beautiful lines and passages wasted in the desert of her crudities; her

defects. more than those of any other great /298/ poet that I have read, are constantly at

the brink, or pushing beyond the brink, of her best poems. This stylistic character is the

natural product of the New England which produced the barren little meeting houses; of the

New England founded by the harsh and intrepid pioneers, who in order to attain salvation

trampled brutally through a world which they were too proud and too impatient to

understand. In this respect, she differs from Melville, whose taste was rich and

cultivated. But except by Melville, she is surpassed by no writer that this country has

produced; she is one of the greatest lyric poets of all time. /299/

from "Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment," in In Defense of

Reason, 3rd ed. (Denver, Alan Swallow, 1947), pp. 283-299.


[In "There's a certain Slant of light,"] Emily Dickinson . . . treats an

irrational psychological phenomenon akin to those recorded by Wordsworth in "Strange

fits of passion have I known" ("Down behind the cottage roof, At once, the

bright moon dropp’d. . . . ‘0 mercy!’ to myself I cried, ‘If Lucy should be dead!"’)

and by Tennyson in "Mariana" ("But most she loathed the hour When the

thick-moted sunbeam lay Athwart the chambers, and the day Was sloping toward his western

bower.") A certain external condition of nature induces in her a certain feeling or

mood. But the feeling is more complex than Wordsworth’s or Mariana’s.

The chief characteristic of this feeling is its painful oppressiveness.

"Oppresses," "weight," "hurt," "despair," and

"affliction" convey this aspect. A large component in it is probably

consciousness of the fact of death, though this is probably not the whole of its content

nor is this consciousness necessarily fully formulated by the mind. Yet here we see the

subtle connection between the hour and the mood. For the season is winter, when the year

is approaching its end. And the time is late afternoon (winter afternoons are short at

best, and the light slants), when the day is failing. The suggestion of death is caught up

by the weighty cathedral tunes (funeral music possibly—but hymns are also much

concerned with death—"Dies Irae," etc.) and by "the distance on the

look of death." The stillness of the hour ("the landscape listens, Shadows hold

their breath") is also suggestive of the stillness of death.

But besides the oppressiveness of the feeling, it has a certain impressiveness too. It

is weighty, solemn, majestic, like organ music. This quality is conveyed by "weight

of cathedral tunes," "heavenly ," "seal" (suggesting the seal on

some important official document), and "imperial." This quality of the mood may

be partly caused by the stillness of the moment, by the richness of the slanting sunlight

(soon to be followed by sunset), and by the image of death which it calls up.

The mood gives "heavenly" hurt. "Heavenly" suggests the

immateriality of the hurt, which leaves "no scar"; the source of the

sunlight—the sky; the ultimate source of both sunlight and death—God. The hurt

is given internally "where the meanings are"—that is, in the soul, the

psyche, or the mind-that part of one which assigns "meanings"—consciously

or intuitively—to life and to phenomena like this.

"None may teach it anything"—Both the sunlight and the mood it induces

are beyond human correction or alleviation; they are final and

irrevocable—"sealed." There is no lifting this seal— this despair.

"When it goes, ’tis like the distance On the look of death"—The lines

call up the image of the stare in the eyes of a dead man, not focused, but fixed on the

distance. Also, "distance" suggests the awful distance between the living and

the dead—part of the implicit content of the mood. Notice that the slanted ray and

the mood are still with us here, but are also going. The final remarkable image reiterates

the components of the hour and the mood—oppressiveness, solemnity, stillness, death.

But it hints also at relief—hopes that there will soon be a "distance"

between the poet and her experience.

from "Dickinson’s ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light,’" The Explicator,

XI (May 1953), Item 50.


One of the very best lyric poems which Emily Dickinson wrote, it seems to me, is

["There's a certain Slant of light"]. . . . /76/

This poem is frequently found in anthologies of American poetry but has seldom been

discussed, as far as I know. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in the poem itself,

which is unquestionably beautiful in its sound, and striking in its imagery, yet resists

definition in terms of a logical, comprehensive statement. This poem, certainly, is one of

those rare poems which are experienced, never completely understood. It seems to me

impossible to read the lines without feeling a tragic, serene emotion which must be akin

to the melancholy about which Keats writes. Emily Dickinson’s poem is much less specific

than the "Ode on Melancholy" in describing the nature of the emotion, but her

poem captures and transmits the experience itself.

In regard to the poem’s meaning, one finds himself perplexed at first. The poet

experiences a profound affliction in the presence of something normally regarded as

cheerful—a ray of light. If, however, one remembers the mystical approach which

characterizes much of Emily Dickinson’s writing, the poem assumes a new meaning. This is

not a mystical poem, but it derives its ethereal quality from the influence of the

mystical aspect of Emily, Dickinson’s viewpoint. Light, itself a characteristic mystical

symbol of the Divine, and perhaps also the natural splendor of the world which the light

reveals and enhances in its afternoon, fading glow, strikes Emily Dickinson with the

irresistible force of an Eternal Power. Not mere speculation is stimulated; an emotional

ecstasy of such intensity that it is an affliction possesses her. Furthermore, it is an

imperial affliction sent us of the air. It is again the mystical concept of the worthiness

of painful ecstasy to promote the complete fulfillment of one’s nature. No other education

is comparable; only the experiencing of "despair" sets the enduring

"seal" upon the soul. One recalls that beauty and truth, alike in their effect,

are for her the agents of supreme human fulfillment and are accompanied by the complex

sensations indescribable except in such paradoxical terms as rapturous pain. The slant of

light, its illumination epitomizing the glorious sublimity of nature, would symbolize for

Emily Dickinson the ultimate realization of truth and beauty. The immensity of light’s

compass, the intangibility of its substance, the mystery of its origin, the all-pervasive

immediacy of its /77/ presence would create in her the sudden awareness of her own

relationship to the natural world and yet of the inevitable change of this relationship at

death. The awareness that she must cease to see the light gives her present vision its

searing acuteness. . . .

An examination of the images in "There’s a certain slant of light" reveals

their extraordinary degree of consistency and appropriateness. The light is presented in

its most effective form. The slant indicates that the light is refracted so that

one may see the beam or ray itself and not just an illuminated surface. The slant is

explained by afternoons. Sunset is near, for "winter afternoons" are

short. The terms winter and afternoon both are suggestive of the end of life. The

lustre and yellow warmth of the light stand out in striking relief in austere winter.

Light compared with cathedral tunes demonstrates a consummate use of imagery in which the

profoundest impressions of one sense are called forth to describe equally profound

impressions of another sense. The senses of sight and hearing, as well as an emotional

tone and a feeling of muscular tenseness in opposing weight, are all involved in the brief

stanza. The nature of the paradoxical "Heavenly hurt" is made evident by the

image of cathedral tunes. Most people are sensible of the sober disquietude that may be

stimulated by great, solemn music, if not by the beauty of nature. The "internal

difference" is, of course, the essential difference for Emily Dickinson rather than

any outward change. . . . /78/

[The] significance of the slant of light is also within. The sudden, inward change is

so thorough that the poet, holding her breath and listening, sees her own emotional state

reflected in the very landscape and shadows. The emotion, too intense to last, subsides as

the slant of light lengthens and lowers into the gray of twilight. Then "’tis like

the distance / On the look of death." The feeling of softened, lengthened distances

as seen at dusk, the poignancy in the departure of something precious, the resigned

awareness of death—not felt with the acute sensations of before but contemplated

dispassionately—all are included in this solemn final image.

The mechanical details of the poem are, to my mind, flawless. The second and fourth

lines of each stanza end in perfect rhyme, and the first and third lines of each stanza

exhibit the incomplete sound-rhymes for which Emily Dickinson has been alternatively

praised and damned for something over fifty years. The recurrence of sounds in the

complete and incomplete rhymes is not obvious and blatant; it has the effect of music

lightly assuring the listener of its key by sometimes stating the tonic, but frequently

only pausing on the dominant. The key or tone of the poem is maintained throughout by the

preponderance of "s" sounds. The poem seems to demand to be read in a subdued

tone ending with the whispered last two lines. There is not a jarring sound present; the

liquid "I’s" and the vowels add to the hushed, lyric quality.

The trochaic meter in this poem is much more skillfully handled than the majority of

Emily Dickinson’s meters. Even in the terse /79/ seven-syllable, five-syllable lines there

is present much subtle metric variation, as reading the poem aloud will verify.

The simplicity of the organization of this poem is art which conceals art. The stanzas

are self-contained, precise units, each one an extension of the basic meaning. The poem

ends with the symmetrically balanced phrases "when it comes . . . when it goes . . .

" and the final images of sound and sight complete in reverse the pattern created by

the sight and sound imagery of the first stanza.

This poem exhibits none of the childishness, the self-conscious mannerisms, which mar

some of her poetry. The characteristics which are present—the introspective analysis

of the second stanza, the mystical implications of the third, and the supreme mastery of

words and imagery throughout—contribute to make this poem one of the best products of

Emily Dickinson’s unique poetic genius. /80/

from Emily Dickinson’s Approach to Poetry, New Series, No. 13 (University of

Nebraska Studies, November 1954), pp. 76-80.


[Emily Dickinson's] dread of winter [is] expressed in one of her remarkable verses,

written about 1861 [,"There's a certain Slant of light"]. It is, like the

somewhat later "Further in Summer than the Birds," an attempt to give permanence

through her art to the impermanent; to catch that fleeting moment of anxiety which, having

passed, leaves the beholder changed. Such moods she could catch most readily in the

changing seasons themselves. . . . /89/ Winter to her is at moments intolerably dreary,

and she here re-creates the actual emotion implicit in the Persephone-Pluto myth. Will

spring never come? Sometimes, winter afternoons, she perceives an atmospheric quality of

light that is intensely oppressive. The colloquial expression "heft" is

especially appropriate in suggesting a heavy weight, which she associates with the weight

of great bells or the heavy sound that great bells create. This might be the depressing

chill and quiet preceding a snowfall. Whatever it is, it puts the seal on wintriness.

Coming as it does from heavens, it is an imperial affliction to be endured ("None may

teach it—Any"). Even the landscape itself is depressed. When it leaves, she

feels that whole body. The strong provincialism, ‘Heft’ (smoothed away to ‘Weight’ by

former editors), carries both the meaning of ponderousness and the great effort of heaving

in order to test it, according /216/ to her Lexicon. This homely word also clashes

effectively with the grand ring of ‘Cathedral Tunes,’ those produced by carillon offering

the richest possibilities of meaning. Since this music ‘oppresses,’ the

connotation of funereal is added to the heavy resonance of all pealing bells. And since

the double meaning of ‘Heft’ carries through, despair is likened to both the weight of

these sounds on the spirit and the straining to lift the imponderable tonnage of cast


The religious note on which the prelude ends, ‘Cathedral Tunes,’ is echoed in the

language of the central stanzas. In its ambiguousness ‘Heavenly Hurt’ could refer to the

pain of paradisiac ecstasy, but more immediately this seems to be an adjective of agency,

from heaven, rather than an attributive one. The hurt is inflicted from above, ‘Sent us of

the Air,’ like the ‘Slant of light’ that is its antecedent. In this context that natural

image takes on a new meaning, again with the aid of her Lexicon which gives only one

meaning for ’slant’ as a noun, ‘an oblique reflection or gibe.’ It is then a mocking

light, like the heavenly hurt that comes from the sudden instinctive awareness of man’s

lot since the Fall, doomed to mortality and irremediable suffering. This is indeed

despair, though not in the theological sense unless Redemption is denied also. As Gerard

Manley Hopkins phrases it in ‘Spring and Fall,’ for the young life there coming to a

similar realization, ‘It is the blight man was born for.’

Because of this it is beyond human correction, ‘None may teach it—Any .’ Though it

penetrates it leaves ‘no scar’ as an outward sign of healing, nor any internal wound that

can be located and alleviated. What it leaves is ‘internal difference,’ the mark of all

significant ‘Meanings. ‘ When the psyche is once stricken with the pain of such knowledge

it can never be the same again. The change is final and irrevocable, sealed. The Biblical

sign by which God claims man for his own has been shown in the poems of heavenly bridal to

be a ‘Seal,’ the ring by which the beloved is married into immortal life. But to be

redeemed one must first be mortal, and be made conscious of one’s mortality. The initial

and overwhelming impact of this can lead to a state of hopelessness, unaware that the

‘Seal Despair’ might be the reverse side of the seal of ecstasy. So, when first stamped on

the consciousness it is an ‘affliction.’ But it is also ‘imperial . . . Sent us of the

Air,’ the heavenly kingdom where God sits enthroned, and from the same source can come

Redemption, though not in this poem. /217/

By an easy transition from one insubstantial image to another, ‘Air’ back to ‘a certain

Slant of light,’ the concluding stanza returns to the surface level of the winter

afternoon. As the sun drops toward the horizon just before setting, ‘the Landscape

listens’ in apprehension that the very light which makes it exist as a landscape is about

to be extinguished; ‘Shadows,’ which are about to run out to infinity in length and merge

with each other in breadth until all is shadow, ‘hold their breath.’ This is the effect

created by the slanting light ‘When it comes.’ Of course no such things happen in nature,

and it would be pathetic fallacy to pretend they did. The light does not inflict this

suffering nor is the landscape the victim. Instead, these are just images of despair.


from Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap

Press of Harvard University, 1955), pp. 189-190.

Sharon Cameron

How does "light" come into relation with "Despair—" and

"Despair—" into relation with "Death—"? What are the

generative fusions of the poem and why is the grammar of its concluding lines itself so

confusing? We note that light is a "Seal" or sign of despair and we remember

that Dickinson was much too conscientious a reader of the Bible and particularly of the

Book of Revelation not to have intended "the Seal Despair—" to point to an

experience that was, if a secular experience can be so, both visionary and apocalyptic. In

the Bible, however, while the self is "not worthy to open the scroll and break the

seals" that will reveal divine agency, in the speaker’s world meaning must be deduced

within the privacy of a solitary consciousness. Thus "None may teach it [to] any [one

else]"; "None may teach it any [thing]" (it is not subject to alteration);

"None may teach it—[not] any [one]." But the "Meanings" of the

event are not self-generated; if this is a poem about the solipsistic labor of experience,

it is not about autism. To be credited as vision, despair must also seek its connection to

the generative source outside itself. For light may seal despair in, make it internal and

irrevocable, but the irrevocability, by a line of association that runs just under the

poem’s surface, prompts the larger thought of death.

In fact, the poem is about correlatives, about how interior transformations that are

both invisible and immune to alteration from the outside world are at the same time

generated by that world. The relationship between the "Slant of light" in the

landscape and the "Seal Despair—" within may be clarified by an analogy to

Erich Auerbach’s distinction between figure and its fulfillment, for the "Slant of

light" and the "Seal Despair—" are not in this poem merely

premonitions of death, but are, in fact, kinds or types of death. Indeed it could be

asserted that in the entire Dickinson canon, despair is often a figura for death,

not as Auerbach uses the word to specify related historical events, but rather as he

indicates the word to denote an event that prefigures an ultimate occurrence and at the

same time is already imbued with its essence. Figural interpretation presupposes much

greater equality between its terms than either allegory or symbol for, in the former, the

sign is a mere form and, in the latter, the symbol is always fused with what it represents

and can actually replace it. While it is true that figural interpretation ordinarily

applies to historical events rather than to natural events, and while the "Slant of

light" and the "Seal Despair—" are indeed natural and psychological

events not separated by much time, they have a causal or prefigurative relationship to

each other that is closer to the relationship implicit in the figural structure than to

that in the symbolic one. Certainly it would be incorrect to say that they are symbols.

"Light" and "Seal," however, are in relation to

"Death—" as a premise is to a conclusion. Auerbach, speaking of the

relationship between two historical events implicit in the figural structure, writes,

"Both . . . have something provisional and incomplete about them; they point to one

another and both point to something in the future, something still to come, which will be

the actual, real, and definitive event." We may regard the "Slant of light"

and the "Seal Despair—" as having just such a signatory relationship as

that described above. For the light is indirect; it thus seeks a counterpart to help it

deepen into meaning. The "definitive event" in the poem to which

"light" and "Seal" point is, of course, "Death—." While

we would expect the departure of the light to yield distance from the "look of

Death—," instead the preposition "on" not only designates the space

between the speaker and the light but also identifies that light as one cast by death, and

in turn casting death on, or in the direction of, the speaker. The "Slant of

light," recognized only at a distance—its meaning comprehended at the moment of

its disappearance—is revelatory of "Death—", is

"Death['s]—" prefiguration. Figure fuses with fact, interprets it, and what

we initially called the confusion of the two now makes sense in the context of divination.

If the light is indeed one of death, then we have the answer to why and how it

"oppresses" in the first stanza and to the earlier oblique comparison of it to

"Cathedral Tunes—." What Dickinson achieves in the poem is truly

remarkable, for she takes a traditional symbol and scours it so thoroughly of its

traditional associations with life that before we get to the poem’s conclusion the image

leans in the direction of mystery, dread, and darkness. By the time we arrive at the final

simile and at the direct association of light and death we are not so much surprised as

relieved at the explicitness of the revelation. It is the indirect association of

"light" and "Death—" (the "Slant" that pulls them

together at first seemingly without purpose) that prompts "Despair—." We

feel it indirectly, internally, obliquely. Were we to know it, it would be death. For

Dickinson, death is the apocalyptic vision, the straightening of premonition into fact,

figure into fulfillment.

The fusions I have been discussing either between literal reality and its metaphoric

representation (where literal reality permanently assumes those metaphoric characteristics

that seemed initially intended only to illuminate it) or between the more formal figura

and its fulfillment (where events contain in a predictive relationship the essence as well

as the form of each other) raise the question of whether we can ever know anything in its

own terms, and suggest perhaps that knowledge is not, as we might have thought, absolute,

but is rather always relational. If these fusions link the historical or natural world

with the divine one, the analogue with the real thing, they are predicated on a structure

of simultaneous correspondence rather than of linear progression. The truth that is

"Bald, and Cold—" is death, it does not lead to it. The "certain Slant

of light," although it prefigures death, also already contains its essence. The thing

in other words is saturated in the terms of its own figuration. Given the synchrony of

this relationship, we are not very far from those poems that strain to annihilate the

boundaries of time itself and to treat death as if its very reality could be cast into the

present tense, experienced, and somehow survived. The effort to know what cannot be known,

to survive it, is thus carried one step further in those poems in which the speaker

travels over the boundary from life to death to meet death on its own ground. Given the

presumption of the quest, figural structure often gives way to allegory or at any rate to

the acknowledgment of the inadequacy of simple analogue, for on the other side of death

true knowledge can find no correspondences.

from Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright ? 1979 by The

Johns Hopkins UP.

Sharon Cameron

. . . in "There’s a certain Slant of light" the human world is everywhere

apparent, as finitude is everywhere apparent. The consequence is oppression. The human

world manifests itself in the experience of division, the division of the heavenly from

the earthly as well as of the internal from the external. It further manifests itself in

the production of "Meanings," and in the concern with how meanings are produced.

And as division itself might be regarded as a master trope of the human world, division is

no less apparent in the indirectly voiced desire to make meaning visible—to

externalize meaning where it is imagined meaning could have form that might be recognized,

apprehended, even possessed, as objects are apprehended and possessed. Finally, the human

world is apparent in the serial manifestations of indirection, of affliction, of

personification, of death. In these various ways, the poem is saturated with finitude, as

the preceding poem was purified of it.

The personification of the landscape is an alternative, as it were, to the

naturalization of the self. And such an inversion of the previous poem, this rejection of

its terms, is apparent in the fact that light waves become sound waves, which become waves

of heaviness and pain. Thus everything is personalized, translated to the person, and then

confined or trapped there, as in the previous poem liberation from personhood was

precisely what was celebrated. Yet whatever invades the speaker is also perceived as alien

to her even as it is seen to penetrate her. So the indifference—the

"sovreign" "Unconcern" of the previous poem-becomes the "internal

difference" of this one. In fact, light is cast down and codified as the "Seal

Despair," which itself hardens further into "the look of Death." One way to

understand such causality is to say that the light, internalized, registers as despair and

is understood as death. Another way to understand it is to see that this figure in the

poem—this making of death into a figure that cannot be dispelled—is what death

looks like when it is personified, when it is made to have a meaning as small as a

person’s meaning. In line with the trivialization, "the look of Death" does not

quite displace the anthropomorphic "face" of death (as in the previous poem

"Competeless" does not quite displace "completeless"). For death in

"There’s a certain Slant of light," reduced to human size, is almost given a

countenance. Thus "the Distance" from death or from the "look of

Death" (from how death appears when it has a "look," almost a demeanor or

expression) is no distance at all.

I have noted that something is being worked out in the two poems about an ability to

adopt nature’s indifference to the self (with the consequence of immortalizing the self)

and an inability to adopt that indifference which results in death’s personification. But

what shall we further say about the proximity of these poems? Is one a repudiation of the

other? Does the second more neutrally correspond to the other as an opposite point of

view? And how can these poems so closely identified be read as anything but retorts to

each other? Or would it be more accurate to say that they are in effect two parts of the

same poem? For as distance is experienced in the first of the poems, distance and hence

immortality, distance is denied in the second of the poems. Hence death is regarded. In

the context of the whole fascicle, the poems reiterate in various ways the questions: Can

loss be naturalized or always only personalized? How is the recompense for loss to be

conceived? From the vantage of "Of Bronze—and Blaze—," there is no

recompense and no necessity for recompense, nothing—or nothing worthwhile—being

understood to be lost. From the vantage of "There’s a certain Slant of light,"

everything is determined to be lost, as anticipation or anxiety determines it, even as

what exactly is feared lost is unspecified, and impossible to specify. It is impossible to

specify since there is no distance on the experience as well as no specified distance on

the look of death. Thus in some crucial way, clarified only by the fascicle context, the

poems in proximity illuminate distance, making distance the subject—as it is achieved

by the speaker in one poem, as it fails to be achieved by the speaker in another—a

subject that can only be seen to unfold across the space of two poems no longer understood

as discrete. For the poems represent different understandings of what distance

is—when it is achieved and when it fails to be achieved—making everything that

follows (the experience of loss, the anticipation of death, internality itself)

functionally, and therefore radically, subordinate to this subject which it is the task of

the poems in conjunction to redefine. Such a redefinition is no small accomplishment, for

it transforms the poems taken singly—as Romantic "insight" poems—into

representations that probe the conditions and consequences of perception, giving

conditions and consequences governance over all. Then perception itself and the celebrated

"internality" of "There’s a certain Slant of light" are only a

consequence of a certain way of seeing, of a certain vantage, that can in fact be

regulated and that, when regulated, (savingly) dehumanizes. With reference to such

regulation, the mechanistic rhetoric of the fascicle’s last poem (P 292), "If your

Nerve, deny you— / Go above your Nerve . . . Lift the Flesh door—," can no

longer be seen as enigmatically self-annihilating. For, like "Of Bronze—and

Blaze—," it proposes an escape from the mortal position seen in both cases to be

a diminutive position to which there is a real alternative. So a rereading of two poems in

proximity within the fascicle, poems no longer quite discrete, requires a rereading of all

the poems in the fascicle and of the fascicle as a whole.

from Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles. Copyright ? 1992 by The

University of Chicago

Paula Bennett

With its exquisite use of sound, its disjunctive grammar, and mixed levels of diction,

‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ is a formidable performance. But the reason for the

poem’s extraordinary popularity (it is among Dickinson’s most consistently reprinted

and explicated works) does not lie in technique alone . It also lies in our familiarity

with the experience Dickinson describes. Not only has the poet captured the oddness of

winter light (its thin, estranging quality), but she has also caught the depressed or

sorrowful state of mind which this light biochemically induces. Despite the poet’s use of

terms like ‘Seal’ and ‘imperial, affliction,’ that key into her private mythology of

self–her self-designated role as ‘Queen of Calvary’–’There’s a certain Slant of light’

engages its readers directly.

Yet at the same time, ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ is, obviously, a highly

subjective poem, dealing with an intensely personal state of mind. In it, the speaker’s

mood takes over from the light, the presumptive focus of the text, and is generalized to

the entire landscape. The world becomes a partner in the poet’s depression. The depression

becomes the lens through which the world is seen–and, even more important, through which

its ‘meanings’ (whatever they might be) are understood.

When Dickinson uses nature imagery in this way, she is appropriating it, as Joanne Feit

Diehl says, for the aggrandizement of the mind. In such poems, the natural phenomenon ‘becomes

the self as the division between identity and scene dissolves.’ To that extent,

‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ may be said to be solipsistic. That is, unlike the

nature poems discussed in the preceding chapter, it is explicitly a projection of the

poet’s inner life, a massive transference to the landscape of her inner state of being.

Dickinson reveals the nature of this state through her comparisons, but its meaning is one

she refuses to disclose. For all its apparent familiarity, what happens in this poem is,

finally, as fragmented and inconclusive (as unknowable) as the light to which Dickinson

refers–or the grammar she uses.

The evasiveness of ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’–its multiple ambiguities and its

refusal to reach a firm conclusion–is typical of Dickinson’s psychological poems and the

source of much of their difficulty (as well as their fascination). Reading Dickinson’s

poetry, Adrienne Rich declares, one gets the sense ‘of a mind engaged in a lifetime’s

musing on essential problems of language, identity, separation, relationship, the

integrity of the self; a mind capable of describing psychological states more accurately

than any poet except Shakespeare.’ No poet seems closer to her readers as a result. It is

as if Dickinson laid out her most private thoughts and feelings before us.

But unlike the accessibility of Dickinson’s nature poetry, which is supported by the

external world to which the poems refer, the accessibility of Dickinson’s psychological

poetry is in many ways deceiving. Not only is the relationship between the voice which

speaks these poems and Dickinson herself problematic, but so, as a rule, is the

relationship between the poetry’s manifest content and the meaning which this content

presumably encodes. Thus, on the most basic level, it is unclear whether Dickinson

addresses her own feelings in ‘There’s a certain Slant of light,’ or those she believes

are people’s in general, and we may query whether the poem is about light or about the

depression which the light evokes. Finally, we may ask what ‘meaning’ this light (or this

depression) has, especially given its status as an ‘imperial affliction/Sent us,’ we are

told, ‘of the Air.’ This chapter will discuss the difficulties involved in reading

Dickinson’s psychological poems and the ramifications these difficulties have for our

understanding of the relationship between the poet’s life and her work. Like other

nineteenth-century women poets, Dickinson used her poetry to inscribe her ‘heart’s

record,’ but the ambiguities of her technique and the complexity and richness of her

inscription make the interpretation of this record a subject of intense (and at times,

perhaps, futile) critical debate.

From Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Copyright ? 1990 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted

by permission of the author.

Jonathan Holden

We might first note that, beautiful as the poem is, the satisfactions which it affords

us are not primarily visual. Even though it is focused outward on a natural scene, it does

not mention a single color or describe a single form. Are we looking at woods, a lawn, a

grove, fields, hills? Is there snow on the ground? We are not sure. What is the weather?

Is it a bleakly clear, hard, dry afternoon? Or does the sun break through the clouds in

one brief, poignant slant? Is it early to mid afternoon, or later? Does the sunlight fade

because of sunset or because of cloud cover? My guess–which is only intuitive and based

upon my memories of growing up in northern New Jersey–is that it is not sunset, that the

day is mostly cloudy, very forlorn, that around three in the afternoon the sun appears

through a rift in the stratus, infinitely tantalizing, melancholy, like the reminder of

some other life, some other season, some other realm (perhaps heavenly) than the

claustral, futureless gray of winter. But this is pure guesswork, without a shred of

textual backing.

Despite its visual vagueness, however, the poem does in many ways resemble a painting.

Its attention is directed outward at a landscape, not at the author/speaker herself or

some other human protagonist. It is true that the implied author constitutes a definite

presence in this poem–a more pronounced presence than we feel a painter has in a typical

landscape painting–but she never refers to herself as taking action. She does not walk to

a window. She does not pour a cup of tea. She does not sigh or weep. She simply looks.

Where, then, is that action which distinguishes literature from painting and without

which neither this nor any poem can successfully compete with a good painting? Obviously

it is in the scene itself, and it is made possible by the fact that, although the poem has

the feel of a painting, the duration over which it scans its landscape is longer than the

instantaneous "duration" captured in a painting. Within this duration,

"When it comes … When it goes," different events take place, events whose

source is not human. Indeed, the protagonist of the poem is the landscape itself,

whose "Slant of light" does things ("oppresses,"

"comes," "goes"), a landscape which "listens" and whose

"Shadows–hold their breath." The poem, then, is, in addition to its other

implications, very much about time. It presents, to borrow Wordsworth’s expression, a

"spot of time."

From Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry. Copyright ? 1986 by the

Curators of the University of Missouri.

Joanne Feit Diehl

Dickinson comes closest to Wordsworth when she tries to read the meaning of light

falling upon the land: . . .

Light, the element that bathes Wordsworth’s landscapes, casts its shadow on this poem.

The "certain slant" pierces the self, oppresses the spirit–it is not a seal of

affirmation, but an "imperial affliction / Sent us of the Air." True to

Wordsworthian dicta, Dickinson has responded to what she witnesses, but the light she

finds is the type of doom she most fears. The "internal difference" filters down

from Heaven through the landscape into the poet, and what for Wordsworth would be a

reflective if sober moment becomes the "seal" of despair.

From Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University

Press, 1981. Copyright ? 1981 by Princeton University Press.

Gary Lee Stonum

Diminishing the authority of intentionality helps ward off the author’s dominion, but

to the extent that conveyed meaning is itself a threat the author is not the only enemy of

responsiveness. No authorial master appears in "There’s a certain slant of

light," for instance, but the scene certainly imposes "Heavenly Hurt" as it

inscribes upon the soul "internal difference, / Where the Meanings, are."

Typically such moments are spurned as painful, perhaps overwhelming, and also craved as an

intensity beyond the quotidian. In other words, they belong to an esthetics of the

sublime. And a chief issue, particularly in the wonderfully multivalent line "None

may teach it–Any," is the authority or legitimacy of the meanings written within.

If, as the tone of the poem suggests, the meanings manifest some natural or supernatural

order, then the self can only accede to them. If, however, as in other instances where

response is prolonged, the slant of light only marks or rearranges the internal

differences, which the self then as a separate act gives meaning to, a crucial freedom to

determine meaning is maintained. Indeed, we once again have a three-part process: the

stimulus of the light, the inscription of the internal differences, and the interpretation

of these signifiers by the no longer helpless soul.

The poetic and rhetorical issue broached by "There’s a certain slant of

light" is the possibility of natural symbolism. As a rule, romantic writers have

searched eagerly for some form of symbolism that might claim natural or supernatural

sanction, thereby transcending mere custom. . . .

By contrast Dickinson’ poetry regularly works to denaturalize the available

symbolic resources of our condition and culture.

From The Dickinson Sublime. (University of Wisconsin Press, 1990). Copyright ?

1990 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Jane Donahue Eberwein

What slant of light is this? How low must the sun sink on the horizon to project its

pink, or gold, or silver ray across the snowy fields? The poet makes no attempt to

describe the sense impressions but only to register their emotional resonance. This is

done by the oxymoronic phrases "Heavenly Hurt" and "imperial

affliction" that link exultation with anguish. And the speaker, generalizing from her

reaction to that of a universal "we," personifies nature itself as attentive to

these promptings from beyond circumference.

Here, too, definition comes by negation. There is "no scar," "None may

teach it." When the speaker strains for an analogy to clarify her experience, she

characteristically hits upon one outside Emily Dickinson’s experience. Those

"Cathedral Tunes" stimulate the imagination with their "Heft,"

presumably that "weight of glory" Dickinson cited once from 2 Corinthians

4:17 when telling a friend about a morning landscape that awakened painful awareness of

her mother’s recent death. Never having been in a cathedral, except imaginatively in

"I’ve heard an Organ talk, sometimes–," Dickinson probably relied on the

memoirs of American Protestant travelers in Europe to discover how it would feel to hear

grandly complex vocal and instrumental music in a Gothic or Romanesque setting from whose

spell the visitor would constantly struggle to free himself. Perhaps she recalled Ik

Marvel’s report of Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel when "the sweet, mournful

flow of the Miserere begins again, growing in force and depth till the whole chapel

rings, and the balcony of the choir trembles; then it subsides again into the low, soft

wall of a single voice, so prolonged, so tremulous, and so real, that the heart aches-for

Christ is dead!" The death of God, the death of a loved one, her own death: All these

things registered on Dickinson through this visual emblem of the dying day. And it was

fitting that she should reveal these awarenesses only gradually and by

indirection–foregoing natural exactitude for depth of psychological response to intuited


From Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts

Press, 1985. Copyright ? 1985 by University of Massachusetts Press.

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