Literature

A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’

A reading of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ is poem 258 in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems. It’s one of Dickinson’s more famous poems, though as with much of her finest work the poem resists any straightforward analysis of its meaning. But we’re going to attempt to shed some light on that ‘certain Slant of light’ here.

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 –

‘There’s a certain Slant of light’: summary

Many of Emily Dickinson’s greatest poems do that thing which much great art does: it takes something rather specific and peculiar, but shows how pervasive and universal such an experience, or a feeling, is. ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ is an especially fine example of this.

The poem, in summary, focuses on the way that sunlight in the winter is oppressive and weighs down on us, making us feel low, unhappy, as if visited by a ‘Heavenly Hurt’. (That particular phrase, ‘Heavenly Hurt’ is a wonderfully plangent elongation of the simple word ‘Heft’ in the previous stanza, like a shaft of light stretching out across the room.)

And indeed, this hurt is ‘Heavenly’ not just because it comes from the heavens, but because it seems to carry the weight of Christianity with it, like ‘Cathedral Tunes’. It leaves no physical scar – nor any emotional one perhaps, since when spring comes around we are cured of our pain – but we are rendered different inside, in a profound and noticeable way.

Nobody can tell us what it means, but it bears the seal of despair. It’s an ‘imperial affliction’ that is airborne, like malaria. It seems to affect the very landscape, since the world becomes darker when it arrives – as we get deeper into winter.

The final two lines are harder to analyse, but given the starting point – that ‘certain Slant of light’ – presumably ‘it’ refers to the light fading from the land and giving way to darkness, which leaves us with our melancholy thoughts concerning death, that constant theme of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

That final rhyme of breath/Death sees death overtaking the breath of life, leaving us cold and without solace. The religious flavour to the earlier portion of the poem offers some, of course: belief in an afterlife, in the Heaven that sent down this ‘Hurt’, can provide comfort that death will not prove to be the end. But Heaven is absent from the end of the poem. Cold comfort, and not one that Dickinson feels prepared to embrace in this poem. That ‘certain Slant of light’ will not lead us to the Kindly Light.

‘There’s a certain Slant of light’: analysis

In her analysis of ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ in her book Dickinson, which contains a raft of fascinating and convincing readings of individual poems by Emily Dickinson, the critic Helen Vendler points out that ‘Despair’ carried theological weight in the nineteenth century when Dickinson was writing: indeed, Despair and Presumption were the two sins that could prevent salvation and condemn you to hell. So Despair is not merely psychological in this poem: for Dickinson, more is at stake.

None may teach it – Any –
’Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

Despair encircles and contains Air here: they are more than rhymes, since ‘Despair’ seeks to smother the very ‘Air’ we breathe, like a poisonous gas infecting the air. Such a pair paves the way for that final rhyme of breath and Death:

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

Vendler, in her compelling analysis of this poem (as of so much else), also points out what a disparate array of abstract and concrete things Dickinson brings together in this poem about hurt, oppression, despair, religion, scars, afflictions, shadows, landscapes, and so on.

But light is the starting-point, and that slant of light. And it may be that by considering slants in the poetry of Dickinson more widely, we can analyse and pinpoint what she is trying to drive home in this elusive and enigmatic poem.

In another of her poems, ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’, Dickinson considered the advantages of ‘slanting’ the truth to make it more digestible and palatable for us weak humans, who cannot bear too much direct truth:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Is Dickinson’s ‘Slant of light’ a slant of truth here?

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

In that other poem, Dickinson had likened bald, unalloyed truth to lightning; if it strikes us directly, it destroys us. Here, though, even a certain slant of light can oppress us, if not strike us down. Is this slant of light like a bolt of lightning, only softer and more subtle, creeping in on a winter afternoon as the sun sets and we are reminded of the brevity of our own lives (and, by contrast, the eternity of the afterlife)?

Discover more of Dickinson’s poetry with ‘Because I could not stop for Death‘, ‘My Life had stood – a loaded Gun‘, ‘This World is not Conclusion‘, and ‘My Life closed twice before its Close‘. We’d also recommend her wonderful Complete Poems.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: via Max Pixel.

One Comment

  1. Beautiful poem and great commentary afterwards. It makes me appreciate the poem even more! I am a new blogger and made my first book review post recently. I would love for you to check it out and give me your thoughts, thanks!

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