Notes on Dickinson’s "There’s a certain slant of light"

There’s a certain slant of light
Emily Dickinson

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 —

Comment:

Laurence Perrine’s comments on this page are particularly helpful, but everything I am going to say about this poem could be wrong, and is subject to change.

Nearly everything said in this poem raises a question mark for me as I wade through it. From just the first stanza: Why a “certain Slant of light?” Is it particular to those winter afternoons, or characteristic of that time, or what? How does such a “slant of light” oppress? Cathedral tunes have weight? Why the use of simile?

It is the second stanza which starts making sense for me. “Heavenly hurt” does not occur like earthly hurt: sticks and stones leave scars. Where “heavenly hurt” arises there is “internal difference” over “meanings.” Her verse is mystical, but this meaning, ironically enough, is clear: “meanings” are situated in the self, and the “internal difference” has to involve a fight within the self. Otherwise, the pain would involve a “scar:” in physical combat, or even in a debate, those of us who are looking to win want some indication that our opponent is faltering.

That logic leads to the crucial idea which unlocks this poem: for Dickinson, the life of the mind is a divine agony. One continually wrestles most unlike Jacob, for there is no resolution. The divine is not earthly, it does not offer compensation that gives easy answers, or any answers. Wittgenstein once wondered aloud if it was possible to write a work in philosophy that was nothing but questions. He gave voice in doing so to all that philosophy is.

The third stanza seems to fit into this speculation. Something unteachable is something that is an impulse, a will to action and purposeful ignorance, or is something that does teach. “None” signifies to me the authority of this unteachable thing, “any” signifies the fact it is an impulse. “Tis the Seal Despair” is a dissertation. Why not “of” despair? Why not “Tis the Seal, Despair?” I think Dickinson’s insight is something like this: We look for final answers and first causes. We’re never satisfied even with a comprehensive outlook, for that itself is a perspective (are “slant” and “heft” making sense now, and do you see why the tie isn’t literal?). The project which is immortal itself is ended abruptly not merely by mortality – I mean, awareness of mortality is all throughout this poem – but by the fact that if the quest ended, we would cease being human. To be human is to be rational and to be rational is to be incomplete. Properly speaking, Aquinas is right – reason is an attribute of the divine, not constitutive of what it is.

I don’t know what to make of “sent us of the Air.” If I had to write a paper, I would contrast this use of “Air” with Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” I would also focus on how the “Air” literally oppresses one physically, and probably could be said to slant the light a certain way (I’m being poetic here), and most certainly carries tunes. The very stuff of life is what marks us for death.

And so, if reason is contingent on a self-alienation, where the whole can never be achieved because the side that questions must always be consumed with darkness, and light is more a hope than an actuality, how do we make sense of the final stanza? I think Perrine’s comments make a lot of sense, there’s a “relief” somewhere in here. There is a time we are heard, even in the turmoil we are. That “slant of light” comes and the landscape listens, and shadows are less alive than us. For a brief moment, time has stopped. But the light itself is of another world, and to look on Truth is not our privilege, not yet.

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